“All things were together. Then thought came and arranged them.” – Anaxagoras (quoted by Digenes).1



The last of the pre-Socratic theories of ultimate reality I wish to discuss is that of Anaxagoras (circa 500-428 B.C.E.). While he was born in Clazomenae on the coast of Asia Minor, he spent his productive years in Athens as a friend of Pericles and Euripides, but like Socrates and Aristotle was eventually spurned by the Athenians and exiled to Lampsacus where he died shortly thereafter. Like Parmenides and Empedocles, Anaxagoras denied that things could be newly generated or entirely destroyed. In his view however, motion is possible and change occurs, and our faculties are reliable if properly used. He denies there is a basic element underlying matter. Everything began as an infinite gaseous ball, and the cosmos came about as distinct entities separated out of that undifferentiated mass.

He brought two unique doctrines to the dialogue on ultimate reality. First as things separated none became completely segregated which is to say there is no pure stuff. Thus every bit of matter contains a portion, no matter how small, of every other kind of matter. For example, an ingot of seemingly solid gold is never 100% gold, but contains infinitesimal portions of every other kind of matter. Accordingly there is no ‘smallest’ piece of any element; all can be infinitely divided.

His second, and more salient, doctrine is his belief that the original cosmogenic force was mind or thought (Nous). Thought is alone, singularly pure, limitless (ungraspable?), and self-ruled, and pervades all things. Thought is not only the knowledge of everything, but also the greatest power. Anaxagoras tells us thought arranged the undifferentiated mass into the cosmos, though it is unclear whether by this he means there is an ‘intelligent design.’ Nous or mind caused a rotation of the undifferentiated mixture resulting in the separation of objects “in which now revolve the stars and the sun and the moon and the air and the ether…”2

Anaxagoras then is a dualist – ultimate reality consists in the intelligible and the perceivable.3 Durant explains thought is “akin to the source of life and motion in ourselves.”4 Nous implies a teleology or ordering of things initiated by thought and a cosmic intelligence which also explains our intelligence. The physical description of reality espoused by Anaxagoras aligns with modern field theory whereas other pre-Socratics, especially the Atomists, elicit a form of particle theory.5


1Barnes, Jonathan, Early Greek Philosophy. Penguin Books, London, England, 2001. Page 185.

2Ibid.,page 191,

3Ibid.,page 192.

4Durant, Will, The Life of Greece, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1966. ISBN 0-671-41800-9, page 339.

5Honderich, Ted (editor), The Oxford Guide to Philosophy. Oxford University Press, 2005. ISBN 978-0-19-534093-8, page 32-33.

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