Cosmic Guilt

This is the part two of a series of articles related to the Greek Presocratic Philosophers. The Presocratics were a wide and varied group of philosopher-scientists active between the years 585 BC and 400 BC. The inquiries that the Presocratics conducted into the nature of reality established the scope and general structure of philosophical inquiry even up until the present day. This article will mainly focus on Anaximander, the first Greek Philosopher who’s original writings were preserved. We will be taking a look at his conception of Cosmic Guilt.

We last looked at Thales, who has , within the Western Philosophical Tradition, the honor of being called the “first philosopher.” That article can be found here. Thales had allegedly said that everything comes from and is ὕδωρ (hudor), which we can translate to “water.” Thales’ statement could be said to have been derived from the Hesiodic conception of φύσις (phusis) as being suffused with divine power. This divine power, from the Hesiodic vantage point, was that which allowed for the forms of life that, as human beings, we were privy to in the form of φαινόμενον (phenomenon). For Thales, using a pre-scientific mode of inference, since the φαινόμενον of ὕδωρ could be said to be the condition for other observable φαινόμενον , he concluded that everything must have originally come from ὕδωρ.

But although Thales’ statement seemed to answer the question of how the world came into being (in a rudimentary sense), the answer to the question of how the world operated was not as clear. Furthermore, if everything was ὕδωρ, was this the same as saying that everything continued to be ὕδωρ even after emerging? Was ὕδωρ only how things were prior to becoming what they currently are? For example, if land emerged from the sea, we could infer that land had its origin in ὕδωρ, but since land is qualitatively different, maybe even materially contrary to the sea (it is made of earth), would we still be able to say that it was composed of ὕδωρ? Our intuition tells us that something has qualitatively changed, but, on Thales’ account, we have very little conceptual tools for explaining what has changed, or even, the operations that brought about that change.

Anaximander was also, like Thales, a Milesian and, from reports by later philosophers, very interested in inquiring about φύσις. But unlike Thales, we actually have a fairly intact fragment of what Anaximander wrote, not much, but much more than what we had for Thales. This fragment is typically presented as “Anaximander’s Saying,” and is the source for attributing what I call the philosophical concept of cosmic guilt to Anaximander. But before I get into that, I think it’s good to get an idea of how Anaximander diverges from Thales.

The Cosmic Seed

Aristotle, writing much later than Anaximander, reports that Anaximander had problems with Thales’ assertion that everything came from and was ὕδωρ. According to Aristotle, Anaximander’s main point of contention was that if ὕδωρ was the ἀρχή (arche), or originating principle by which φαινόμενον emerged, how could it’s opposite, which Anaximander took to be πυρ (pur), that is, fire, ever emerge? (Physics 204b24ff) Clearly, πυρ is something distinct from ὕδωρ. They could even be said to be contraries or opposites to one another in the sense that one destroys the other and vice versa. Anaximander must have thought it ridiculous to say that one could emerge from other then. How could that be? They were at each other’s throats to come into the light of φύσις !

Both of them were φαινόμενον however. So, in being φαινόμενον, they must have emerged out of something, something that would have contained within it the necessary material to generate contrary qualities such as ὕδωρ and πυρ. In this regard, Anaximander was not so different from Thales. Anaximander conceived of all reality as constituted by a single ἀρχή, just as Thales was thought to have done, but Anaximander also seemed to have thought that it could not just be any observable φαινόμενον that could have been the originating principle.

The ἀρχή that Anaximander posited, he called ἄπειρον (apeiron). The word ἄπειρον is a privative term, which means that the ἄ affixed at the beginning of the word connotes a privation of what is meant by the main term, which in this case is πέρας (peras). By itself, πέρας denotes an end, limit, or boundary. All φαινόμενον have a πέρας of one sort or another, otherwise they would not be distinguishable. For example, something hot would not be distinguishable from something cold if there were not some πέρας, such as a corresponding temperature threshold, that we could point to so as to distinguish the hot from the cold.

So, the ἄπειρον would be that which does not have an end, limit, or boundary. In not being bound, or determined as one specific entity, the ἄπειρον could act, for Anaximander, as the nucleus, or cosmic seed, from which all determinate recognizable things would emerge. (Plutarch, Stromateis 2; Dox. 579). So, φύσις, in all of its varied, and at times contrary ways of appearing, emerged, or grew out of the soil of ἄπειρον. But the being of the ἄπειρον had priority to the beinghood of what was accessed by human beings as φαινόμενον. In fact, for Anaximander, in order for the ἄπειρον to be the principle from which all the beings flowered out of and partook of being (i.e. were brought into the light of φύσις) , it would have to be something so distinct from the ordinary things that we normally observe, that it might as well be divine. (Aristotle, Physics 203b4-30)

In some ways then, Anaximander still somewhat retained the Hesiodic conception of φύσις as suffused with divinity and life, and fundamentally operating on a somewhat biological basis analogous to a process of continual birth, generation, or emergence. But in choosing to answer the question of how the world originated, as well as operated, in this way, Anaximander also seems to have set up new problems. Sure, the ἄπειρον, in being limitless and undetermined, could account for any appearance which was observed, but, another feature of any observable φαινόμενον is that, not only does it appear, it also disappears.

As I said earlier, contrary terms are always at each other’s throats to come into the light of φύσις. Another way to say this is that observable reality, as distinct from the ἄπειρον, is always in a state of becoming, always coming to be and passing away, always changing from one thing to another. How was Anaximander to account for the change that was constantly being observed in the world, a change that, for the most part, seemed to have a sort of regularity, or rhyme and reason to it?

Anaximander’s Saying

Simplicius, a philosopher writing around the 6th Century AD, preserves for us the following saying attributed to Anaximander:

“…from what source things arise, to that they return of necessity when they are destroyed; for he says that they suffer punishment and give satisfaction to one another for άδικίας according to the order of time…” (Physics. 6 v; 27, 23; Dox. 478)

That ‘source’ that Anaximander speaks of should be taken to be the ἄπειρον, it is, according to Anaximander, what underlies the φαινόμενον which we, as human beings, have access to as observable reality. It is the ‘hidden’ divinity which, for Hesiod was the primordial gods and, for Thales was ὕδωρ . And observable reality, that which is φύσις, is where determinable qualities, such as hot and hold, struggle for existence, struggle to stay in the light of φύσις. Only in this way do determinate qualities ‘appear’ to us, in their emergence out of indeterminateness.

On Anaximander’s view, at least as I see it, the observation of any φαινόμενον also yields the (seemingly common-sense) conclusion that not only do determinable qualities appear, but they also disappear. And they appear again, in countless ways, across countless variations. Heat doesn’t emerge just once into the light of φύσις and then disappears forever, it is observed in different places, and at different times. This reoccurrence must mean that the determinable quality doesn’t always stay determinable. After all, if heat won and emerged, then cold lost. Cold lost it’s determinateness, it became undetermined, without being determined, it could go nowhere but to where all undetermined, things go, back to the ἄπειρον.

Yet determinable qualities do not stay put once they have lost the struggle to remain in the light of φύσις. They eventually come back and overtake whatever determinable quality overtook and destroyed them before. And, when we observe any sort of φαινόμενον, we notice that there is a sort of regularity or orderliness to this appearance and disappearance of given determinable qualities. Cold doesn’t just appear. It appears where once there was warmth, it replaces the hot. And the same for heat, we determine something has become hot only when we notice that it has replaced the cold. On a larger scale, we notice that the seasons overtake one another, a cold winter gives way to a warm spring. And these changes seemingly occur in a rhythm, in an orderly fashion.

For Anaximander, this apparent regularity has an explanation, it can be accounted for by reference to justice, or what the ancient Greeks called δίκη (dike). For Anaximander, it will be δίκη which necessitates the orderly change that we, as human beings, observe all throughout reality, such as when we see hot things turn cold and vice versa. Anaximander thinks of this coming into and out of φύσις by determinable qualities as those qualities paying for a crime, as a punishment for having committed άδικίας (adikias), which we can translate as injustice.

In this way, there is a sense of cosmic guilt that all observable things are marked by. The guilt of coming into existence. For, when coming into existence, when coming into the light of φύσις, things seem, on Anaximander’s picture, to be committing some sort of άδικίας whereby reparation must be paid, as a matter of cosmic necessity. Things must be punished for their transgression (overpowering some other thing to come into the light of φύσις) by offering satisfaction (eventually giving up their place in the light of φύσις). And this cosmic necessity appears to be inescapable. Time catches up to all things, brings them back to the source of their being, it imposes δίκη.

Cosmic Justice

But what is δίκη exactly for Anaximander? When we think of justice, we think of it in moral or normative ways. Justice is, for us, what is good, what is sought after, what is the correct. And if it is correct, then it ought to be so. Conversely, άδικίας seems like it should have the exact opposite normative value, it is what should ultimately be avoided. But notice that if it were not for άδικίας, then there would not be any such thing as a reality to speak of for Anaximander. άδικίας is fundamentally what drives the emergence of the totality of beings within φύσις, in a way it drives the emergence of φύσις itself. Without άδικίας, determinate qualities like hot and cold never come into being, and all φαινόμενον comes to a standstill.

With this in mind, we have to reassess what δίκη is, on non-moral grounds. We have to go back to the pre-philosophical way that the Greeks conceived of it. We can start by looking at how Hesiod thinks of δίκη, not as a law that is handed down by a god, but a god itself, more specifically, a goddess. In his poem, “Theogony,” Hesiod, says that, ” [Zeus] married bright Themis who gave birth to the ὧραι, Εὐνομία, Δίκη, and blooming Εἰρήνη, they oversee the works of mortal men […] “ (ll. 901-906)

The goddess Δίκη, in Hesiod’s poem, is one of three sisters, collectively called the ὧραι (horai) which is a word that approximates to the English word time, or seasons. Hesiod wrote very much from the agricultural vantage point, from the worldview of a farmer. So, the seasons and their alternating and orderly changes would have been something that he would have been sensitive to. A cold winter would be replaced by a fresh spring, which would give way to a warm summer, and that would eventually transform to a bitter cold yet again. For Hesiod then, the observable φαινόμενον of the seasons had an order, a divine intelligence which was hidden in the alternating appearance of seasonal change.

So, the ὧραι were the goddesses of the movement of observable φαινόμενον across the seasons, they oversaw, and directed the flow of φύσις, and, as Hesiod poetized, it was this divine administration that stood over and above the “works of men,” that determined how human activities were structured and maintained. In Hesiod’s worldview, Δίκη oversaw the alternation of the seasons along with her sisters Εὐνομία (eunomia) and Εἰρήνη (eirene). Εὐνομία roughly translates to ‘good order’ and Εἰρήνη to ‘peace.’ The ὧραι maintained the order of things then, they did not necessarily oversee the morality of man, at least this early in Greek thinking.

With this in mind, we can get a better idea of the operative way that the early Greeks used the term δίκη in an everyday sense, to designate how things normally go, the regular way of things. In fact, the meaning of the word δίκη, in its primordial sense, approximates the English word ‘path.’ In this sense, δίκη did not primordially have any normative force to it in its early stage of use. In fact, even when we read Homer, although there is some hazy limited use of the term δίκη to designate the ‘better’ way to behave, the modern attribution of morality to δίκη is not consistently clear. For example, when speaking of the δίκη of lords, , we are told that Odysseus “never spoke or acted without δίκη, ” that he never mistreated his subjects, despite the typical way that lords are accustomed to behaving. (Odyssey iv.689)

This may seem like it is a moral indictment of the behavior of the lords, but, in another passage we are sadly told what the δίκη of slaves is, what is to be expected in the life of a slave: “Life is like this for slaves: we live in fear, [others] have power over us.” (Odyssey xiv.58) The slave laments his lot in life, but, only because he is experiencing it. It still falls to him to live the hard and terrible life of a slave, it is a matter of necessity, of fate, which he recognizes is not in his hands, much like the Homeric heroes of the Iliad (the Greek lords) recognize that they are fated to short and violent lives.

So when we look at this primordial sense of δίκη that forms the context of early Greek thinking, we see that it is an operative force that guides the movement, through time, of every observable φαινόμενον, including even what constitutes human experience. Anaximander’s importation of δίκη into his explanation of how the world operates does not seem so surprising then. Yet, in the early poetic Greek mind, δίκη is not tinged with overt normative force, it is not a correction of some pre-existing άδικίας, of some cosmic crime.

For Anaximander, the cosmic crime of existing (and this applies to all beings), and the corresponding reparation that all beings must pay in order to maintain the δίκη of reality and to do away with cosmic guilt, seems as if it is pointing to an overt sense of judicial morality, but it has not yet been made explicit. For now, δίκη, and even to some extent άδικίας, are just what make the world go ’round.

So, to conclude, what did Anaximander truly accomplish? He accepted Thales’ alleged proposition that ultimately all of φύσις, as observable φαινόμενον, was reducible to a single principle, or ἀρχή. However, Anaximander rejected that the ἀρχή was ὕδωρ, because, by reducing the ἀρχή to a single quality, Thales’ hypothesis would not be able to account for the observable fact that reality consists of opposing qualities, all coming into and out of the light of φύσις in an apparently never-ending attempt to stay determinate, to continue to exist. Identifying the main feature of observable things to be determinateness, Anaximander posited that the ἀρχή out of which things emerge must itself be undetermined, or, limitless in the qualities that it could possess, otherwise how could it impart qualities on determinate things? In this way, Anaximander tried to answer the question, how did the world come into being?

But what about the second question, how does the world operate? Anaximander seemed to think that the operations of observable φαινόμενον could be accounted for by the necessity imposed on them by δίκη, a meta-physical force (literally a force outside of the order of φύσις) that maintained the rhyme and reason which the Greeks supposed in the operations of φύσις. This supposition was, in many ways, a carryover and philosophical elaboration of the Hesiodic and Homeric worldview, which presupposed guiding divine forces hidden beneath the appearance of reality.

But notice that this concept of cosmic justice may account for how things come into and out of being, but only in a very limited way. In the case of cold emerging from what was once hot, I can go along with the idea that something hot must eventually become cool , and I can even allow that this is because of some sort of inescapable necessity for any thing that exists in determinate space and time. But there are instances when the transition from hot to cold in something doesn’t require such a lofty metaphysical explanation. Something hot may become cold because I placed it in the freezer. Or, alternatively, it may go from cold to hot because I warmed it up in the oven. Another way to say this is that there are in fact instances in which some φαινόμενον can easily be accounted for by reference to some other φαινόμενον, some other being in the realm of φύσις, without any need to infer the existence of some ‘cosmic seed’ from which the observed φαινόμενον originated, or of a metaphysical force such as δίκη which passes judgment on beings for the crime of coming into being.

Anaximenes, who followed Anaximander, will, in some ways, go backwards metaphysically, he will posit that there is some observable φαινόμενον that is the originating principle of all other φαινόμενον, and that the apparent orderliness of change that is observable in the cosmos is explainable by reference to a mechanism of change that is grounded in φύσις, not outside of it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: