Infinite air is the principle, from which the things that are becoming,
and that are, and that shall be, and gods and things divine, all come into being,
and the rest from its products.
~ adapted from Hippolytus quoting Anaximenes of Miletus (585 BCE – 528 BCE)
On Monday night I was driving across town to the Delmar Loop for writer’s group when I took the photographs below. The beauty of the sunset was overwhelming and I tried not to wreck as I used my iPhone to capture the sunset. (All the photos were taken through my bug-splattered, dusty windshield.) The reflection of the sun off the clouds, the shimmering of the evening air, and the smell of early fall, however, could not be captured. Those things were fleeting…and yet eternal, somehow.
Through the ages, we have looked up at the heavens and wondered at the beauty of it all. We have questioned how the sun and the stars got there, why the clouds move across the sky, what causes the sun and moon to rise and set, and what it all means to us down below.
The Ancient Greeks had very sophisticated theories about the natural world and our place in it. A group of pre-Socratic philosophers subscribed to a belief system called material monism which held that all things were created from a single element. One believed all things came from water, another from apeiron which was supposed to be a boundless, regenerating substance. Anaximenes believed all things were made from air.
Although the idea of material monism seems simplistic to us today, these men, and those like Leucippus and his pupil Democritus who came up with the atomic theory some 400 years before Christ, were brilliant and innovative thinkers who were unafraid to remove the gods and other supernatural elements from explanations of the world around them. They wondered at the natural world and, instead of accepting that it was created at the behest of a mysterious being in the sky, sought to understand it on its own terms.
And watching sunsets like the one Monday night, I can see how Anaximenes came up with his idea. Infinite air indeed ….