22 September 2007

Did Anaximander Recycle?

We are familiar with the interpretation of Anaximander as affirming the cyclical character of all natural processes, the result of opposites gaining and losing ground against each other over time--a picture of stability through constant balanced change.

Yet do the reports of Anaximander's views of the natural world paint such a picture? Or does this picture rest solely on the fragment?

Actually Anaximander's most distinctive physical theories seem to be about processes that do not reverse themselves and are not cyclical. He postulates, for instance, that human beings a long time ago were born and lived like fish--with no suggestion that we return to living like fish in the future. Our watery existence was true of us, it seems, solely in an earlier age. He also held that the seas were drying up, and that eventually the entire face of the earth would become dry land.

KRS struggle with this last point:

It is clear that if Anaximander thought that the sea would dry up once and for all this would be a serious betrayal of the principle enunciated in the extant fragment, that all things are punished for their injustice; for land would have encroached on sea without suffering retribution.
Well, the fragment does not say that all things are punished for their injustice; it can, after all, take the interpretation, merely, that any injustice, when it occurs, eventually gets punished.

But in any case, what would be the unpunished injustice? Suppose the world comes into existence with all land submerged under oceans. That would be a gross 'injustice' committed by water against earth. However, over time all the water dries up. At that point earth will have claimed back a portion equal to the unjust portion originally claimed by water (a tisis). Tit-for-tat. Even stevens. A penalty equal to the original injustice. But--nota bene--no need for a new cycle.

KRS continue:
Further, although only the sea is mentioned, it is reasonable to conclude that, since rain was explained as due to the condensation of evaporation, the drying up of the sea would lead to the drying up of the whole earth. But could our whole interpretation of the fragment of an assertion of cosmic stability be wrong; could the drying up of the earth be the prelude to reabsorption into the Indefinite?
I say: 'yes' to both! But KRS disagree. They say that their interpretation of the fragment simply could not be wrong!
This it could not be, since if the earth were destroyed by drought that would implicitly qualify the Indefinite itself as dry and fiery, thus contradicting its very nature; and, in addition, the arguments from the form of the fragment still stand.
Not so: the earth's final perishing from a condition of complete dryness would no more qualify the Indefinite as dry and fiery, than the earth's first origination as inundated with water qualified the Indefinite as watery. The Indefinite, we might imagine, is capable of originating, and being the terminus of destruction for, any of the opposites (that would be just the point).

As to 'the arguments from the form of the fragment' -- that's for another post.

KRS save their theory by attributing to Anaximander a view that we have no evidence that he ever held:
The principle of the fragment could, however, be preserved if the diminution of the sea were only one part of a cyclical process: when the sea is dry a 'great winter' (to use Aristotle's term, which may well be derived from earlier theories) begins, and eventually the other extreme is reached when all the earth is overrun by sea and turns, perhaps, into slime.
A just-so story, it seems to me. And talk about cherry picking! Now a Peripatetic's view has become a very useful source of information about Anaximander!