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Lecture 12: From Parmenides to Anaxagoras

PARMENIDES of Elea is the first of the philosophers whom we have to discuss to-day. According to what appears to be the trustworthy evidence of Plato, he lived from about 515 to 449 B.C. or later.1 By the ancients he was said to have been the disciple of Xenophanes; and his philosophy is most readily understood as a metaphysical development of Xenophanes' doctrine of the one God, who is the world.

The poem in which Parmenides unfolds his theory of nature falls into two divisions, the former of which he calls the “trustworthy discourse, the thought about truth,”2 whereas the latter is a “wholly untrustworthy road,”3 containing the “opinions of mortals, wherein is no true belief.”4 Historians of philosophy are far from agreed as to the value which Parmenides himself attached to his “Way of Opinion”; but in the face of such emphatic statements it seems impossible to regard it as otherwise than illusory and false, whatever may have been his motive in building a house upon the sands. “From this point onwards,” he says, when about to pass to the second section of his poem, “learn the opinions of mortals, and give ear to the deceptive array of my verses.”5

The so-called “Philosophy of Opinion,” in which Parmenides traced the origin of things to Light and Darkness, was by no means destitute of theological conceptions. We read of a Goddess or Daemon throned in the centre of the world and “steering the course of all”—δαίμων ἣ πάντα κυβϵρνᾳ̑.6 This Daemon, whom Parmenides called variously “Justice,” “Necessity,” and the “Key-bearer,” is the mother of Eros, the oldest of the Gods, and “sends souls at one time out of the visible into the invisible, and at another time back again from the invisible into the visible.”7 It is obvious that we are here on Orphic and Pythagorean ground; and indeed one of the theories about the second part of Parmenides' poem is that it is “nothing but a summary of contemporary Pythagorean cosmology.”8 However this may be, if we would understand what Parmenides himself believed, we must “restrain our thoughts from this way of inquiry,”9 considering only the path of Knowledge, which alone can guide us to the Truth.

According to the “Way of Truth,” the belief in generation, multiplicity, and change is but a delusive road on which “mortals that know nothing wander to and fro, facing both ways at once; for utter helplessness directs the wandering thought in their breasts: deaf at once and blind, they are swept along in stupefied bewilderment, undiscriminating tribes who think that ‘to be’ and ‘not to be’ are the same and not the same, and that everything returns upon itself” (πάντων δϵ̀ παλίντροπός ϵ̓στι κϵ́λϵυθος).10 such vigorous language does Parmenides denounce the Heraclitean doctrine of the “upward and downward path” on which all things are for ever travelling. In the view of Parmenides, that which he calls “not-being” is not, for it can neither be thought nor named; generation and destruction, movement and change, are empty words; reality there is none but Being.11

Being, according to Parmenides, is a single uncreated and imperishable whole, immovable and changeless. It never was nor shall be, but only is.12 Parmenides' further specifications of the concept show that he regarded Being as a material substance. He declares it to be continuous and indivisible; for it is uniform throughout, and there is no more of it in one part than in another, but everything is full of it, and Being is everywhere in contact with itself. It is, moreover, finite and not infinite, equally poised from the centre on every side, resembling the mass of a well-rounded sphere.13 Several of these characterisations appear to have been suggested by Xenophanes' description of the World-god, “ever abiding in the same place and moving not at all”; but it is important to observe that Parmenides nowhere assigns to Being any kind of psychical attribute or function. Compared with the World-god of Xenophanes, “all-eye, all-mind, all-hearing,” the Being of Parmenides appears to be only a “motionless corporeal plenum.” It has consequently been held that, so far from being the “father of idealism,” Parmenides may more truly be called the “father of materialism,” since “all materialism depends upon his view of reality.”14 At the same time, though the reality in which he believes is clearly something material, it is not apprehended by the senses, but only by thought;15 it is the changeless unity which is hidden from us by the deceptive appearance of plurality and change. To this extent the philosophy of Parmenides has affinities with idealism; nor would Plato have venerated him so highly if he had been a materialist in the same sense as, for example, Democritus. For the student of theological ideas, however, Parmenides and his successors in the Eleatic school are of little or no importance. The concept of God disappears for them in that of Being.

On the one hand, therefore, we have Heraclitus and his followers, who emphatically assert that the real is always changing; and, on the other hand, Parmenides proclaims with not less vehemence that the real is always immutably the same. This is the fundamental antithesis of pre-Empedoclean philosophy in Greece; and almost every philosophical system after Parmenides may be regarded as an endeavour to adjust or reconcile the two opposing points of view. The solution that first recommended itself to Greek thinkers may be thus expressed. They agree with Parmenides that Being, in the strict sense of the word, is necessarily uncreated, indestructible, and changeless; and they explain Becoming as the combination and separation of those eternal and changeless elements which they identify with Being. There is no creation out of nothing, and no dissolution into nothing: the elements merely unite and fall asunder. In the words of Empedocles, whom we now proceed to consider, nothing is born or dies; “mingling and separation of the mingled—that is all; birth is but a name men give to these.”16

Empedocles, of Acragas in Sicily, was born in the early part of the fifth century before Christ. It is unnecessary to dwell upon the reputation he enjoyed during his lifetime, or upon the manifold legends that were afterwards associated with his name; nor are we concerned with the details of his physical doctrine, except in so far as they are connected with his theology. According to Empedocles, the four “roots” of the Universe are Fire, Air (or, as he generally calls it, Aether), Water, and Earth.17 These elements are uncreated, imperishable, and in themselves unmoved; so that, if they are to combine and form a cosmos, it can only be by the operation of some moving power distinct and separate from themselves. As soon as philosophy abandoned the standpoint of monism, a distinction between the ὑϕ̕ οὑ̑ and the ϵ̓ξ οὑ̑, the efficient and the material cause, became inevitable; and Empedocles is the first of the Greek philosophers in whom this distinction, so important in the history of theological as well as of philosophical thought, begins to appear. But inasmuch as the elements not only unite with one another in so-called birth or generation, but also fall asunder in “death,” Empedocles is not content with a single moving cause. Two causes, he believes, are necessary, the one to account for the combination, and the other to account for the separation of the elements. To suppose that one and the same agent performs both functions would be to sacrifice its uniformity and changelessness, and therefore its reality or being; for changelessness, as Parmenides had taught, is an essential attribute of that which is. The power that combines the elements into things Empedocles calls “Love” or “Friendship”; the opposite or disintegrating power he designates by the name of “Strife” or “Hatred.” These two rival forces contend with one another throughout the whole of nature. “At one time,” says Empedocles, “all the members that fall to the lot of the body are united through Love, and then life's bloom is at its height; at another, severed by hateful strife, they wander apart by themselves, where the waves of life are breaking” (πϵρὶ ῥηγμι̑νι βίοιο). “It is the same with shrubs, with fishes in their watery halls, with wild beasts that couch in the mountains, and with birds that move on wing.”18 Love and Strife are of course eternal, like the elements which they move; so that Empedocles in reality affirms the existence of six untreated principles, Fire, Air, Water, and Earth, together with Love and Hatred.19 In his own words, “these and these only are; but, running through each other, they appear as different things at different times, although they are always the same.”20

The phenomena which we call birth and death, generation and destruction, are therefore, according to Empedocles, nothing but the union and separation of fire, air, water, and earth under the action respectively of Love and of Hatred. He believes, further, that each of these two powers alternately prevails over the other. The life of the world, as imagined by Empedocles, follows a circular course, in which there are four well-marked stages. In the circle A B C D, the point A may be taken to represent the period when the four elements, together with Love, are mingled in one indistinguishable whole, which Empedocles calls the Sphere. “Therein are distinguished neither the Sun's swift limbs, nor yet the shaggy strength of Earth, nor the Sea; so firmly bound in Harmony's close canopy stands the rounded Sphere, rejoicing in exultant loneliness.”21 While the elements are so completely blended, there can be no individual existences of any kind; nothing but the solitary all-embracing One. It is in this period that Love holds undisputed sway, the rival principle being temporarily subdued. But in due time Hatred waxes strong again “within the limbs of the Sphere,”22 and a struggle ensues, in the course of which Strife gradually gains the upper hand. A tremor ran through the mighty mass—“ all the limbs of the God,” Empedocles says, “quaked in succession”;23 and then the elements began to separate. For a time Love is still sufficiently powerful to keep the disintegration within limits. The result of the conflict between Harmony and Strife is in the first instance to create the cosmos; and when the point B is reached, the battle is apparently a drawn one, and the Universe in its prime. At this stage dissolution and decay set in: Hatred encroaches more and more upon Love, until at the point C the separation of the elements is complete, and Love in turn has yielded the sceptre to her rival. Here, again, all individual existence ceases; for the elements refuse to combine. In the return journey from C to A the process is reversed, Love gaining upon Strife until unity is once more reached in the Sphere. Such, according to Empedocles, is the history of the universe, and it repeats itself at intervals throughout eternity. Love and Hatred, he says, “were aforetime and shall be hereafter; nor ever, I think, shall infinite time be emptied of those twain. They prevail alternately as the circle comes round, disappearing before each other, and waxing again in their appointed turn.”24

In this rapid sketch of Empedocles' physical theory I have introduced only the minimum of detail which seemed to be necessary in order that we may understand what he has to say about the Godhead; but the Empedoclean doctrine of cycles is itself of no little interest in connexion with religious thought. In the first place, it apparently involves the same kind of belief in an ἀποκατάστασις or “restoration of all things” with which we have already met in the Orphic religion;25 for we may fairly conjecture that, when the circle is once fulfilled, the world again pursues exactly the same course as in the former aeon; at all events, Empedocles says nothing to indicate that there is any change. And, in the second place, inasmuch as Empedocles deifies the Sphere,26 we may say that, according to his theory, all individual existences are ultimately, though only for a time, absorbed in God, much as the divine Fire in Heraclitus resumes all things into itself at the expiration of each successive period in the history of the world.

We are now in a position to consider the theology of Empedocles. The most striking of the theological fragments are the following:

“We cannot bring God nigh to us, that we should see him with our eyes; nor can we lay hold on him with our hands—the two highways by which faith enters into the heart of man.”27

“For he is not provided with a human head upon his limbs: two branches do not spring from his shoulders: he has no feet, no swift knees, no hairy members: he is only a sacred and unutterable mind shooting with swift thoughts through all the world (ἀλλὰ ϕρὴν ἱϵρὴ καὶ ὰθϵ́σϕατοςἔΐπλϵτο μου̑νον,ἔΐ ϕροντίσι κόσμον ἅπαντα καταἔΐσσουσα θοῃ̑σιν).28

The second of these remarkable fragments appears to be inspired by Xenophanes' account of the “one God,” neither in body nor in mind resembling man, ruling the universe merely by thought; and we are tempted to suppose that Empedocles is here thinking of the Sphere-God, the nearest parallel in his philosophy to the World-God of the Colophonian. This explanation has been offered both in antiquity and in modern times;29 but the last two verses—” a sacred and ineffable mind shooting with swift thoughts through all the world”—cannot easily be understood of that temporary union of the elements which is necessarily dissolved in the formation of the cosmos. We are told by Ammonius, to whom we owe the longer of the two fragments, that the poet was referring primarily to Apollo, though secondarily also to the divine nature as a whole; and this interpretation, which Zeller and Diels uphold, appears more likely to be correct.30 Greek religious thought, as we have already seen, naturally tended to spiritualise Apollo. In Empedocles this impulse may have been exceptionally strong; for he was firmly assured of his prophetic vocation, and Apollo was the God of prophecy. At all events we have in these lines a more explicit assertion of the spiritual nature of God than we have hitherto found in Greek philosophy.

Among other compounds of the elements we hear of certain “long-lived Gods” (θϵοὶ δολιχαίωνϵς),31 created and perishable, destined to suffer dissolution at the end of every Great Year, when the elements are fused or separated by Love or Strife. In Anaximander, as I have already remarked, the “created Gods” are to be identified with the “innumerable worlds”;32 but the “long-lived Gods” of Empedocles seem to be those of ordinary Greek polytheism,33 interpreted in the light of his physical theory. Elsewhere Empedocles calls upon the Muse to aid him while he reveals a “good discourse about the blessed Gods.”34 From this it is clear not only that he treated of theology at some length, but also that he set himself to reform and purify the prevailing conception of the Godhead, as in the passage already quoted about Apollo. Nowhere, however, does he maintain, like Xenophanes, that God is one; and a belief in the divine unity cannot well be reconciled with the pluralism of his physics.

In addition to the Sphere-God and to the created Gods, Empedocles also deified the four elements, together with the two efficient causes.35 Some of his Ionic predecessors had already conceived of their elementary substances as divine; but since Empedocles for the first time tries to separate the moving cause from that which is moved, it is necessary to inquire whether any new theological idea is involved when he ascribes divinity to Love and Hatred. In the judgment of Aristotle, the conception at which Empedocles is aiming, though he fails to give it adequate expression, is that Friendship is the cause of good, and Strife the cause of evil; so that in a sense he was the first to recognise the Good and the Evil as independent principles; for the cause of good must be the Good, and the cause of evil the Evil.36 To Empedocles, Love is clearly the beneficent, and Hatred the malevolent power: he tells of “the gentle immortal onrush of blameless Love,”37 whereas his epithets for Strife are “accursed” and “deadly”;38 and in the golden age, we are told, Love reigned alone. At the same time, although Love may be regarded as a benignant Deity who makes war upon the principle of Evil, no real or lasting progress is effected; for whatever ground Love gains in her struggle with Hatred, she must surrender in course of time to her rival. In these circumstances, a teleological interpretation of nature is impossible; nor does Empedocles appear to have recognised any trace of design either in the structure of the world or in the evolution of animal life.39

I have said that Empedocles, for the first time in the history of Greek philosophy, makes an attempt to separate the efficient from the material cause, or, as we ought rather to say, the moving principle from that which is moved. But the separation which he succeeds in effecting is very far from complete. On the one hand, he still conceives of Love and Hatred as corporeal, and puts them in this respect on the same plane with the four “roots of things.”40 Some of his expressions clearly imply that the moving principles are physically present in the compounds which they create;41 and others prove not less clearly that both Friendship and Strife are extended in space.42 Aristotle consequently blames Empedocles for treating Friendship as if it were not only an efficient but also a material cause: “he makes it part,” says Aristotle, “of the mixture.”43 And, on the other hand, each of the four elements, as well as Love and Hatred, are, according to Empedocles, endowed with perceptive and cognitive power. “With earth we see earth, with water, water, with air, bright air, with fire, devastating fire, with Love, love, and strife with baneful Strife.”44 It amounts to the same thing when Empedocles declares that “the blood about the heart is man's thought”;45 for it is in the blood, as he supposes, that the elements are most completely mingled.46 These considerations make it clear that Empedocles was unable to break with the hylozoism of his Ionic predecessors; but even the imperfect distinction which he draws between the active and the passive constituents in the formation of the world is a step towards the dualism of Anaxagoras.

Empedocles believes that the mind is entirely dependent upon the material substances out of which it is composed.47 We learn from Theophrastus that he took no small pains to devise appropriate physical explanations for the various types of mental constitution. Those persons, for example, in whom the elements are blended in equal or nearly equal proportions, without being too far apart, too small, or too large, he held to be the wisest, and so on.48 This is that “proportion,” or λόγος τη̑ςμίξϵως, as to which Aristotle pertinently asks whether Empedocles meant it to be his explanation of soul or not.49 But the truth is that Empedocles has no philosophical theory of the soul as distinct from the body; and inasmuch as he thought the elements could themselves perceive, he must have supposed that any kind of mixture would have resulted in a soul of some sort or other. In point of fact, he not only attributed to plants intelligence, desire, and feeling, but declared in so many words that “all things have wisdom and participate in thought.”50 If we develop this idea to its logical conclusion, at the same time remembering that the elements are divine, it will land us in pantheism; and some have maintained that Empedocles was really a pantheist. Karsten considers the Sphere-god to be only an expression for the harmony of the universe, identical with the “sacred and unutterable mind shooting with swift thoughts through all the world,” and he interprets the elements and moving principles as only particular aspects or embodiments of the universal mind. By this means he arrives at the conclusion that Empedocles' system is an apotheosis of nature—“est, ut ita dicam, naturae ἀποθϵ́ωσιϛ”51—to be compared with the poetical pantheism of Virgil—

“deum namque ire per omnes

terrasque tractusque maris caelumque profundum.”52

It is obvious that there are pantheistic elements in the philosophy of Empedocles, but Karsten's view cannot be upheld unless we are prepared to regard the poem On Nature as an allegory throughout; and we have no reason to suppose that it was anything of the kind. The truth is rather that Empedocles, though he has flashes of insight and inspiration, fails to make his doctrine into a consistent and harmonious whole.

The religious and ethical teaching of Empedocles has already been touched upon in connexion with Orphism. In the fragments of the poem called Purifications we meet with most of the leading Orphic doctrines—such as exile from Heaven in consequence of sin, metempsychosis, the duty of abstaining from animal food, and finally, when the purification is complete, reunion with the Gods. It cannot be affirmed that Empedocles did anything to clarify or intellectualise the Orphic religion; nor is it possible to reconcile his religious belief in personal immortality and pre-existence with his philosophical doctrine of the combination and separation of the elements through Love and Strife.

We have next to examine the views of a more robust and powerful thinker, Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, about whom Aristotle says that, in declaring Nous to be the cause of the cosmos, he is sobriety itself by the side of the rambling utterances of his predecessors.53 Though somewhat older than Empedocles, Anaxagoras appears to have written and published his book after Empedocles' poem was already before the world.54 With the name of Anaxagoras are associated two principal doctrines—that of an infinity of original particles or seeds, and the far more famous doctrine of a world-creating and world-ruling intelligence or Nous. It is the second of these conceptions which is of importance for the student of theology; and I will touch upon the first only in so far as may be necessary to enable us to understand the doctrine of Nous.

Anaxagoras agrees with Empedocles in denying ἁπλη̑γϵ̓νϵσιϛ or creation out of nothing. “The Greeks,” he says, “use words wrongly when they speak of generation and destruction; for nothing is generated or destroyed, but there is mingling and separation of things that are. “They would be right,” he adds, “if they called generation mingling, and destruction separation.”55 What, then, are the uncreated and indestructible substances out of which things are formed? Empedocles, as we have seen, identified them with the four elements—fire, air, water, and earth—and accounted for the variety of things by saying that the proportion of the mixture, the λόγος τη̑ς μίξϵως, differs in different cases. Bone, for example, is composed of two parts of earth, four of fire, one of water, and one of air; while flesh apparently consists of each of the four elements in equal amounts.56 Anaxagoras, on the other hand, regards the qualitatively determined bodies as the more original, and the Empedoclean elements as not less composite than anything else; and he accordingly postulates an infinite number of infinitely various elements, or rather, as he calls them, “seeds.” Let us suppose that Empedocles and Anaxagoras are attempting to explain, for example, the composition of a piece of timber. Empedocles would say that timber is one particular combination of fire, air, water, and earth; while Anaxagoras would say that it results from the union of a number of seeds or particles of timber; but at the same time—and this is the further point which requires to be noticed—he would take care to add that the piece of wood contains particles not only of wood, but also of every other object. If we call it wood, that is only because the particles of wood in it predominate;57 as soon as the particles of fire within it prevail, we call it fire; but in fire, too, there are particles of wood, and indeed of all other things whatsoever. You will see that, according to this theory, every particular object in the universe is itself a kind of world in miniature. “In everything there is a portion of everything except Nous.”58

Such, briefly expressed, is Anaxagoras' theory of matter. Without stopping to criticise so fantastic a hypothesis, let us endeavour to see how it is related to his theory of mind. In the present condition of the world all these infinitely numerous and infinitely various particles are distributed throughout the different organic and inorganic compounds which make up the ordered universe or cosmos. But in the period before the world began they were completely intermingled with one another in a kind of spurious unity, which is the Anaxagorean equivalent of Empedocles' Sphere. “All things,” writes the philosopher, “were together—ὁμον̑ πάντα χρήματα ἠ̑ν,—infinite both in number and in smallness; for the small was also infinite. And when all things were together, none of them was distinguishable by reason of its smallness.”59 This primeval “mixture” or chaos is absolutely motionless, and cannot of itself become a cosmos. In order that it may do so, a moving cause is required; and this Anaxagoras finds in Reason. When the time arrived for the making of the world, Reason stepped in and originated a rotatory movement at one particular point of the mixture, possibly, as has been conjectured, at the point corresponding to that which in the completed universe we call the pole.60 The gradual extension of this movement in course of time brought the cosmos into being, by a succession of steps which it is unnecessary for our purposes to enumerate.

In this way, then, Anaxagoras' doctrine of Nous is connected with his physical theory; and it remains for us to examine in detail his most celebrated concept, the theological significance of which will appear as we proceed.

The relevant fragments are as follows:

“In everything there is a portion of everything except Nous, and there are some things in which there is also Nous.61

“All other things partake in everything, whereas Nous has no part in anything,62 owns no master but itself (αὐτοκρατϵ́ς), is mixed with nothing, but is alone, itself by itself. For if it were not by itself, but were mixed with aught else, it would partake in all things, if it were mixed with anything; for in everything there is a portion of everything, as I have already said; and the things mixed with it would prevent it from having power over anything in the way it has, seeing it is alone and by itself. For Nous is the subtlest and purest of all things, and moreover has all knowledge about everything, and the greatest strength. And over all things that have life, both greater and less, Nous has power. And Nous had power over the whole revolution,63 so that it began to revolve. And the revolution began from a small beginning, but is now more extensive, and will be more extensive still. And Nous knows all the things that are mingled and separated off and severed. And Nous set in order all the things that were to be, and that formerly were but now are not, and whatsoever things are now; and it set in order this revolution wherein the stars now revolve and the sun and the moon and the air and the aether which are separated off. And this revolution was the cause of the separating; and that which is dense is separated from that which is rare, and the warm from the cold, the bright from the dark, and the dry from the moist. But there are many portions in many things; and no one thing is altogether separated or severed from another except Nous. And all Nous is alike, both the greater and the less; but nothing else is like anything else, but each particular thing is and was most clearly that whereof it has most in it.”64

“And when Nous began to set things in motion, from all that was moved separation took place, and all that Nous set in motion was severed; and as things were set in motion and severed, the revolution caused them to be severed much more.”65

Nous, which is eternal, is assuredly present even now where all the other things are, in the surrounding mass, as well as in the things that have been separated off and that are being separated off.”66

Not a few distinguished writers have maintained that the Nous of Anaxagoras, so far from being a spiritual and incorporeal essence, is in reality only a particular form of matter. Professor Windelband, indeed, goes so far in this direction as to suggest that the proper translation of the word in Anaxagoras is not “Mind” or “Thought,” but “Thought-stuff” (Denkstoff).67 It is quite true that on a severely literal interpretation of Anaxagoras' own words, he appears to conceive of Nous as something corporeal. We are led to suppose that Nous admits of quantitative differentiation: “all Nous,” he says, “is alike, both the greater and the smaller;” it seems to be extended in space, for it is present in the mixture which it articulates into a world, as well as in what is separated off; and, in the third place, we are told that Nous is the “subtlest and purest of all things.” But it is by no means clear that these expressions were meant to be understood in a literal sense. As soon as we attempt to describe what is spiritual in other than purely negative language, we are almost inevitably thrown back on more or less figurative terms of speech, even at the risk of appearing to ascribe to spirit the attributes that belong to body. The Platonic account of the soul is a case in point. Just as Anaxagoras recognises a greater and a smaller Reason, meaning, no doubt, the world-forming Nous, and Nous as it appears in animals and plants, so Plato recognises different degrees of reason. The Gods, he says, participate in reason; and so also do men, but the latter only to a small extent.68 The soul of the world in the Timœus of Plato is certainly incorporeal, and yet the language in which it is described attributes to it spatial extension; for God is said to stretch it throughout the entire body of the Universe and wrap it like a mantle round the world.69 The later history of theological thought furnishes many examples of this inherent disability of language. “Are we to suppose,” asks a German writer on Anaxagoras, “that Anselm believed in the corporeality of God because he describes Him as id quo maius cogitari nequit?70 According to Descartes, there are two forms of extension, vera extensio and extensio per analogiam: the first belongs to body, the second to mind or spirit; and although in respect of his essence or being God has no relation to space, yet in virtue of his power he is in every place at once.71 If this distinction had been propounded to Anaxagoras, and he were invited to say in which of the two senses he considered Nous to be present in the mixture which it separates, I think he would have pronounced in favour of the extensio per analogiam. In Anaxagoras Nous is always that which has power: it “has power over all things that have life,” and it “had power over the whole revolution,” which called the cosmos into existence out of chaos.

The statement that Nous is the “subtlest” (λϵπτότατον) “and purest of all things” cannot be so readily explained, on the assumption that Nous is incorporeal. As regards the word χρήμ ατα, there is no real difficulty: in Greek, as in English, spiritual no less than material entities could be called “things.” And inasmuch as Nous has already been said to be absolutely alone and by itself, unmixed with anything whatsoever, the expression “purest of all things” may fairly mean “absolutely pure,” that is, absolutely free from every foreign ingredient. It must, however, be acknowledged that the attribute of thinness (λϵπτότατ ον) is suggestive of corporeality. To meet this argument, parallels have been adduced from Homer and Euripides, who speak of a “subtle wit,” a “subtle mind” (λϵπτὴμη̑τις, λϵπτ ὸς, νου̑ς), and so forth. Another solution of the difficulty is perhaps more probable. No Greek thinker had hitherto attempted to distinguish mind and matter; and there was consequently no recognised philosophical terminology by means of which the distinction could be formulated. In trying to make the new idea intelligible to his readers, Anaxagoras had no alternative but to use the materialistic language of his day. Heraclitus had already taken what the ancients held to be the rarest of the elements, namely, fire, and endowed it with intelligence or thought; and if Anaxagoras really desired to separate matter and mind, I doubt whether it was easy for him, at the time in which he wrote, to make his purpose clearer than by implicitly denying that Nous is identical even with fire, and asserting that in point of subtlety or rareness it transcends all other things whatsoever. It is worthy of notice that Aristotle himself sometimes associates the idea of “thinness” (τὸ λϵπτόν) with incorporeality. He remarks, for instance, that air is thinner than water and more incorporeal, and that “fire is the thinnest” (λϵπτομϵρϵ́στατον) “and most incorporeal of the elements.”72 To Anaxagoras' contemporaries the phrase “thinnest and purest of all things” would probably have conveyed the notion of the immaterial more nearly than any other words he could have used.

Let us now consider the question from another point of view. Supposing for the sake of argument that the Anaxagorean Nous really and truly is, as Grote maintains, “one substance, or form of matter among the rest, but thinner than all of them, thinner than even fire or air,”73 with what particular form of matter should it be identified? This curious Denkstoff must have been wholly different from every other kind of substance, not only in respect of its attributes, among which omnipotence and omniscience are included, but also in respect of its nature; for it is absolutely pure and unmixed, whereas in all other substances there is a portion of everything. What, then, can it have been? Gomperz talks vaguely of a “curious reasoning fluid,” “of an extremely refined and mobile materiality”;74 but there is nothing in the fragments to justify such a view, and Aristotle clearly implies that Anaxagoras considered his Nous to be unmoved as well as pure.75 In a famous passage of the Phaedo, Plato complains of Anaxagoras because he made little or no use of his great principle in explaining the constitution of the world, but had recourse to “airs and æthers and waters and many other such absurdities.”76 The contrast which Plato here draws between Nous on the one hand, and material substances upon the other, seems to show that he at least considered the Anaxagorean Nous to have been incorporeal. By Aristotle as well as Plato, Anaxagoras' doctrine of Nous was regarded as a landmark in the history of Greek philosophy. This it certainly was not, if Nous is only a species of matter endowed with thought; for we have already seen that the ever-living fire of Heraclitus is intelligent and thinks. Or shall we say that Anaxagoras merely replaced the Ionic hylozoism by two forms of matter, the one irrational and dead, and the other alive and rational? Such a frankly materialistic dualism would hardly have seemed to Plato and Aristotle to constitute a real advance. It is certainly a simpler and, as it seems to me, a more reasonable hypothesis to suppose that the Heraclitean unity was resolved by Anaxagoras into a duality in which Mind and Matter stand over against one another as two distinct and mutually exclusive principles.77

On these grounds I am disposed to agree with Heinze, Arleth, and others in holding that the Nous of Anaxagoras was a spiritual and not a material substance. Let us now examine its various attributes, and the part it plays in the formation and administration of the world.

In the first place, then, Nous is omniscient. It “has all knowledge about everything”: it “knows all the things that are mingled and separated off and severed.” Anaxagoras maintains, in opposition to Empedocles, that unlike is known by unlike, and not like by like.78 It follows that universal knowledge could not belong to Nous if it were in the least like other things: so that the omniscience of Nous is yet another indication of its incorporeality.

Secondly, Nous would seem to be at once omnipotent and supreme. It “owns no master but itself,” and is the “greatest in strength”: it “has power over all things that have life,” and it “had power over the whole revolution” that made the world.

Thirdly, Nous is the creator of the Universe, in the sense that it called the cosmos into being out of chaos. We have already seen that it initiated the cosmogonical revolution; and Anaxagoras adds that it “set in order all things that were to be, and that formerly were but now are not, and whatever things are now.” Anaxagoras appears to have assigned no special motive for the creation of the world other than is implied in the epithet αὐτοκρατ ϵ́ς. Mind is its own master, and originates the rotatory motion of its own free will.79 Neither did it occur to him to ask in what way Nous, though itself unmoved, communicates motion to the primeval chaos. The Aristotelian “first unmoved mover” is the, cause of motion, as being the object of the world's desire: κινϵι̑ ὡς ϵ̓ρώμϵνον. Of this conception there is no hint in Anaxagoras; he was probably content to suppose that the creative mind moves and rules the universe, just as the human mind moves and rules the body; but how the immaterial mind, whether human or cosmic, can act on matter at all—with this fundamental difficulty of every dualistic system of philosophy it is improbable that he ever grappled.

What part, if any, did Anaxagoras attribute to Nous after the creative motion has once begun? In itself, as Plato and Aristotle discerned, the Anaxagorean conception involves a teleological view of Nature such as we meet with in the two greatest philosophers of antiquity. Possessed as it is of universal knowledge and the greatest power, Nous may well be supposed to be always working with a definite purpose throughout the entire domain of Nature. And it would seem that Anaxagoras did, in point of fact, sometimes express himself to this effect.80 It is, however, clear from the strictures passed on him by Plato and Aristotle81 that Anaxagoras rarely made use of Nous in his detailed account of natural phenomena. At most he had recourse to mind as a sort of deus ex machina in cases where a purely physical explanation was difficult to invent.82 For the most part he was content to look for what Plato would have called “concomitant causes” (συναίτια), without endeavouring to show how each particular phenomenon fulfils the purpose of the ultimate designer of the world; but in reply to Plato's criticisms he might fairly have said that these secondary causes are in reality the instruments by which Nous works, and that in the long run we shall learn more about the creative mind by a patient study of the laws of Nature than by resorting to premature and a priori teleological hypotheses. Anaxagoras occupies, in fact, the position of a tolerably orthodox man of science of the present day, who holds that without the postulate of an omnipotent and omniscient Deity the origin and continuance of the cosmos are alike inexplicable, and who, having once affirmed this principle, thenceforward pursues his scientific inquiries without any theological bias whatsoever. It is interesting in this connexion to observe that almost the same objections which Plato brings against the Greek philosopher were afterwards urged against Descartes and Newton, and on practically the same grounds.83

The doxographical tradition asserts that Anaxagoras identified Nous with God.84 In the judgment of M. Bovet, on the other hand, God has no place in the system of Anaxagoras;85 and it is quite true that in his surviving fragments there is no mention either of God or of Gods. It is obvious, however, that we have no right to dogmatise about the contents of a book by far the larger part of which has perished; and even if the name of God did not once occur from beginning to end of the work, the statement of M. Bovet would still, in my opinion, be calculated to mislead. For the historically important point is not whether Anaxagoras called Nous God or not: it is rather to what extent he ascribed to Nous those attributes and functions which, according to the theology of later times, belong to the Deity. We have seen that this uncreated and imperishable mind is a spiritual and not a corporeal essence, that it is omniscient and omnipotent, and creates the world, not indeed ex nihilo, but out of pre-existent chaos, in virtue, apparently, of its absolute freedom. And as these are among the most important factors in the theistic conception of the Godhead, we are fully justified in maintaining, with Heinze86 and Arleth,87 that Anaxagoras is the founder of theism in the western world, whether he expressly identified his Nous with God or not.

There is but little evidence to show what Anaxagoras believed on the subject of immortality. He is said to have declared that Nature provides us with two object-lessons on death: one is the time before we are born, and the other is sleep.88 This remark, if it is authentic, clearly denies the survival of consciousness after death. Still more explicit is the statement in the Placita that Anaxagoras believed the separation of soul and body to involve the death not only of the body but also of the soul (ϵιναι δϵ̀ καὶ ψυχη̑ς θάνατον τὸν διαχωρισμόν);89 and it is obvious that for anything like individual immortality the system of Anaxagoras leaves no room. The unique importance of this thinker for the student of theology lies in his doctrine of Nous; and that is my justification for having treated of the subject at so great length.

  • 1.

    See the discussion in Burnet, l.c. p. 180.

  • 2.

    fr. 8. 50 f.; cf. 4. 4; 1. 29.

  • 3.

    fr. 4. 6 (reading παναπϵιθϵ́α).

  • 4.

    fr. 1. 30; cf. 8. 51 f.

  • 5.

    fr. 8. 51 f.

  • 6.

    fr. 12. 3.

  • 7.

    Diels2 i. p. 111, § 37 (cf. fr. 1. 14; 10. 6); also fr. 13.

  • 8.

    Burnet, l.c. p. 197.

  • 9.

    fr. 1. 33.

  • 10.

    fr. 6. 4 ff. (reading πλάζονται).

  • 11.

    fr. 4. 5 ff.; 8. 8 f., 38 ff.

  • 12.

    fr. 8. 3 ff.

  • 13.

    fr. 2; 8. 22-49.

  • 14.

    Burnet, l.c.. p.194 f.

  • 15.

    fr. 1. 35 ff.; cf. 8. 34.

  • 16.

    fr. 8; cf. 11, 12.

  • 17.

    fr. 6.

  • 18.

    fr. 20.

  • 19.

    Arist. de Gen. et Corr. i. 1. 314a 16 f.

  • 20.

    fr. 17. 34 f.; cf. 21. 13 f.; 26. 3 ff.

  • 21.

    fr. 27 (reading πϵριγηθϵ́ϊ). The Sun is a synonym for Fire, and Harmony for Love.

  • 22.

    fr. 30. 1.

  • 23.

    fr. 31.

  • 24.

    110-113 Stein; Diels2 fr. 16, 26. 1 f.

  • 25.

    See p. 109.

  • 26.

    fr. 31.

  • 27.

    fr. 133.

  • 28.

    fr. 134.

  • 29.

    See Diels, fr. 29; and cf. Karsten, Emp. Carmina p. 505, and Burnet, l.c. p. 269.

  • 30.

    See Diels, l.c.and i. p. 157, § 23; Zeller5 i. 2. p. 815 n. 2.

  • 31.

    fr. 21. 12; cf. 23. 8.

  • 32.

    See p. 187.

  • 33.

    Cf. Zeller, l.c. p. 813.

  • 34.

    fr. 131. 4. Cf. fr. 132.

  • 35.

    fr. 59. 1, with Arist. de Gen. et Corr. B 6. 333b 12.

  • 36.

    Met. A 4. 985a 4 ff.

  • 37.

    fr. 35. 13; cf. 17. 23.

  • 38.

    fr. 20. 4; 17. 19.

  • 39.

    fr.59 virtually denies design.

  • 40.

    fr. 17. 27 f.

  • 41.

    fr. 17. 22 f.; and esp. fr. 109.

  • 42.

    17. 19 f.

  • 43.

    Met. Λ 10. 1075b 3 f.

  • 44.

    fr. 109.

  • 45.

    fr. 105. 3.

  • 46.

    Theophrastus, de Sensu 10; cf. fr. 98. 5.

  • 47.

    fr. 105, 106, 108, 109. Cf. Parm. fr. 16 (in the “Way of Opinion”).

  • 48.

    Theophr. de Sensu 11.

  • 49.

    de An. A 4, 408a 20.

  • 50.

    Diels2 i. p. 164, § 70; fr. 110. 10.

  • 51.

    Emp. Carm. p. 391. cf. pp. 503–506.

  • 52.

    Georg. iv. 221 f.

  • 53.

    Met A 3. 984b 15 ff.

  • 54.

    Met A 3. 984a 11 f.

  • 55.

    fr. 17.

  • 56.

    Emp. fr. 96; see also Diels2 i. p. 166, § 78.

  • 57.

    fr. 12 ad fin.

  • 58.

    fr. 11; cf. fr. 4.

  • 59.

    fr. 1.

  • 60.

    So Dilthey, quoted by Zeller5 i. 2. p. 1001 n. 1.

  • 61.

    fr. 11.

  • 62.

    ἄπϵιρον means, perhaps, ἄπϵιρονπαντός, express omnium. Zeller5 i. 2. p. 992 n. 1 suggests either ἄμοιρον, or preferably ἀπλόοον (cf. Arist. de An. i. 2. 405a 16).

  • 63.

    sc. which generated the world.

  • 64.

    fr. 12.

  • 65.

    fr. 13.

  • 66.

    fr. 14 (reading ἀποκριθϵι̑σι for προσκριθϵι̑σι and ἀποκρινομϵ́νοις for ἀποκϵκριμϵ́νοις).

  • 67.

    Gesch. d. alen Phil. p. 165.

  • 68.

    Tim. 51 E.

  • 69.

    Tim. 34 B.

  • 70.

    Arleth in Archiv f. Gesch. d. Philos. viii. p. 461.

  • 71.

    Arleth, l.c. p. 462.

  • 72.

    Phys. iv. 8. 215b 5; de An. i. 2. 405a 6.

  • 73.

    Plato i. p. 57.

  • 74.

    Greek Thinkers i. p. 216 f.

  • 75.

    Phys. viii. 5. 2566 24.

  • 76.

    Phaed. 98 B f.

  • 77.

    Cf. Arleth, l.c. p. 67.

  • 78.

    Diels2 i. p. 310, § 92.

  • 79.

    Cf. Arleth, l.c. p. 80 f.

  • 80.

    Arist. de An. i. 2. 404b 1 f. Cf. Diels2 i. p. 318, lines 16 f., 21 f.

  • 81.

    Pl. Phaed. 98 B ff.; Arist. Met. A 4. 985a 18 ff.

  • 82.

    Arist. l.c.

  • 83.

    See Grote, Plato ii. p. 177 n.

  • 84.

    Diels, Dox, p. 302b 11.

  • 85.

    Le Dieu de Platon p. 106.

  • 86.

    Uber des νου̑ς des Anax. p. 41.

  • 87.

    l.c. p. 205.

  • 88.

    Stobaeus ap. Diels2 i. p. 300, § 34.

  • 89.

    Dox. p. 437. 11.