Friday, August 2, 2019

On the First Greek Treatise on Philosophy

Anaximander’s Concerning Nature is regarded as the first treatise on philosophy by a Greek author. The book is lost—a mere dozen words from it have survived, but the book might have been read by Plato and Aristotle and their successors. It seems likely that the book was available in the library of Lyceum during the time of Aristotle and his successor Theophrastus. According to some accounts, in second century BCE, Apollodorus of Athens had discovered a copy of Anaximander’s Concerning Nature, probably in the famous library of Alexandria. In his book The Presocratic Philosophers, Jonathan Barnes comments on the nature and scope of Anaximander’s book:

"It was vast: there was a cosmogony, or account of the original formation of the universe; a history of the earth and the heavenly bodies; an account of the development of living organisms; descriptions of natural phenomena of every sort, and infant studies of astronomy, meteorology and biology; and a geography illustrated by a celebrated mappa mundi. Nature, phusis, embraces every object of experience and every subject of rational inquiry except the productions of human contrivance; and the Presocratic systems of thought were generally spoken of as accounts Concerning Nature (Peri Phuseôs). An account concerning nature would begin with cosmogony, and proceed to a description of the celestial universe. It would investigate the development of the earth, of terrestrial life, and of the human animal; it would describe the clouds, the rains, and the winds, the rocky structure of the land, and the salt sea. It would rise from the inorganic to the organic, treating of topics botanical and zoological; it would look at the typology of species and the anatomy of individuals. It would turn to the mind, and study the psychology of sensation and action; and it would ask about the extent and the nature of human knowledge, and about the proper place of man in the natural world. An account Peri Phuseôs would, in brief, encompass all science and all philosophy.

"Thales, we may imagine, first indicated that vast field of intellectual endeavour. Anaximander was the first to map it out; and his chart, with a few additions and modifications, determined the range and aspirations of almost all subsequent thought. Anaximenes, Xenophanes, and even Heraclitus; Empedocles and Anaxagoras and the Atomists: all worked and wrote in the grand tradition of Anaximander: other men are specialists, their specialism was omniscience."

The fragment from Anaximander’s book, consisting of about a dozen words, that has come down to us, in a text by the Aristotelian scholar Simplicius, who came in the sixth century AD, is probably one of the most discussed phrases in the history of philosophy.

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