Navigation – Plan du site
Dossier : Platon et la physis

Plato and Anaximenes

Daniel W. Graham


In Timaeus 49, Plato sympathetically describes Anaximenes’ theory of matter, with its seven states of matter, its contrary mechanisms of rarefaction and condensation, and notion that the birth of one elements is the death of another. Plato treats Anaximenes as a kind of philosopher of process rather than a material monist, as Aristotle portrays him. From this perspective, Anaximenes can be seen as a forerunner of Heraclitus rather than of Diogenes of Apollonia. Plato seems to introduce Anaximenes’ theory as an approximation of his own theory of matter. Plato’s interpretation may be inspired by the readings of Cratylus and other Heracliteans and have its roots in a pre-Parmenidean world-view. Although it conflicts with Aristotle’s better-known and more Eleatic interpretation, Plato’s interpretation is at least as old, and deserves serious consideration as the only other early understanding of Anaximenes.

Haut de page

Entrées d’index

Haut de page

Texte intégral

  • 1 For a recent study of the cultural background of Presocratic thought, see Sassi 2009.
  • 2 See Laks 2006a; Mansfeld 1990:41-45.

1Before Plato there was a rich intellectual tradition consisting of poetry (epic, lyric, choral, dramatic), history, cosmology, political science, oratory, and medical science. Much of what was composed in the sixth and fifth centuries BC is lost to us, and so we can glimpse the development of archaic thought only through a glass darkly.1 Socrates reacted to this thought and pointed his followers in a different direction. But since he did not write, we know his work only at second hand through portrayals of his life and work in Plato and others. Plato surely reacted to his predecessors also. He seems to have acknowledged greater debts to his predecessors than did Socrates, and yet he shared many of Socrates’ misgivings about them. Plato’s student Aristotle identified among the early thinkers those philosophers, or rather natural philosophers, physikoi or physiologoi, whom he saw as the founders of the discipline he practiced and the originators of fundamental philosophical conceptions. Aristotle’s contributions to the understanding of early philosophy are so great that we tend to follow his conceptions even today. He suggests, if he does not fully develop, the distinction between the early cosmologists, with their emphasis on natural explanations, and the Socratics, with their emphasis on definition and on moral philosophy–in other words, he marks a division between Presocratic and Socratic philosophy.2

  • 3 Palmer 1999; McCabe 2000; Dixsaut and Brancacci 2002; Adoménas 2006.

2Because Plato’s reactions to his predecessors are scattered and ad hoc rather than systematic, modern scholars have tended to overlook or misunderstand them. A number of recent studies have helped to clarify Plato’s views on the early philosophers.3 Yet much remains obscure. In this study I wish to look at Plato’s reaction to the Milesians, and one Milesian in particular, Anaximenes. I will argue that there is at least one place where Plato takes a positive and generous view of early speculations on nature. This encounter between Plato and Anaximenes can teach us something about Plato’s understanding of early cosmology and perhaps also something about Anaximenes. I shall (I) put Plato’s treatment of Anaximenes in perspective; (II) discuss his interpretation of the Milesian; and (III) evaluate his interpretation.


3We may take it for granted that early thinkers were interested in what other early thinkers had to say. But before Aristotle we see little effort to understand early thinkers critically and to reconstruct their thought. Indeed, the first statement of a need to appreciate thinkers in their own terms comes from Plato, in a famous passage of the Theaetetus (166a-b) where Socrates puts into his own mouth the words of Protagoras complaining that his thought has been misrepresented in the argument: the interpreter must make an effort to present the theory the thinker actually held in its philosophical context. This commendable plea for the principle of charity, however, seldom seems to inform Plato’s own practice. And what we get in earlier treatments is either abuse, as in Xenophanes and Heraclitus; criticism, as in Parmenides, Empedocles and Melissus; or sometimes praise or agreement, as in Anaxagoras and Empedocles in reference to Parmenides. Sometimes one thinker will diagnose the errors of another, as does Parmenides, but one does not find a careful and charitable treatment of an opponent.

  • 4 See Patzer 1986; on the title, 97-99; Mansfeld 1990:22 ff., following the groundbreaking work of Sn (...)
  • 5 Diels 1879; for an updated study, see Mansfeld and Runia 1997; Mansfeld and Runia 2009.
  • 6 See Mansfeld 1990:22-83.

4The one early thinker who seems to have brought together the views of his predecessors is Hippias of Elis. In a work that apparently bore the ancient title Collection (Synagôgê), he gathered the opinions of ancient thinkers on certain topics.4 The thinkers included not only those we would call philosophers, but also poets such as Homer and Hesiod. The opinions appeared in a list, apparently without any explication or commentary. Sometimes Hippias quoted the original authors. What he provided was not a history of philosophy as we would understand that notion today. It was only a list of opinions of important figures organized by topic. His book appears to be a forerunner of a genre Diels dubbed doxography.5 The doxographies Diels studied were collections of opinions published in the Hellenistic era which were abbreviated digests ultimately going back to the Opinions on Nature written by Theophrastus in sixteen books. Yet Hippias’ work seems to have had many of the features of the later doxographies, and I shall refer to it as a proto-doxography.6

5Like later doxographies, Hippias’ work was organized by topic. In late doxographies the authors supply a brief lemma or rubric such as “on the size of the moon,” “on the shape of the moon,” “on the light of the moon,” “on the eclipse of the moon,” followed by the several opinions of the thinkers surveyed. It appears that like later doxographies, the opinions Hippias gathered on a given topic were organized schematically. For instance, some thinkers held that there were many principles, some that there was one, and some said there was none. Of those who held to many principles, some said there were two, some three, some four, some infinitely many. Hippias’ book, unlike later doxographies, was eclectic. That is, whereas later doxographies tended to survey only natural philosophers, Hippias surveyed poets and logographers, as well as those we would designate as philosophers. Finally, like the later doxographies, Hippias’ work was ahistorical in that it did not take into account shifts of historical attitude or even questions of historical priority. For instance, Homer is taken as a flux theorist alongside Heraclitus. Homer accepts two principles, earth and water, or the dry and the wet, along with Xenophanes. A scholar with a sense of history would have scruples about combining such disparate sources without at least some attempt to verify a common aim. But the notion of an evolving historical consciousness is the product of the age of Hegel, and is not much in evidence in the fifth or fourth centuries BC.

  • 7 See Patzer 1986:56-60.

6Plato seems to reflect the schematic account of Hippias in the Cratylus and the Sophist. In the latter dialogue he characterizes the theories of early thinkers as like fairy tales told to children (242c): there are three things, or two things, or only one. Plato does present this account in a quasi-chronological manner, adding a final version of reality in which there is an interaction of one and many, either a continuous opposition or a temporal alternation (242d-e). Here Plato, or rather the Eleatic Visitor, seems to accept a previous account and to speak patronizingly of the Presocratic philosophers and their conceptions of nature. His account is crudely historical, but at the same time schematic. And so dismissive is he of his subjects that he does not name a single thinker, though a number of his allusions are easily discernible. Although he professes respect for his distinguished predecessors, the Visitor does not deign to address their concerns directly, but simply complains that we do not understand what they are talking about (243a-b).7

7Elsewhere Plato shows more interest in the study of nature when he deals with the proper way of understanding the natural world. In the Phaedo the character Socrates digresses to provide an intellectual biography of sorts: as a young man, he was enamored of natural explanations, until he became confused by them (96a-98d). When he heard someone reading Anaxagoras’ book, which argued that mind ordered everything, he found this theory promising, and studied the book. To his disappointment, he found that Anaxagoras failed to exploit his insight, but continued to use mechanical explanations for all natural events. The Socrates of the Phaedo settles for a second-best account, one which tells why things have the properties they have without revealing why it is best for things to be as they are. He achieves a formal account of the world without achieving a teleological justification for it.

  • 8 Sedley 2007; see also Gregory 2007.

8In the Timaeus Plato returns to natural explanation, and provides an account of why the cosmos is as it is in teleological terms. He accomplishes this by positing a Demiurge, a cosmic craftsman or architect or engineer, who designs the world to embody a preexisting paradigm. Cosmology consists of a series of engineering problems of how to make the world as good as it can be while working with recalcitrant materials. In the Sophist (265c-e) the Visitor argues briefly that we should take the world to be the product of divine craftsmanship rather than of unthinking nature. There is an unspoken rejection of the whole project of the natural philosophers. This rejection is made explicit in Laws X, where the error of taking soul to be posterior to the natural elements is argued to be the root of impiety and wickedness (891c ff.). Plato rejects the notion of an autonomous realm of nature in favor of a world created by divine providence. Plato is the first Western creationist, as David Sedley has recently argued, and the sworn enemy of Ionian naturalism.8 Here he is not merely condescending, but hostile to natural philosophy as it was developed by the Presocratic philosophers.

9In one area Plato seems to accept a theory from an Ionian philosopher: the theory of perception he develops in the Theaetetus is heavily indebted to Heraclitus, or at least his understanding of Heraclitus. Yet Plato’s official view is that Heraclitus’ theory is incoherent and self-refuting. Thus while he is willing to borrow a theory from one Ionian for a limited purpose, to account for the changeable processes of the sensible world, he does not for that reason endorse Heraclitean theory as a whole or the project of Ionian naturalism in general.


10I would now like to focus attention on a passage in which Plato invokes a theory from the natural philosophers, and does so in a sympathetic way. Furthermore, unlike the references and allusions Plato makes in other places (those I have briefly surveyed in the first section), this passage has largely been ignored as a link to Plato’s predecessors. The passage I have in mind is found in Timaeus 49:

First, what we have now called water we observe, as we believe, turning into stones and earth as it is compacted; but then as it dissolves and disperses, this same thing becoming wind and air; and as it is ignited, air becoming fire; and as it is compressed and quenched in turn, fire departing and turning back into the form of air; and again air, as it comes together and is condensed, becoming cloud and mist; and from these as they are felted still more, coming flowing water; and from water earth and stones again; and these things thus imparting to each other in a cycle, as it appears, their generation. (49b7-c7)

11In the dialogue, Timaeus offers this account as a preliminary explanation of elemental change. For the purposes of this presentation I would like to focus on three features of the passage. (A) Timaeus identifies seven states of matter: (1) fire, (2) air, (3) wind, (4) cloud, (5) water, (6) earth, (7) stones. (B) He identifies a twofold mechanism of change, which is, on the one hand, dissolving and dispersing, and on the other hand, condensation, compaction, or “felting.” (C) The change in each case is a coming to be or generation of one element and (as the following discussion makes clear) the perishing of another element.

  • 9 “In his History Theophrastus referred the processes of rarefaction and condensation to Anaximenes a (...)
  • 10 “Die entscheidende Tatsache ist, daß zur Zeit Platons von keinem der drei Milesier mehr Schriften b (...)
  • 11 Graham 2003b; Graham 2003a. The putative testimony is not found in the recent editions of Wöhrle 19 (...)
  • 12 Graham 1997; 2006, chs. 3-4. Palmer 2009: 22 now says “the Milesians can no longer reasonably be ca (...)

12Now the theory presented here is that of Anaximenes. He, and only he, posits the seven states of matter ranging from fire to stones. Anaximander has hot and cold, wet and dry, and in his cosmogony earth, air, and fire; Xenophanes has earth and water in one passage; Heraclitus has fire, water, and earth; Parmenides has light and night; Anaxagoras has his homoeomeries; Empedocles has his four elements, and so on. But only Anaximenes has precisely this set of elemental bodies. Only he explicitly identifies rarefaction and condensation as the twofold mechanism for elemental change.9 He is also probably the first thinker to use felting as a technological model for condensation: wool when compacted turns into felt, gaining new properties. The features of his theory are as unique as a fingerprint. The identification of Anaximenes as the source of this theory may seem fairly obvious, but apparently it is not for many scholars. One scholar has even gone so far as to say that the works of Anaximander and Anaximenes were virtually unknown before Aristotle, for lack of explicit references to them.10 I have argued to the contrary that the present passage should be taken as a testimony of Anaximenes, and a precious one at that, as being pre-Aristotelian.11 I have also argued that pre-Parmenidean philosophy can be better understood if Anaximenes is seen as Plato sees him.12 Here I wish to focus on Plato’s understanding of Anaximenes, and his response to his predecessor.

  • 13 There seems to be no clear-cut source from Hippias concerning Anaximenes. But the sophist may be be (...)

13As we have seen, the main compendium of information on early Greek philosophy in Plato’s time was Hippias’ Collection. Did Plato derive his knowledge of Anaximenes from Hippias? It seems unlikely. In the first place, he does not provide a name for the author of the theory–an important feature of this proto-doxography. Of course he could have suppressed it, as he did in reviewing theories of nature in the Sophist. Yet Hippias also reduced theories to their simplest terms. Presumably he would have classified Anaximenes as positing a single ultimate reality, namely air.13 But here we may notice that Plato does not emphasize air as a special state of matter, but treats it only as a member of the series of transformations. Furthermore, unlike Hippias with his simplified accounts, Plato goes into some detail as to the sequence of changes, rehearsing them in both directions. In other words, Plato’s account develops the basic theory rather than simplifying it: he is interested in the structure of the theory rather than just its main point.

  • 14 Plato Tim. 49b7-c1, quoted above; cf. Aristotle Ph. 187b1-2.

14Plato presents Anaximenes’ theory as based on observation, as empirically adequate.14 This may seem odd to us, but we can make sense of it. We boil water in a pot: steam rises off the surface, convection currents rise (wind), the steam disappears into air; we blow air on the fire to make it burn hotter. Water in rivers deposits silt or earth in the deltas; clay is baked into bricks, which can crumble back into earth. At every stage we can cite some empirical evidence (some of it ultimately valid, some not) for the transformation. Now this theory of matter is not the theory Timaeus will finally advance; he will claim that there are four elements, three of which change into one another, and one of which, earth, can exist in different configurations but cannot change into the other elements. So Anaximenes’ theory serves as a first approximation of the theory that Timaeus will advocate. If that is right, there is no particular reason why there should be just seven states of matter in the initial theory, or that condensation and rarefaction (rather than, say, heating and cooling) should be the primary engine of change. These features are best explained as being part of a preexisting theory that is close enough to the correct theory to allow Plato to use it as a starting point for theory construction. Plato seems to view Anaximenes’ theory as a good first approximation of the right account of elemental change, and for that reason, a convenient theory to borrow. This seems to be a case in which Presocratic natural philosophy has something to teach us–perhaps as in the case of Heraclitean theory and the problem of sense perception.


15It appears then that Plato has learned something from Anaximenes. He has taken his theory of matter and elemental change and used it as a starting point for his own theory of matter. He is not particularly interested in giving Anaximenes credit for the theory (he does not mention his name), but he probably expects informed readers to recognize the allusion to his theory. But at this point we must worry about the theory that Plato presents us with. It is enough like that of Anaximenes that we may identify the Milesian as the author of the theory. But Anaximenes in Plato looks a good deal different from Anaximenes in Aristotle.

16For Aristotle, Anaximenes is a material monist. He holds that all things are air; air is the only reality, and all other states of matter are really just appearances of air. Fire is rarified air; wind is condensed air; cloud is more condensed air; water is still more condensed air, and so on. As for coming to be and perishing, there is no such thing: all changes in matter are just cases of alteration in which one set of phenomenal attributes is replaced by another, without changing the essential nature of the underlying reality, namely air (Met. 983b6-21, 984a5-7; GC 314b1-4). For Plato, on the other hand, we have a set of seven states of matter which can be ordered from most rare to most dense. By changing the density of the matter we change its essential properties to make it something essentially different. Air perishes and wind comes to be; wind perishes and cloud comes to be, and so on. Air is not in principle different from the other elements, and it does not remain through all transformations as a continuing substratum.

  • 15 Cornford 1937:180: “Plato clearly rejects [Anaximenes’ theory of matter].” Taylor 1928:314-15 recog (...)
  • 16 For strong defenses of Aristotle’s interpretation, see Barnes 1982:38-47, and recently White 2008.

17Surely Plato is playing fast and loose with Anaximenes. Or that is what scholars have sometimes said when they have noticed the Milesian features of the Timaeus passage.15 If (A) and (B) above mark the passage as a treatment of Anaximenes, (C) seems to violate the received interpretation of him. But that assumes that Aristotle has interpreted Anaximenes correctly and Plato has interpreted him incorrectly, or perhaps adapted him for his own purposes. Are we justified in making that assumption?16 In fact our sources are so limited that we have been forced to follow Aristotle without considering other interpretations. After Aristotle, his colleague Theophrastus made his own study of philosophical theories—one strongly influenced by Aristotle—and the doxographers followed Theophrastus. Thus there is little chance of seeing Anaximenes from a different point of view unless we take Plato’s reading seriously. For his part, Plato seems to be independent of Aristotle, and also of Hippias. He may have access to Anaximenes’ own treatise, or at least a reliable summary of it.

18Let us assume for the time being that Plato is indeed interpreting Anaximenes and not merely distorting him for his own purposes. How does he understand Anaximenes? He sees the states of matter as stages in an ongoing process of rarefaction and condensation rather than as different manifestations of a common underlying reality. There is no reason to single out air for special attention because it is just one of the stages along the way, and does not even occupy an extreme position in the sequence. Matter in one state turns into matter in another state when environmental conditions cause it to change its density. Indeed, even the terminology of ‘matter’ and ‘state’ is anachronistic, because what we have is less determinate than matter, for which Aristotle supplies the first terminology.

19We can see where Plato goes with his interpretation of Anaximenes in the following lines of his exposition:

Since each of these things never appears the same, which thing can one steadfastly maintain is this determinate thing and not something else, without embarrassing oneself? Nothing, but by far the safest course to take is to say this concerning such things: whatever we observe always changing from one thing to another, for example fire, we should in every case call not ‘this’ but ‘this sort of thing’, or water in every case not ‘this’ but ‘this sort of thing’–never calling anything else of the sort ‘this’ as though it had some constancy, of all the things we indicate using terms like ‘this’ or ‘that’ with the aim of picking out something in particular. For such an object flees, never abiding to receive the designation of the phrase ‘this’ or ‘that’, or any expression which refers to them as stable objects. We must not use these terms, but rather call whatever anything is like at its particular stage in the cycle of changes, each and every one, ‘this sort of thing’, and especially fire we should call ‘the completely such as this’, as well as everything that undergoes generation. (Timaeus 49c7-e7)

20Just as air turns into wind, which turns into cloud, which turns into water, which turns into earth, which turns into stones, so every “object flees,” changing its character as we try to perceive it or name it. The moral of the story is the radical instability of sensible objects, and consequently the unreliability of perception and semantic reference. This reminds us of the Heraclitean doctrine of the Theaetetus, which Plato develops in a discussion of the proposition that knowledge is perception.

  • 17 Graham 1997; 2006; 2008.
  • 18 Using Aristotle’s terminology; probably Hippias and thinkers of his generation used the term genesi (...)

21To be sure, the Heraclitean doctrine of the Theaetetus rests on an extreme interpretation of Heraclitus. Many contemporary scholars of Heraclitus, including myself, would say that Heraclitus’ understanding of flux does not preclude the possibility of stable objects of reference.17 Nevertheless, it is arguably the case that for Heraclitus the ultimate reality does not consist of permanent substances but of an orderly process of change. And although Heraclitus can be taken as a material monist (as he was in antiquity) whose ultimate reality is fire, he can also be taken as a critic of material monism who uses fire as a kind of anti-substance which displays its own impermanence and so reveals the failure of Ionian theories which take states of matter seriously. Thus, even if Plato’s Heraclitean argument offers an exaggerated version of Heraclitus, it starts from Heraclitean principles and draws a Heraclitean conclusion. Like Heraclitus, Plato downplays the role of an archê:18 he stresses instead the transformational equivalence of the various states of matter (X turns into Y turns into Z turns into Y turns into X); and he stresses the importance of the law of transformation at the expense of the stages in the process (the “turnings,” tropai B31, are more important than the stops along the route).

  • 19 Cherniss 1935.

22But if Plato’s interpretation is so obviously Heraclitean, is it not for that reason an adaptation rather than an independent interpretation? Does not Aristotle’s interpretation offer an objective alternative that should be preferred? If we take Aristotle as the starting point of Presocratic interpretations, then of course we have no recourse but to reject Plato’s interpretation. But Aristotle’s reliability has been under fire since the critical work of Harold Cherniss was published if not before.19 Aristotle is a valuable witness but hardly an infallible one. On his reading Anaximenes is a material monist for whom all is air; other states of matter are merely appearances of air in a cosmic masquerade. There are changes, but they are merely alterations, not generations and destructions of the basic reality. There is one and only one ultimate reality, namely air; it changes its phenomenal properties by means of condensation and rarefaction, but it retains its essential character always and everywhere.

  • 20 In his catalogue of material monists in Met. A, 983b18-21, 984a2-8. At Phys. 198a20-23 he classifie (...)
  • 21 In B36, B76 he treats elemental change and coming-to-be and perishing of the elements.

23This interpretation presents an attractive account of Milesian philosophy. But it seems to presuppose a set of prior distinctions, between essence and accident, between appearance and reality that were not articulated until Parmenides. Now it may be that they were present in a tacit form in the Milesians. But is there independent evidence that the early Ionians held such views? In the case of Thales there was not sufficient evidence even in Aristotle’s time to confirm or disconfirm the interpretation. In the case of Anaximander, the boundless seems not to be a constituent of the present world, and hence not a material substrate; and the opposites seem to change into one another more Heracliteo. (Aristotle also wavers between treating him as a monist and treating him as a pluralist.)20 In the case of Xenophanes the evidence is unclear between a monistic, a dualistic, and a pluralistic ontology. In the case of Heraclitus there is evidence against his being a material monist.21 So the argument for material monism may come down to just one philosopher: Anaximenes. And if we take Plato’s reading seriously, we must doubt Aristotle’s. We do not need to grant that Plato’s reading is right, just that it is possible. If Plato could take Anaximenes as a forerunner of process philosophy, what the Milesian said must have been ambiguous between a process reading and a monistic reading.

  • 22 Met. 983b30-984a7.
  • 23 Stokes 1971:238-44; Graham 2006:277-93.
  • 24 Laks 2008b.

24If we think Plato’s interpretation should be ruled out for its being too Heraclitean, we should consider whether Aristotle’s should be ruled out for being too Eleatic. The notion that there is a single unchanging reality, whose phenomenal variations are less than real changes, suggests a stage of thinking posterior to Parmenides. In fact, Aristotle pairs Anaximenes with Diogenes of Apollonia in a passage that reads like a response to Hippias’ treatment of principles. After noting that some commentators think ancient thinkers, like Thales, hold that water is the principle because Ocean and Tethys were the parents of offspring and the gods swear by Styx, Aristotle goes on to reject Hippo as a philosopher, presumably because Hippias included him in the list of those who made water the principle. Next we get Anaximenes and Diogenes.22 But Diogenes is writing after Parmenides in a historical and philosophical context very different from that of Anaximenes. We can suspect that the kind of assimilations of theory promoted by the proto-doxography of Hippias has made Anaximenes look more like Diogenes than he should.23 How could Anaximenes, writing before Parmenides, and Diogenes, writing after him, produce the same theory? Perhaps Diogenes is a mere eclectic and a hack. But this interpretation has been challenged by André Laks, and if we begin to doubt that Anaximenes’ theory was what Aristotle said it was, we may come to believe that Aristotle has projected Diogenes’ innovative theory back two generations to Anaximenes.24

  • 25 “Heraclitus had found the ‘general formula’ for the early Ionian cosmological systems” (Taylor 1928 (...)
  • 26 On Cratylus and Hippias, see Mansfeld 1990: 94-95. But where Mansfeld sees a common “interpretation (...)

25In any case, it is unfair to be suspicious of Plato’s interpretation of Anaximenes as too Heraclitean if we are not willing to be equally suspicious of Aristotle’s interpretation as too Eleatic. Aristotle himself tells us that Plato heard the lectures of Cratylus, the resident Heraclitean philosopher of Athens (Met. 987a32-b1). We do not know of Cratylus’ intellectual pedigree, whether he studied with a follower of Heraclitus or was self-taught. But his presence lets us know that Heraclitean ideas were being taught in the late fifth century. This raises the possibility of a Heraclitean tradition of interpretation independent of the Eleatic tradition which surely arose in response to Parmenides’ teachings, and was manifest in the philosophies of Zeno and Melissus, as well as perhaps in some so-called pluralist philosophers. To judge by Plato’s understanding of Anaximenes, such a tradition might have seen the Milesian as a forerunner of process philosophy insofar as he held that one state of matter would be transformed to another by the action of forces of condensation and rarefaction.25 The ongoing transformations would give rise to motions in two directions, towards the more rare and the more dense, respectively. Whereas Anaximenes might be most interested in the cosmogonical and cosmological implications of this theory, it would suggest that there is something more fundamental than the states of matter themselves. The orderly sequence of transformations could be seen as more basic than the stages of the transformation. Indeed, seen from a larger perspective, the stages of transformation would turn out to be mere stops along a predetermined path. What would emerge from a critical reassessment would be a notion of a two-fold path, a way up and a way down. Anaximenes would be the predecessor of Heraclitus. How such a tradition would react to Parmenides and his tradition is hard to say. But the possibility of putting Anaximenes in a different narrative from the one we always hear from the ancient world is intriguing. Cratylus himself claims to go beyond Heraclitus, and does so in a way that seems unpromising. Yet at least we can say that the Heraclitean tradition was a living movement in Plato’s time that was capable of providing its own historiographical reflections.26 What is more, its conception of philosophy reaches back before Parmenides and seems to develop independently of that very influential tradition. On the Heraclitean reading, Ionian historiê points toward process philosophy, rather than to some kind of Eleatic monism on the one hand or Eleatic pluralism on the other.

26Ultimately, Plato seems to read Anaximenes very differently from Aristotle. He seems to view the Milesian as a predecessor to Heraclitean process philosophy rather than as a precursor to Diogenes’ material monism. He may derive his reading from a Heraclitean tradition that is independent of the Eleatic tradition. He may have access to the Heraclitean tradition through Cratylus. The moral he draws from Anaximenes’ theory has a good deal in common with Cratylus’ distinctive metaphysics. As Plato sees it, the consequence of Anaximenes’ theory of change is that matter is always in process of becoming something else. Hence deictic reference is impossible, and statements meant to represent the sensible world can never describe it adequately. This seems to be the linguistic counterpart to Cratylus’ claim that one cannot step into the same river even once. In Plato’s dialogue Timaeus goes on to describe a world whose microstructure allows some degree of stability in the atomic triangles that become the building blocks of the material world.

27In his treatment of Anaximenes Plato does not use the consequences of his theory of change as a reductio ad absurdum of that theory. Rather, the radical instability of the elements points to the need for some sort of stabilizing influences from beyond the sensible world. Plato takes Anaximenes to offer a common-sense account of elemental change that points in the direction of the true account. He does not agree with Anaximenes, but he does at least treat one Ionian philosopher as a partner in a conversation that leads to truth–much as Aristotle does with the Presocratics in his Metaphysics A (987a2-3). Anaximenes, Plato implies, is on the right track, a track that leads through Heraclitus to a Heraclitean understanding of the sensible world. Of course the sensible world is not self-sufficient for Plato. There needs to be another world of changeless reality and ordered structure, for which Parmenides provides the inspiration if not the details. The second half of the story is well known; the first half is not so well known, especially insofar as it reaches back before Heraclitus.

  • 27 I presented a version of this paper for the Université Paris I (Sorbonne) on January 15, 2010.  I b (...)

28I find the story interesting not just because of the light it sheds on Plato as an interpreter of the Presocratics. It also provides a new perspective on Anaximenes and consequently on early Ionian and specifically Milesian philosophy. Could Plato’s reading be right? Could more than two thousand years of Aristotelian interpretations of the Milesians be mistaken? Could the assimilation of Anaximenes’ theory to that of Diogenes be a historical travesty that obscured the former’s theory by replacing it with the latter’s? The fact that Plato is earlier than Aristotle does not of course make him right. Indeed, it is possible that Plato’s Timaeus might be written after some of Aristotle’s writings on the subject–all this depending on the contentious question of the dating of both Platonic and Aristotelian works. But even if Plato’s dialogue is later than Metaphysics A, his reading is intellectually independent of Aristotle’s and beholden to different assumptions. I think we owe it to Plato to give his reading the same consideration we have always given Aristotle’s27.

Haut de page


Adoménas, Mantas. 2006. “Plato, Presocratics, and the Question of Intellectual Genre.” In La costruzione del discorso filosofico nell’età dei Presocratici, edited by Maria Michela Sassi, 329-53. Pisa: Edizioni della Normale.

Barnes, Jonathan. 1982 [1979]. The Presocratic Philosophers, Revised edn. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Cherniss, Harold. 1935. Aristotle’s Criticism of Presocratic Philosophy. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Cornford, F. M. 1937. Plato’s Cosmology. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Diels, Hermann. 1879. Doxographi Graeci. Berlin.

Dixsaut, Monique, and Aldo Brancacci, eds. 2002. Platon source des présocratiques: exploration. Paris: J. Vrin.

Gigon, Olof. 1968[1945]. Der Ursprung der griechischen Philosophie, 2nd edition. Basel: Schwabe.

Graham, Daniel W. 1997. “Heraclitus’ Criticism of Ionian Philosophy.” Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, 15: 1-50.

—. 2003a. “A New Look at Anaximenes.” History of Philosophy Quarterly, 20: 1-20.

—. 2003b. “A Testimony of Anaximenes in Plato.” Classical Quarterly, 53: 327-37.

—. 2006. Explaining the Cosmos: The Ionian Tradition of Scientific Philosophy. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

—. 2008. “Heraclitus: Flux, Order, and Knowledge.” In The Oxford Handbook of Presocratic Philosophy, edited by Patricia Curd and Daniel W. Graham, 169-88. New York: Oxford University Press.

—, ed. and trans. 2010. The Texts of Early Greek Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gregory, Andrew. 2007. Ancient Greek Cosmogony. London: Duckworth.

Heidel, W. A. “Qualitative Change in Presocratic Philosophy.” Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 19: 333-79.

Kahn, Charles. 1960. Anaximander and the Origins of Greek Philosophy. New York: Columbia University Press.

Laks, André. 2006a. Introduction à la “philosophie présocratique.” Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.

—. 2008b [1983]. Diogène d’Apollonie, 2nd edition. Sankt Augustin: Academia Verlag.

Mansfeld, Jaap. 1990. Studies in the Historiography of Greek Philosophy. Assen: Van Gorcum.

Mansfeld, Jaap, and David T. Runia. 1997. Aëtiana: The Method and Intellectual Context of a Doxographer, vol. 1: The Sources. Philosophia Antiqua 73. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

—. 2009. Aëtiana: The Method and Intellectual Context of a Doxographer, vol. 2: The Compendium. Philosophia Antiqua 114. Leiden: E. J. Brill. 2 parts.

McCabe, Mary Margaret. 2000. Plato and His Predecessors. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Moscarelli, Enrico. 2005. I quatro grandi milesi: Talete, Anassimandro, Anassimene, Ecateo. Naples: Liguori Editore.

Palmer, John. 1999. Plato’s Reception of Parmenides. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

—. 2009. Parmenides and Presocratic Philosophy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Patzer, Andreas. 1986. Der Sophist Hippias als Philosophiehistoriker. Frieburg: Karl Alber.

Sassi, Maria Michela. 2009. Gli inizi della filosofia: in Grecia. Turin: Bollati Boringhieri.

Sedley, David. 2007. Creationism and Its Critics in Antiquity. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Snell, Bruno. 1944. “Die Nachrichten über die Lehren des Thales und die Anfänge der griechischen Philosophie- und Literaturgeschichte.” Philologus 96: 170-82.

Stokes, Michael C. 1971. One and Many in Presocratic Philosophy. Washington, D.C.: Center for Hellenic Studies.

Taylor, A. E. 1928. A Commentary on Plato’s Timaeus. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Vlastos, Gregory. 1975. Plato’s Universe. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

White, Stephen A. 2008. “Milesian Measures: Time, Space, and Matter.” In The Oxford Handbook of Presocratic Philosophy, edited by Patricia Curd and Daniel W. Graham, 89-133. New York: Oxford University Press.

Wöhrle, Georg. 1993. Anaximenes aus Milet: Die Fragmente zu seiner Lehre. Stuttgart: Franz Steiner Verlag.

—. 2012. Die Milesier. vol. 2: Anaximander und Anaximenes. Berlin: de Gruyter.

Haut de page


1 For a recent study of the cultural background of Presocratic thought, see Sassi 2009.

2 See Laks 2006a; Mansfeld 1990:41-45.

3 Palmer 1999; McCabe 2000; Dixsaut and Brancacci 2002; Adoménas 2006.

4 See Patzer 1986; on the title, 97-99; Mansfeld 1990:22 ff., following the groundbreaking work of Snell 1944.

5 Diels 1879; for an updated study, see Mansfeld and Runia 1997; Mansfeld and Runia 2009.

6 See Mansfeld 1990:22-83.

7 See Patzer 1986:56-60.

8 Sedley 2007; see also Gregory 2007.

9 “In his History Theophrastus referred the processes of rarefaction and condensation to Anaximenes alone. But it is clear that the others in this group make use of them too” (Simplicius Physics 149.32-150.2= Theophrastus fr. 226B Fortenbaugh). While Simplicius infers the existence of a similar mechanism in other Ionians, only Anaximenes seems to have appealed to rarefaction and condensation explicitly.

10 “Die entscheidende Tatsache ist, daß zur Zeit Platons von keinem der drei Milesier mehr Schriften bekannt waren. Das darf man daraus schließen, daß Platon von ihnen überhaupt nur Thales kennt . . . die zwei anderen werden vor Aristoteles überhaupt nicht genannt” (Gigon 1968:43).

11 Graham 2003b; Graham 2003a. The putative testimony is not found in the recent editions of Wöhrle 1993 or Moscarelli 2005, but it now appears as the first testimony of Anaximenes, As 1, in Wöhrle 2012; cf. Graham 2010, Axs 10, 39.

12 Graham 1997; 2006, chs. 3-4. Palmer 2009: 22 now says “the Milesians can no longer reasonably be cast as ‘material monists’.” Criticisms of the material monism interpretation, to be sure, are not new (see Heidel 1906; Kahn 1960: 154-55; Stokes 1971), but only recently have they begun to be widely accepted.

13 There seems to be no clear-cut source from Hippias concerning Anaximenes. But the sophist may be behind passages such as Aristotle Met. 984a5-6. See Patzer 1986: 95-96.

14 Plato Tim. 49b7-c1, quoted above; cf. Aristotle Ph. 187b1-2.

15 Cornford 1937:180: “Plato clearly rejects [Anaximenes’ theory of matter].” Taylor 1928:314-15 recognizes Anaximenes as the source of Plato’s account but does not notice how it diverges from the traditional reading of Anaximenes. Compare Vlastos 1975:80 n. 22.

16 For strong defenses of Aristotle’s interpretation, see Barnes 1982:38-47, and recently White 2008.

17 Graham 1997; 2006; 2008.

18 Using Aristotle’s terminology; probably Hippias and thinkers of his generation used the term genesis here: Mansfeld 1990:90-92.

19 Cherniss 1935.

20 In his catalogue of material monists in Met. A, 983b18-21, 984a2-8. At Phys. 198a20-23 he classifies Anaximander with Empedocles and Anaxagoras as a pluralist.

21 In B36, B76 he treats elemental change and coming-to-be and perishing of the elements.

22 Met. 983b30-984a7.

23 Stokes 1971:238-44; Graham 2006:277-93.

24 Laks 2008b.

25 “Heraclitus had found the ‘general formula’ for the early Ionian cosmological systems” (Taylor 1928:315).

26 On Cratylus and Hippias, see Mansfeld 1990: 94-95. But where Mansfeld sees a common “interpretation…current in the later fifth cent[ury],” I see the possibility of divergent interpretations.

27 I presented a version of this paper for the Université Paris I (Sorbonne) on January 15, 2010.  I benefited from comments of the participants and organizers of the seminar.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Daniel W. Graham, « Plato and Anaximenes », Études platoniciennes [En ligne], 12 | 2015, mis en ligne le 15 février 2016, consulté le 28 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/etudesplatoniciennes.706

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

© Société d’Études platoniciennes

Haut de page