The Vocabulary of Myth, Part XV

Anaximander’s Law of Compensation…

 And the Greek Medical Theory of the Humours…

 Compensation in the Health of the Body and the Succession of the Seasons…

Anaximander’s Natural Justice as a Projection of Human Morality…

Cosmic Injustice and Hybris… 

     But the world order, unlike to apeiron, is transitory and passes away, and how and why this happens is addressed by Anaximander in the single sentence from his book that has come down to us, as preserved by Simplicius:  a sentence that is certainly of profound significance for later Greek thought:

“Into those things from which existing things have their coming into being, their passing away, too, takes place, according to what must be; for they make reparation to one another for their injustice according to the ordinance of time”, as he puts it in somewhat poetical language.

It isn’t immediately obvious what “those things” are from which existing things arise.  The “Infinite Thing” as such can hardly be meant; the plural makes that plain enough.  On the other hand, Anaximander has already said that existing things arise not from the Infinite as such, but from those elements that are contained in it and separated out from it in the formation of the world.

These are the opposites, “the hot, the cold, the moist, the dry, and rest”.  It is the opposites, then, that “make reparation to one another for their injustice”; and the conception is one which is so ubiquitous in Greek thought as to be fundamental.


We encounter it, for instance, in Alcmaeon of Croton, who laid the foundations of Greek medical theory early in the 5th century B.C.:

Alcmaeon says [as recorded by Aetius, the 2nd century doxographer] that the essence of health lies in the “equality” of the powers—moist, dry, cold, hot, bitter, sweet, and the rest—whereas the cause of sickness is the “supremacy of one” among these.  For the rule of any one of them is a cause of destruction…while health is the proportionate mixture of the qualities.

Hippocrates in turn compares this balance or harmony of the opposites, which preserves the health of the body, to the orderly succession of the opposites in the seasonal year:

All of them [the opposites] are present in the body, but as the seasons revolve they become now greater now less, in turn…The year too has a share of all things—the hot, the cold, the dry, and the wet—for no one of the things which exist in the world-order would last for any length of time were it not for the balance preserved amongst them.

The opposites of which the body is composed—in later medical theory, the so-called four humours, which correspond to the four elements—are at enmity with each other, each attempting to drive out the other and establish sole supremacy.  The health of the body, on the other hand, consists in the maintenance of a balance of one opposite by the other.  It can be preserved, therefore, only if for every transgression, compensation or reparation is rendered, so that the balance is restored.

The same dynamic operates in the succession of the seasons.  In each season, one of each pair of opposites dominates:  spring is warm and moist; summer, warm and dry; autumn, cold and wet; winter, cold and dry.  Because the succession of the seasons is an orderly one, however, each of the opposites eventually makes reparation for the wrong it has done “according to the ordinance of time”.


Clearly, Anaximander’s “law of compensation”, his “poetic” description of nature in terms of “injustice and reparation”, is a projection of human morality on a supposedly inanimate and de-divinized world.  But then, the primordial data of religion inevitably survive and continue to influence the doctrines of the Greek philosophers, in spite of the assumption that they have moved beyond “irrational” mythological or theological categories of thought and supernatural explanations of things.  If Anaximander’s followers called his to apeiron “divine”, as Aristotle affirms, it was because the Greeks had from time immemorial ascribed to the Divine the same qualities of boundlessness, agelessness, eternity, and indestructibility.  In calling it by the impersonal term to apeiron, Anaximander has merely given the Godhead a new philosophical name.  Like the Godhead, the Infinite, he says, is the source and governor of the cosmos, which it “encompasses”, and whose operations it “steers” and regulates in justice and harmony.

Anaximander’s law of compensation is similarly rooted in a primitive ethos that survives from the psychological infancy of the species.  Even today, when we have a mild autumn, we expect instinctively that it will have to be paid for by a severe winter; we imagine, that is, that just as happiness is paid for by misfortune, so fine weather will be paid for by bad.

In this way, the laws of nature, to the mythic imagination, inevitably reflect those that operate in human affairs.  And Anaximander’s law of natural compensation seems to be just such a projection upon the inanimate elements of the cosmos of those moral laws that prevents human action from transgressing its proper bounds.

When a man exalts himself above his fellows, he is, like Herodotus’ Croesus, quickly brought low.  For the inquiring mind of the Greeks, there must, of course, be a reason for these inevitable reversals of fortune.  One commonly posited explanation was the jealousy of the gods.  Thus, in Herodotus once again, on the eve of his master’s ill-fated invasion of Greece, Xerxes’ adviser admonishes him:

You see, my lord, how god strikes with his thunderbolts those living creatures who are exalted above their fellows, and does not suffer them to vaunt themselves.  The small ones do not provoke his anger; it is always the highest buildings and the tallest trees on which his bolts fall.  For god delights in putting down all those who are exalted.


We can see how the idea of the jealousy of the gods is articulated with Anaximander’s theory according to which the aggrandizement of one of the opposites at the expense of the others demands reparation.  The gods alone enjoy perfect and indestructible power, ease, and happiness, and when a mortal aspires to such bliss, he is usurping divine prerogatives.  He is guilty, in Greek terms, of the sin of hybris:  of failing to “think only mortal thoughts”; of aspiring to rise above his proper station in the cosmic hierarchy.  And for this injustice he must inevitably be cast down, if the order and harmony of both human society and the cosmos itself are to be restored.