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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

A History of Greek Philosophy / THE ATOMISTS / ANAXAGORAS


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With respect to the constitution of the universe we have the following: “Origination and destruction are phrases which are generally misunderstood among the Greeks. Nothing really is originated or destroyed; the only processes which actually take place are combination and separation of elements already existing. These elements we are to conceive as having been in a state of chaos at first, infinite in number and infinitely small, forming in their immobility a confused and characterless unity. About this chaos was spread the air and aether, infinite also in the multitude of their particles, and infinitely extended. Before separation commenced there was no clear colour or appearance in anything, whether of moist or dry, of hot or cold, of bright or dark, but only an infinite number of the seeds of things, having concealed in them all manner of forms and colours and savours.”

There is a curious resemblance in this to the opening verses of Genesis, “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep.” Nor is the next step in his philosophy without its resemblance to that in the Biblical record. As summarised by Diogenes Laertius it takes this form, “All things were as one: then cometh Mind, and by division brought all things into order.” “Conceiving,” as Aristotle puts it, “that the original elements of things had no power to generate or develop out of themselves things as they exist, philosophers were forced by the facts themselves to seek the immediate cause of this development. They were unable to believe that fire, or earth, or any such principle was adequate to account for the order and beauty visible in the frame of things; nor did they think it possible to attribute these to mere innate necessity or chance. One (Anaxagoras) observing how in living creatures Mind is the ordering force, declared that in nature also this must be the cause of order and beauty, and in so declaring he seemed, when compared with those before him, as one sober amidst a crowd of babblers.”

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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

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