Anaxagoras was the first among the Greek Philosophers who explicitly mentions an “ordering mind” as an explanation of the order present in nature. This is why we have to analyze his philosophy in some depth.
The philosophy of Anaxagoras1 is in many respects a variant of the philosophy of Empedocles, who was very much influenced by the Ionian philosophers of Nature, especially Heraclitus on the one hand, and Parmenides and Zeno on the other. With Parmenides, Anaxagoras accepts the principle that what is cannot stop existing; on the other hand, being more of a realist, he accepts the obvious fact of change. Thus, he says: “The Hellenes follow a wrong usage in speaking of coming into being and passing away; for nothing comes into being or passes away, but there are mingling and separation of things that are. So they would be right to call coming into being the mixture, and passing away separation” (Fragment 17). Here is an attempt to reconcile the fact of change with the Parmenidean approach. The elements of the world are unchangeable and infinite in number, a departure from Empedocles, and everything has a portion of everything else. “All things were together, infinite both in number and smallness; for the small, too, was infinite. And when all things were together, none of them could be distinguished for their smallness…” (Fragment 1).
Instead of the “four elements” accepted by the Ionians, we have an infinity of qualitatively different “seeds” which are united in everything: “And since these things are so, we must suppose that there are contained many things and all sorts of the things that are uniting, seeds of all things, with all sorts of colours, and shapes and savours. None of the other things is like any other. And these things being so, we must hold that all things are in the whole” (Fragment 4).
The Anaxagorean theory of nature is thoroughly qualitative and infinite. There is an infinite number of qualities in everything and matter is infinitely divisible, therefore, “All things were together infinite, both in number and in smallness” (Fragment 1). To the question: how can we distinguish one thing from another, since “everything is in everything,” Anaxagoras answered by pointing to the predominance of some elements over others in a thing. This variability in proportion between the amount of some “seeds” and the amount of other in the thing enables us to distinguish between them. The “infinitist” element in Anaxagoras' philosophy is not original. Zeno taught infinite divisibility of matter before him. What is original is the infinity of qualities introduced by Anaxagoras into his view of the universe. This notion has an interesting affinity with the two thousand years younger system of Leibniz, where every monad “reflects” the whole universe.
So far Anaxagoras’ thinking moves on the physical level. In his endeavor to explain the change, he did not develop the notion of act/potency. That is why he needed the infinity of “seeds” all of which he conceived as actual; therefore, „Since it is impossible for there to be the least thing, they cannot be separated nor come to be by themselves; but they must be now, just as they were in the beginning, all together” (Fragment 6).
Anaxagoras, as well as Empedocles, distinguished between matter and movement or the moving element. Following Parmenides, he accepted matter as inert. The movement had to come from a separate principle. In order to separate the elements which were all together, and in order to start the movement in the universe, an impulse was necessary and this impulse was supplied by the Mind. Here lies the original contribution of Anaxagorean philosophy. He was the first one to introduce the idea of the Nous or Mind. Aristotle praises him for this: „When, therefore, someone said that mind is present as in animals, so in nature, as the crucial factor accounting for all order and arrangement, he spoke like a sound-minded man, in comparison with his fair-spoken predecessors. We know that Anaxagoras certainly maintained these views.”2 Hegel remarks with admiration: „With Anaxagoras, a light, if still a weak one, begins to dawn because the understanding is now recognized as the principle.”3
Anaxagoras rejected the view that the beginning of the universe and its ordered development could be the outcome of blind chance or blind necessity; such a view was incompatible with the order in nature and its rational arrangement. Such an impulse could come only from a non-mechanical cause, i.e., an Intelligence, from a Mind. He states it very clearly when he. says:
Nous has power over all things, both the greater and smaller, that have the life. And Nous had power over the whole revolution so that it began to revolve in the beginning, but the revolution now extends over a larger space and will extend over a larger one still. And all the things that are mingled together, and separated, and distinguished are all known by Nous. Nous set in order all things, that were to be, and all things that were and are not now, and that are, and this revolution in which now revolve the stars and the sun and the moon and the air and the aether that are separated off. There are many portions of many things, but no thing is altogether separated from nor distinguished from anything else except the Nous. And all Nous is alike, both the greater and the smaller; while nothing else is like anything else, but each single thing is and was most manifestly those things of which it has most in it (Fragment 12).
Two points need elucidation here: the nature of the Nous and its relation to the universe.
The nature of the Anaxagorean Nous has received quite divergent interpretations by different historians of philosophy. We shall not go into technical details, but the fact that different interpretations are possible is indicative of some obscurities present in the idea itself. To begin with: “Nous is infinite and self-ruled, and is mixed with nothing, but is alone, itself by itself” (Fragment 12) Nous is not limited by any boundaries; it is infinite and it is alone “itself by itself.” That spells the ontological independence of the Nous. It is in itself by itself separated from nature in the sense that it transcends the world. The Nous as transcendent over and above nature is “the thinnest of all things and the purest and it has knowledge about everything and the greatest strength” (Fragment 12). The Nous is not differentiated in itself in any way. Thus “… all Nous is alike, both the greater and the smaller” (Fragment 12). It seems certain that the Nous is one in itself and not composed in any way. Anaxagoras seems to have taken some pains to make sure that the Nous not be conceived as material, or as one element among many in the universe. In his own words he explains: “For if it (Nous) were not by itself, but were mixed with anything else, it would partake in all things if it were mixed with any; for in everything there is a portion of everything, as has been said by me in what goes before, and the things mixed with it would hinder it, so that it would have power over nothing in the same way that it has now, being alone by itself'„ (Fragment 12).
Nevertheless, some commentators, e.g., Burnet and Windelband, interpret the Anaxagorean Nous as a material force only. This would make Anaxagoras a materialist. It is true that he speaks of Nous, in a language taken from descriptions of material objects. Words “thinnest,” “great,” “small,” “purest,” are not abstract enough. He also speaks in one fragment as if the Nous were in space: “And Nous, whichever is, is certainly there, where everything is, in the surrounding mass, and in what has been divided with it and separated from it” (Fragment 14). However, this seems to be too narrow and one-sided an interpretation and not a common one. For instance, Father Copleston remarks: “Probably the most satisfactory interpretation is that Anaxagoras in his concept of the spiritual did not succeed in grasping clearly the radical difference between the spiritual and the corporeal.”4
Briefly, the matter can be summarized in the following way. The Nous is infinite, non-material, transcendent in relation to the world, eternal, ontologically independent, self-contained, self-ruled, all-powerful. It is Mind, Intelligence.
A complete picture is shown through an investigation of the kind of relation the Nous has to the world. To that, we shall direct our attention now.
The relation between the Nous and the universe is, despite the fragmentary nature of the texts, described by Anaxagoras quite amply. The Nous, first of all, “has all knowledge about everything and the greatest strength; and Nous has Power over all things, both greater and smaller that have life” (Fragment 12).
Anaxagoras very often uses the word all. The Nous has “all knowledge” and “power over all” things. In different terms, it means that the Nous, is all-embracing in its influence; nothing escapes it. Nothing is outside of its reach. Can we conclude then that the Nous is all-powerful? Anaxagoras uses the word “greatest strength” in the context, and since the Nous, as we have seen, is infinite, the inference to “all-powerful” seems to suggest itself; but we shall not make it. It is enough to note that if we did, there would be little risk of falsifying his thought.
The word “power” used by Anaxagoras is a bit obscure. He does not elaborate this notion further. However, it indicates a real influence, a real action and, as such, a real causing. The Nous, in relation to the universe, is definitely a cause. The nature of this cause consists in starting an ordered movement in the primitive and inert chaos.
And Nous has power over the whole revolution so that it began to revolve in the beginning. And it began to revolve first from a small beginning, but the revolution now extends over a larger space, and will extend over a larger space still. And all the things that are mingled together and separated off and distinguished from are all known by Nous. And Nous set in order all things that were to be, and all things that were and are not now, and that are, and this revolution in which now revolve the stars and the sun and the moon, and the air and the aether that are separated off. And this revolution caused the separating off, and the rare is separated off from the dense, the warm from the cold, the light from the dark, and the dry from the moist. And there are many portions in many things. But no thing is altogether separated off nor distinguished from anything else except the Nous (Fragment 12).
This somewhat lengthy quotation is necessary because it contains the main points related to the question: how is Nous related to the universe?
Commenting on the above passage, it can be said that the Nous is the cause of all movement in the world; “it has power over the whole revolution.” This means that any movement in the world is there because of the Nous. The Nous at the same time is the source and cause of ordered movement: “And Nous set in order all things.” Putting both elements together we can say that, according to Anaxagoras, the Nous is the cause of the whole movement in the ordered world. The Nous is at once the Mover and Orderer of the world. The word “order” here means the opposite of blind, chaotic, unstable, irrational. Anaxagoras stresses the harmony and stability of the celestial region (stars, the sun, the moon, etc.) most, but the Nous also “has power over all things both greater and smaller that have life” (Fragment 12). It is true that he does not elaborate further on this point, but he is careful to assert that nothing is without the influence of the Nous. It is important to stress that the Nous, which sets the inert matter in motion, by this same action also ordered it. The moving is identical with ordering and all movement, therefore, is ordered because it originates from the Nous. Nous is present in all things including animals, men and all. “And Nous, whichever is, is certainly there where everything else is, in the surrounding mass, and in what has been united with it and separated off from it” (Fragment 14).
The relation of the Nous to matter (primeval chaos) can be summarized in the following points. The Nous is transcendent to it, but also immanently active in it. The transcendence was sufficiently seen already, and the immanence is obvious from the passage discussed above. The Nous originates and causes movement in the material world; it orders the world; it is in the world; it determines the regularity in everything; it changes inert chaos into a dynamic cosmos. It is the cause and principle which brings lawful, rational, stable order out of the disorder of the primitive chaos.
It is safe to say that, although not elaborated enough, Anaxagoras proposed the rudiments of the teleological view of nature. His main contribution consists in introducing into Greek philosophy transcendent Mind as a real active factor in cosmology. Nobody had done it before him. The rationality and harmony of the universe had indeed been observed by the Greek thinkers before, e.g., Heraclitus, but no one had developed the notion of a Transcendent Mind as explicitly as Anaxagoras.
The teleological approach represented by Anaxagoras was subject nevertheless to very serious limitations. The principal limitation is a lack of precision both in language and in deeper insight. Anaxagoras, in spite of all he said, did not elaborate his system on a metaphysical level with enough clarity. The idea of Nous is not fully developed; it is appealed to only insofar as it is necessary for explaining movement and order in the world. It certainly is not portrayed as personal. Cosmic elements, celestial bodies, even the whole world was believed to have a soul. Nor is the Nous a creator of the world in the sense of cause of its total being. The primeval “seeds” are eternal or co-eternal with the Nous.
A more serious limitation is that Anaxagoras seems to have limited the action of the Nous to the first moving impulse after which the rest of the process develops mechanically by itself. “And Nous had power over the whole revolution so that it began to revolve in the beginning. And it began to revolve first from a small beginning, but the revolution now extends over a larger space, and will extend over a larger still” (Fragment 14). “And when Nous began to move things, separating off took place from all that was moved and as much as Nous set in motion was all separated. And as things were set in motion and separated, the revolution caused them to be separated much more” (Fragment 14).
Thus, the Nous gave only the first impulse of ordered motion, although Anaxagoras did suggest that this impulse once given spreads itself more and more. But how? What governs this spreading? Is it mechanical? To these and similar questions, Anaxagoras did not give any answers. Thus, Aristotle, who praised him for introducing the Nous into the explanation of nature, seems to be justified when he says: “Anaxagoras introduces mind to create the world mechanically, as a god is introduced on the stage in a play. When he is confronted with the difficulty of explaining why a thing is of necessity, he drags the mind in sideways; in other explanations, however, he uses everything rather than the mind to account for the facts.”5 A similar complaint is put by Plato into the mouth of Socrates: “I once heard a man reading a book, as he said, of Anaxagoras, and saying it was MIND that ordered the world and was the cause of all things. I was delighted to hear of this cause, and I thought he really was right. But my extravagant expectations were all dashed to the ground when I went on and found that the man made no use of MIND at all. He ascribed no causal power whatever to it in the ordering of things, but to airs, and aethers, and waters and a host of other strange things.”6
It is difficult to quarrel with Aristotle and Socrates, both of whom probably had access to far more material and consequently had an adequate insight into the philosophy of Anaxagoras than we have today. Nevertheless, and in spite of all its limitations, the Anaxagorean approach represents a significant and original contribution on the level of the metaphysical explanation in Greek cosmology. We repeat that the introduction of a transcendent mind over and above nature as a principle of movement and order is certainly a great step forward and a crucial beginning in the introduction of the idea of final causes into the philosophy of the cosmos in the West.
There is very little ground for assuming that Anaxagoras directed much attention to the explanation of living organisms, the adaptation of organs and their ends, or the system of nature as beneficent to man. He does not develop any genuine idea of purpose, or end, as a good to be attained, and that is why it is difficult to know whether he had such a notion of finality at all. In the extant fragments, none of those notions exists. From the above-mentioned remarks by Aristotle and Socrates, it may be assumed that he quite often explained things mechanically. The Nous is nowhere mentioned as acting to an end, neither is there any overall end assigned to the cosmos. None of the basic elements of his philosophy are really elaborated in detail as a thorough metaphysical analysis would require. The distance between his position and of that adapted by Aristotle or Plato, not to mention Aquinas is still immense. Nevertheless, the significance of Anaxagoras, as the philosopher who pointed to the necessity to the necessity of accepting a transcendent Mind, as a necessary element in the cosmological explanation of the world and the order found in it, on the metaphysical level, remains indisputable. In the light of all that has just been pointed out, it is extremely difficult to agree with Burnet when he sees the main contribution of Anaxagoras as his theory of substance!7 Hegel, already quoted in this paper, seemed to be closer to truth when he said: “With Anaxagoras, the light, if still a weak one, begins to dawn, because understanding is now recognized as the principle.”