Annals of atheism: Anaxagoras

As I embark on this occasional series, I’m going to continue to refer to Jennifer Michael Hecht’s book Doubt: A History, and try to bring in other sources to round out the picture as best I can. I highly recommend Hecht’s book for its nuanced and comprehensive big-picture account of the development of doubt; here, I only wish to point out highlights.

I may as well begin with Anaxagoras (500 BCE – 428 BCE), who stands at the center of the earliest known account of the conflict between scientific and magical thinking. His cosmological theory — which includes the notion that all things originally “existed in infinitesimally small fragments of themselves” — helped to pave the way for the atomism of Democritus; and he attempted to explain meteorological and astronomical phenomena — meteors, rainbows, the nature of the sun — in scientific terms. Here is an account of his views by the second-century scribe Hippolytus, and it’s remarkable how much Anaxagoras got right (the sun is larger than the Peloponnesus, indeed!):

The earth [according to Anaxagoras] is flat in shape. It stays up because of its size, because there is no void, and because the air, which is very resistant, supports the earth, which rests on it. Now we turn to the liquids on the earth: The sea existed all along, but the water in it became the way it is because it suffered evaporation, and it is also added to from the rivers which flow into it. Rivers originate from rains and also from subterranean water; for the earth is hollow and has water in its hollows. The Nile rises in the summer because water is carried down into it from the snow in the north.The sun, the moon, and all the heavenly bodies are red-hot stones which have been snatched up by the rotation of the aether. Below the heavenly bodies there exist certain bodies which revolve along with the sun and the moon and are invisible….The moon is below the sun, closer to us. The sun is larger than the Peloponnesus. The moon does not shine with its own light, but receives its light from the sun…. Eclipses of the moon occur when the earth cuts off the light, and sometimes when the bodies below the moon cut off the light. Eclipses of the sun take place at new moon, when the moon cuts off the light…. Anaxagoras was the first to describe the circumstances under which eclipses occur and the way light is reflected by the moon. He said that the moon is made of earth and has plains and gullies on it. The Milky Way is the light of those stars which are not lit up by the sun. (A Refutation of All Heresies, 1, epitome, 3)

Is it any surprise he landed himself in hot water?

Here is Hecht’s account:

The philosopher Anaxagoras is the earliest historical figure to have been indicted for atheism — in fact, it seems they wrote the law just for him. A meteorite had fallen in 467 BCE and it convinced Anaxagoras that the heavenly bodies, including Helios, the sun, were just glowing lumps of metal. Other people had this information — the meteorite didn’t fall in Anaxagoras’s backyard — but he was a philosopher and a rationalist and he came to conclusions that were not attractive to everyone. This was the origin of a conflict between religion and science. Here, new information, new empirical data, led to a direct challenge to the way in which the gods were envisioned. This new doubt encouraged a new kind of punishment for doubt. Set up about 438 BCE, the law against Anaxagoras’s atheism held that society must “denounce those who do not believe in the divine beings or who teach doctrines about things in the sky.”

What, exactly, was Anaxagoras’s punishment? According to the peer-reviewed Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy (IEP), the charge was impiety, and the sentence was death. Wikipedia provides some more details: his political connections stayed the executioner’s hand, but he was forced into exile for the remainder of his life:

About 450 Anaxagoras was arrested by Pericles’ political opponents on a charge of contravening the established religion […] It took Pericles’ power of persuasion to secure his release. Even so he was forced to retire from Athens to Lampsacus in Troad (c. 434–433 BC). He died there in around the year 428 BC. Citizens of Lampsacus erected an altar to Mind and Truth in his memory, and observed the anniversary of his death for many years.

It’s worth noting here that the charge of “atheism” seems to have been, specifically, a charge of not believing in the particular religious conceptions of his time. Anaxagoras’s cosmogony apparently involved the idea of Nous, Mind, a kind of formless universal Intention that orders and organizes the universe. The philosophy website The Big View cites the sixth-century philosopher Simplicius, in whose work the surviving fragments of Anaxagoras’s philosophy are preserved:

The idea of mind as the supreme ordering principle is the most captivating aspect of his philosophy. Anaxagoras says that “mind is something infinite and self-controlling, and that is has been mixed with no thing, but is alone itself by itself.” (Simplicius). Unfortunately this is nearly all he has to say about mind. Neither does he go into detailing the nature of mind, nor does he present a theory that explains the unfolding of reality on basis of mind. Anaxagoras’ concept of mind stands like an overture without a symphony.

Whether or not Anaxagoras viewed Nous as something supernatural to be worshipped is unclear. The IEP suggests this isn’t the case:

In this case it is tempting to characterize Mind in theistic terms. [This temptation] should be avoided, for Anaxagoras remained fully naturalistic in his philosophy. In fact, the uniqueness of Anaxagoras is that he proposed a rationalistic governing principle that remained free from the mythical or theological characteristics of prior cosmogonies. His philosophical successors, particularly Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, are very excited to find in Anaxagoras a unifying cosmic principle which does not allude to the whims of the gods. They hope to find in him an extension of this principle into a purpose-driven explanation for the universe. Alas, they are all disappointed that Anaxagoras makes no attempt to develop his theory of Mind in such a way.

The article from the IEP is worth reading in full. Here I only wish to point out that, by all accounts, Anaxagoras was one of the early rationalists, coming to grips with the universe through efforts at observation and scientific thinking. And his fate is one of the first historical examples we have — if not indeed the very first — of how nonbelievers are sometimes treated by the believing majority.

And so it begins.


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