A thorough examination of Anaximander’s philosophical thought. Apeiron and Secret Fire. Doctrine of opposites and world machine. Philosophy and ancient Wisdom.
Was really this limitless, as it is commonly translated the ancient greek word àpeiron, a principle pertinent to cosmology, and thus nowadays to religion, or rather to physics? Might the other meanings of this word, that’s to say “indeterminate” and “timeless”, be instead worth not to be neglected in favor of “limitless”?
What did Anaximander really mean for “opposites” and, what’s more, were they intended to be pertinent to metaphisics or physics? And might philology give an answer to all those questions?
The work “The Infinite: a Millenarian Misunderstanding” (1) by Giovanni Semerano (1913-2005), aims to reinterpret the culture and especially the philosophy of classical Greece, with the assumption of a derivation of all languages from a common Akkadian-Sumerian matrix. This allows this author to a radical reinterpretation of the archaic and classical Greece whole story, no longer seen as a miraculous island of rationality, but as an integral part of a single community, which included Mesopotamia, Anatolia and Egypt.
In fact, despite his taking a great part in the so called “Greek Miracle” by which existing mythical tales were elaborated rationally into a new logical way of thought, Anaximander’s theories were commonly acknowledged as influenced by the Greek mythical tradition, and by some ideas of his master Thales, as well as by observations made by older civilizations in the East, especially by the Babylonian astrologists.
If we believe in the theory taking Alchemy as the foundation of all ancient arts and sciences, we can understand the great import of Semerano’s studies to my theory on Alchemy having possibly been of inspiration to Anaximander’s conclusions. In other words some alchemical teachings from the greatest antiquity might be survived in this sixth century b.C. greek thinker. To be honest Heidegger’s empathy had already brought the german philosopher to give a very less conventional interpretation of the famed Anaximander’s unique fragment, as we will see. A part from Semerano and Heidegger the most of modern philosophers seem not so willing to investigate above and beyond the too much familiar abstract and metaphysical “First Principle” so similar to that of monotheistic religions, and tend to ignore that, like many thinkers of his time, Anaximander’s contributions to philosophy largely relate to physics.
In fact he was alleged to be the father of cartography and devices measuring time, studied geometry and introduced the gnomon as well as the concepts of solstices and equinoxes. Anaximander became master of Thales school where Pythagoras was argued to be a pupil, but very likely that’s was just a conjecture.
As I said, only one fragment has arrived to us of the Anaximander’s attributed treatise “On Nature”. Not so much to put together an entire philosophical system, so Information about his philosophy comes from summaries of it by other writers, especially Aristotle and Theophrastus. You can find exhaustive historical notes on Anaximander elsewhere, in this article we will try to determine how his philosophical views on the first principle and opposites might be applied to alchemical Secret Fire and its working, that’s to say a very ancient physics. In coming posts we will also see how Anaximander’s thought had affected alchemical symbolism, at least as far as wheels (2), columns, fishes and flutes are concerned.
The greek writing for àpeiron is ἄπειρον, which etymology is nowadays a little obscure, and certainly was a new word created by the same Anaximander. The most accepted translation does the greek term bringing back to ἀ- a-, “without”, and πεῖραρ peirar, “end, limit”, the Ionic Greek form of πέρας péras, “end, limit, boundary. But also finite and definite. So the whole word does seem to mean unlimited, but also infinite, or indefinite. It is clear enough that if we desire to give the word àpeiron a cosmological address, the attribute “indefinite” does clash with our modern idea of a God creator and supervisor. At least from a metaphysical point of view, which seems to be barricated around sir Isaac Newton conception of Universe, but the same Einstein would have refused the idea of an indetermined “ First Principle”: “ God can not play dices” he used to say.
From an ethical point of view the word àpeiron is also intolerable to us, because of the involved misfortune of living and expiating the guilt of being. We tend to refuse the tragic resonance of an existence of evil, which can not consist of more than the pain of a living death and a dying life. Additionally, when reading the unique Anaximander’s fragment, fr. B 12 1 from Simplicius of Cilea ( Byzantium, sixth century A.D. ), we can not help to be puzzed by the role of Time in it: “ Ἀναξίμανδρος. . . . ἀρχὴν . . . . εἴρηκε τῶν ὄντων τὸ ἄπειρον . . . . ἐξ ὧν δὲ ἡ γένεσίς ἐστι τοῖς οὖσι, καὶ τὴν φθορὰν εἰς ταῦτα γίνεσθαι κατὰ τὸ χρεών: διδόναι γὰρ αὐτὰ δίκην καὶ τίσιν ἀλλήλοις τῆς ἀδικίας κατὰ τὴν τοῦ χρόνου τάξιν”. Sadly I have to content myself with translations by others, so: “Anaximander … said … that principle of beings is the infinite (ἄπειρον, àpeiron) … where in fact beings have their origin, and also the destruction as necessary: because they pay each other punishment and atonement of injustice according to the order of time“.
Martin Heidegger’s commentary on this fragment was outstandingly out of the pack. In fact he supposed Anaximander to develope the concept of justice through the logic of “being for death”. The origin of all things is from àpeiron separation and is part of an “eternal” cycle which has been active ever since. Everything is contained in the essential character of death, but it is not charged with a negative meaning, in fact it leads to the very nature of things. I don’t know if Heidegger knew that this idea of death as necessary “ nature of things” being very alchemical, since before a new alchemical body is born there is always a death of the old body.
This anti idealistic concept is even more developed in Giovanni Semerano commentary. We have seen above that his assumption of a derivation of all languages from a common Akkadian-Sumerian matrix makes Greece less an “island” separated from other ancient cultures. The thesis of Semerano’s book is based on a new interpretation of the term àpeiron, which is usually considered consists of a-privative (“without”) and péras (“determination” , “time”) and therefore translated as “indeterminate” or “infinity.” According to Semerano, however, since the word péras has a short “e”, while àpeiron has a diphthong “ei”, which is read like a “e” closed and long, the diphthong can not have been produced by the short “e” of péras. Semerano instead does the term bringing back to the Semitic ‘apar, corresponding to the biblical’ Afar and Akkadian eperu, all terms that mean “earth”. The well-known fragment of Anaximander, which says that all things come from and return to ‘àpeiron therefore does not refer to a philosophical conception of infinity, but to a concept of “belonging to the earth” that can be found throughout an earlier sapiential tradition of Asian origin and which is also present in the biblical text: “dust you are and dust you shall return.”
Based on this interpretation, Semerano then reads the entire development of the philosophy before the sophistry in anti-idealist and anti-metaphysical keys, redrawing the boundaries between differences and similarities between the ancient thinkers, and making the most to derive within a corpuscular physics, which connects, among the others, Anaximander, Thales and Democritus.
Some researchers confute this reconstruction, saying that Semerano seems to ignore an essential fact: in the Ionic dialect, unlike in the attic one and in many other Greek dialects, the alternation between “e” and “ei” between short vowel and diphthong, is often present and arises from well-known linguistic dynamics. Synonymous with the term used by the philosopher are in fact in Homer, where he speaks of pontos apèiritos, which according to Semerano’s thesis should be translated not as an “infinite sea”, but as “earthy sea”. I can not remember in what verse Homer used this phrase word, but it is amazingly appropriate to our alchemical doctrines. In fact, not only our mercurial sea, from which everything comes, is enclosed in the earth ( because picking it up from the air gives very poor results), but in the eternal game of Solve et Coagula (3) lies the whole of operations of our art.