The Vocabulary of Myth, Part XIV

The Pre-Socratics…

Their Inspiration by Pre-Rational, Mythical Categories of Thought…

 Physis as a God-Image…

 The One and the Many…


The Contraries and the Elements…

  Their Separation from To Apeiron…

     After Hesiod (c. 700), the principal preoccupation of the next several generations of Greek mythographers continued to be cosmogony and cosmology.  I refer, of course, to the Pre-Socratics (6th to 5th centuries B.C.), as they are called by the historians of Greek thought, who were the earliest “philosophers” in the Western tradition.

We must be careful, however, not to project our own modern definition of that hallowed term upon these seminal Greek thinkers.  For us, the word “philosopher” connotes someone who inquires dispassionately into the laws of the universe, obedient only to the dictates of reason and empirical truth, unharnessed from the ancestral burden of theological dogma or mythic fantasy.  Needless, to say, no such contemporary ideals troubled the Pre-Socratics (or any other pre-modern philosophers for that matter). Rather, the same pre-rational, mythological idioms and categories of thought as they had inherited from the poets and theologians of earlier generations inevitably recurred as the organizing archetypes of their investigations.

The earliest of the Pre-Socratics were called “physicists” by Aristotle, inviting us to identify them with modern scientists of the same name, and so adding to the confusion.  But Aristotle’s designation merely refers to the fact that they were dedicated to the discovery of the one primary substance or substrate—the Greek word is physis—out of which the observable multiplicity of the cosmos supposedly first arose and continues to inhere.

The conventional English translation of physis is “nature”, but for the Pre-Socratics the word meant something rather less abstract and (paradoxically) more exalted.  In its primary signification, the physis of the Pre-Socratics has about it the connotation of a living and growing thing; it is what Francis Cornford called a “Soul-Substance”:  the Soul Substance that animates the entire world.  That is to say that physis was little more than a non-theological or impersonal substitute for the word God, and thus hardly the descriptor of the de-deified and dis-inspirited machine that is the object of study for modern science.  The original and ongoing philosophical problem for the Pre-Socratics was that of the “One and the Many”, as it was called:  how the One Physis invisibly and immutably suffused—ensouled is really the right word here, since physis is merely another God-image–the multiplicity of individual mutable things, whence all existence is secretly and essentially unitary and unchanging; and how the Many–looking at the universal dynamic from the other side–expressed the hidden Unity out of which the One originally emanated or unfolded into diversity.  Unity and multiplicity are, as one would expect from a stage of consciousness as yet untroubled by the paradoxes of myth, both opposite and complementary modes or aspects of reality.

But again, we can hardly exhaust the meaning and implication of this archetype here, which informs any number of fundamental structures and recurrent themes in philosophy and religion, from polytheism itself, in which the many gods express the essential unity of the Supreme God (To Theion [The Divine], as the Greeks called it); to the mystery of the Trinity (One God in Three Persons), to the ubiquitous doctrine of transmigration of souls, in which the one soul undergoes a series of incarnations, and so on.


Aristotle says that the founder of Greek philosophy was Thales, (born c. 636 B.C.), a citizen of Miletus, one of the Ionian Greek city states on the Asia Minor coast.  Thales, he reports, asserted that the unitary physis or primary stuff of the cosmos was water, which was then transmuted into the solids, liquids, and gases (that is, everything that exists in the visible world) by a process of evaporation, condensation, freezing, melting, and so on.  But this is the sum of what we know of Thales and his teachings, a legacy so meager, or in some cases, so obviously the stuff of legend, that the title of Greece’s first philosopher probably belongs, more properly, to Thales’ younger Milesian contemporary Anaximander.

Anaximander was born c. 612 B.C., and though, unlike Thales, he committed his thoughts to writing in a book, nothing of it, unfortunately, has survived.  From the 6th century A.D. doxographer Simplicius, we learn that Anaximander asserted that the source of all existing things is what he called to apeiron, i.e., the “boundless” or “infinite” or “limitless” thing, which is neither water nor any of the other elements, but something prior to and encompassing them all, and out of which the entire world-order came into being and into which it will return.

This “boundless” or “infinite” or “limitless” thing is, moreover, “eternal”or “ageless”.  It has “no beginning”, as Aristotle explains, “for if there were a beginning it would be limited”; and by the same token, it has no end:  it is “deathless and imperishable”.  Possessing these qualities, to apeiron was called “divine” by Anaximander’s disciples.

We infer, then, that by contrast to the limitless”, the life of the world-order is limited at both ends:  it comes into existence and passes away.  But that out of which it arises and into which it passes away is without limit:  “ageless” and “imperishable”.  We may further infer from these adjectives that when Anaximander speaks of the source of existing things as “limitless”, he is thinking pre-eminently in temporal rather than spatial terms.


How, then, does the world-order come into being?  As reported by Aristotle, “The opposites, which are present in to apeiron, are separated out from it, Anaximander says”.  And from Simplicius we learn that “The opposites are the hot, the cold, the dry, the moist, and the rest”.

It is apparent, then, that Anaximander’s to apeiron corresponds in some way to that original state which Hesiod alludes to in the Theogony, in which Father Sky and Mother Earth were first bound up together in an indistinct unity, before they were separated by Chaos, and reunited to engender the world.  For Anaximander, the opposites are however no longer personified—no longer represented in the language of mythological poetry–, but are conceived as the inanimate and impersonal qualities of the hot and cold, wet and dry.

But since the Greeks as yet made no distinction between a thing and the qualities of a thing, Anaximander’s opposites are effectively indistinguishable from what later came to called the “elements”, i.e., earth, water, air, and fire, each of which was composed of a pair of the four contraries:  earth, cold and dry; water, cold and wet; air, hot and wet; fire, hot and dry.

Aristotle speaks of the contraries as “separated” out from the infinite, and in a sense this is true, but what is critical for the formation of the world-order is the separation of the elements from one another.  Earth, water, air, and fire emerge from a state of homogenous unity in to apeiron as distinct entities, much as in the Theogony the male and female contraries, Sky and Earth, emerge as distinct entities with the opening up of a “gap” (chaos) between them.

The world comes into being, then, when the elements are separated out of this primordial amorphous mass, and from each other, taking their proper place.  As Aristotle explains, Anaximander attributed this separating out to a mechanical process similar to that of a vortex or centrifuge within liquids, in which “like goes to like”, with the heaviest and densest components falling to the center of the vortex, while the lightest and rarest are flung to the outside.

Not coincidentally, this was how the elements were arranged in the existing world-order as the ancient Greeks conceived it:  that is, earth lay at the centre, water enveloping earth in a concentric sphere, air outside water, and outermost of all, the fiery circuit of the heavens.

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