47. Anaxagoras – Mind as the Origin of the Universe

Anaxagoras' theory of mind put Athens on the map.
Anaxagoras, by the Spanish painter Jusepe de Ribera, Baroque style, 1636

According to the Roman historian Valerius Maximus, when Anaxagoras returned to his hometown of Clazomenae, Ionia after an extended journey abroad, he saw that his estate had been abandoned. Rather than become despondent as many people would, he simply said, “Unless they had perished, I would not have been saved.”1

As the story goes, after losing everything, he spent the rest of his life in pursuit of wisdom, thus the story of how Anaxagoras became a philosopher. Valerius Maximus comments:

“For if he had given his time to the cultivation of his property rather than of his mind, he would have remained master of domestic things, among the household gods, and would not have returned to them the great Anaxagoras.”2

After this, he moved to Athens, Greece. Quite by accident, as I write this post in the year 2021, it is the 2500th anniversary of Anaxagoras moving from Ionia to Athens.3

Why is this important? Simply because it was Anaxagoras who put Athens on the philosophical map, eventually making it the philosophical capital of the world. Prior to this, Athens had done little in terms of philosophy or scientific inquiry. He paved the way for the golden age of philosophy characterized by heavyweights like Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. And according to science historian George Sarton, Anaxagoras, the first Presocratic philosopher to reside in Athens, “introduced the scientific spirit into Athens.”

Anaxagoras was a trailblazer. He was so obsessed with philosophical ideas that he did not have time to get involved with politics. Because of this, someone once accused him of having no affection for his country. Anaxagoras did not miss a beat as he immediately quipped, “But I do have the greatest affection for my country,” as he pointed upward toward Heaven.4

Anaxagoras was born around 500 B.C.5 According to biographer Diogenes Laertius, when he was 20, the Persian king Xerxes invaded Ionia. He then moved to Athens and started studying philosophy.6 If this chronology is true, then it could very well be that he lost his estate during the invasion.

Ten years after he arrived in Athens, 470 B.C., Socrates was born. When Anaxagoras died around 428 B.C., Socrates was 42 years old. Since they were both in Athens together, does that mean that Anaxagoras influenced Socrates?

The Anaxagoras-Socrates Connection

There is no evidence that Anaxagoras influenced Socrates directly, but it is interesting to ponder the fact that if they both lived in Athens concurrently for 42 years, then surely they must have crossed paths or maybe they even knew each other. Imagine a 30-year-old Anaxagoras walking down the street and seeing a toddler Socrates interrogating his parents. Or imagine a 50-year-old Anaxagoras talking with a 20-year-old Socrates in the Agora over some famous Thasos wine.

Even though there is no evidence of a direct connection between the two, if we could find a direct connection, we would have continuity between the Presocratics and the triumvirate of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. This potential connection to Socrates and his philosophy may be the reasons why he has piqued people’s interest over the years and why there is more artwork depicting him than other Presocratics. Below is an example of a painting of Anaxagoras by an artist who needed to take a few more painting lessons.

Anaxagoras lived in the same time and place as Socrates, but we don't know if they influenced one another per se.
This is part of a fresco in the portico of the National University of Athens

Anaxagoras Develops New Philosophical Ideas

It didn’t take much time after young Anaxagoras moved to Athens that he set up shop as a philosopher. His giftedness was evident immediately. Prior to Anaxagoras, the talented men of Athens devoted themselves primarily to statecraft and war. Philosophy was something new.

Of course, the Athenians knew about philosophy for a while. They had the Milesian philosophers to the east in Ionia, and the Pythagoreans and Elean philosophers to the west in Southern Italy. It had already been 100 years since the birth of philosophy in Ionia and the appearance of the first philosopher, Thales, and his younger cohort, Anaximander. They, along with the third Milesian philosopher, Anaximenes, entirely changed the way the natural world was viewed.7

The ideas of the Ionian philosophers greatly differed from the Elean philosophers in the west as represented by Parmenides. Even though Anaxagoras’ ideas were more in line with the Ionians, most likely since he was an Ionian, he expanded on their ideas of the natural world in order to address the issues brought up by Parmenides.8 In doing so, he developed an entirely new and innovative metaphysical approach to understanding the cosmos.

Anaxagoras and Archelaus

As Anaxagoras expounded his ideas to the people of Athens, he naturally started attracting students. Not only were his ideas new and interesting, but the practice of philosophy itself was a novelty there still. In reality, Anaxagoras was not just introducing philosophy to Athens, but was starting a revolution of ideas that would eventually land him in trouble.

These new ideas resonated in one student in particular: Archelaus. Galen, the second-century A.D. Greek physician and philosopher, said that Anaxagoras “was the first to stimulate Archelaus the Athenian to practice philosophy.”9 Diogenes stated that he was either from Miletus or Athens10, but regardless of his origins, he was an Athenian when he met Anaxagoras.

Anaxagoras taught Archelaus natural philosophy – today we would call it “science” – which was the wheelhouse of the Presocratics. In this way, Archelaus became familiar not only with Milesian and Elean philosophy, but also, and most importantly, Anaxagoras’ innovations of those two schools of thought.

With all that being said, Archelaus is really just a footnote in the history of philosophy; not much is known or has been written about him. That being the case, why even discuss his life? The reason Archelaus is so important is because this obscure student of Anaxagoras became the teacher of Socrates, thus becoming the link between the Presocratics and Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

If you read my earlier posts on Socrates, you will see that he revolutionized philosophy. Archelaus, then, represents the transition from one era of philosophy to another. Diogenes states the following about Anaxagoras:

“…natural philosophy terminated with him [Anaxagoras], as Socrates introduced ethical philosophy.” 11

Anaxagoras served as a transition point between the Presocratic philosophers and the heavyweights we all know.

The Problem of the One and the Many

Anaxagoras was caught philosophically, as well as geographically, between two philosophical schools of thought – the Milesians to the east in Ionia and the Eleatics to the west in Southern Italy.

The Milesians were the first to attempt to solve the fundamental philosophical problem of the One and the Many by stating that there was an archè, or a universal cause of all things. According to philosopher-historian William Guthrie, “The notions of beginning, origin, governing principle and cause were closely united in the single word archè.”12 Potential candidates for the archè were water, air, fire, and even the apeiron, or infinity. Pythagoras, in Southern Italy, proposed number as the universal origin of all things.

Then came Parmenides and his sidekick, Zeno of Elea. Parmenides, using elaborate reasoning, proposed that Being was the universal commonality of all things. Zeno put the final nail in the coffin of Milesian thinking by giving iron-clad proofs of Parmenides’ ideas with his paradoxes (you can read more in my two posts here: Zeno’s Paradoxes 1 and Zeno’s Paradoxes 2). The only problem was that if Parmenides were correct, then all is one and change is impossible – diversity and even motion are impossible and reality is just an illusion.

On the other hand, the Milesians gave a well-reasoned account of diversity and motion with their concept of the archè, but their account of the unity of all things was the weak point of their theories. What happens to the archè as it is transformed into the individual things of the universe? Does it cease being the archè and if so, how can one account for unity? If it retains its original characteristics of water, air, fire, etc., then how can diversity be possible? According to the Milesian school of thought, the universe has a real but nonsensical diversity.

Anaxagoras, Student of Anaximenes

At the point where Anaxagoras came onto the scene, it appeared that Parmenides had a stronger argument that was impossible to refute. Anaxagoras was Ionian by birth so, if anything, he favored the Milesian school. Nevertheless, he knew that its arguments were weak and that they could not and had not successfully answered Parmenides.

Rather than discard Milesian thinking altogether, he simply expanded upon it, going further than his predecessors in his attempt to refute Parmenides.13 Of course, like all thoughts, even novel ones, they never really come out of a vacuum but can usually be traced to other influences. Of the three Milesian philosophers – Thales, Anaximander, and Anaximenes – Anaxagoras was a student of Anaximenes.

Why is this important? Simply because unlike Thales and Anaximander, who had proposed archès that were a part of the physical world such as water and air respectively, Anaximenes had proposed an abstract entity that was not a part of the physical world. He proposed the apeiron, also known as infinity or boundlessness.

This made more sense than a mere physical explanation of the archè. After all, it seems that the entity providing unity would have to have the essential characteristic of standing outside14 the particular domain to which it is providing unity in order to provide the unity in the first place. Any mere physical candidate for the archè, as most of the Milesians suggested, would be too interwoven with the physical world as to provide any sense of unity.

The problem also is that that entity would have to somehow be also involved in the domain in order to affect it. But how can such an entity be both transcendent and immanent? Parmenides stated that this was impossible. Such an entity could only be transcendent, making the physical world an illusion. For Parmenides, this was Being, but as soon as Being started making distinctions, it would lose its sense of being, destroying all unity.

Anaxagoras’ Solution – Indestructible Material Particles

Even before Parmenides, Anaxagoras’ teacher Anaximenes knew intuitively that the archè had to be more of an abstract than physical entity, although his reasoning was not as well thought out as that of Parmenides. This is why the apeiron of Anaximenes is more of a nebulous concept and is not as well-defined as Parmenides’ principle of Being. It is as if Anaximenes was stating that the unifying principle could not be a physical entity, but he did not know what it could actually be. Nevertheless, Anaximenes’ ideas primed the pump for Anaxagoras to start thinking outside the box in order to answer Parmenides’ difficult dilemma.

Anaxagoras did not seek to upend Parmenides’ notion of Being and replace it with something else. Rather, he accepted this idea that Being is unchangeable, that it neither comes into existence nor passes away.15 He states in Fragment 17:

“The Hellenes do not understand rightly coming into being and passing away, for nothing comes into being nor passes away, but there is a mingling and a separation of things which are” (i.e., persist).16

If matter is indestructible and Being unchangeable, how do we account for perceived changes in reality? Anaxagoras explains this by “a mingling and separation of things which are.” According to Anaxagoras, there are indestructible material particles, “the mingling of which forms particles and the separation of which explains the passing away of objects.”17

The Origins of the Cosmos

So Anaxagoras’ “Genesis account” would read something like this: “In the beginning, there were material particles. These particles were indestructible and indivisible.” He goes on to say in Fragment 1:

“All things were together, infinite both in number and in smallness, for the small too was infinite. And, when all things were together, none of them could be distinguished for their smallness.”

And in Fragment 4b, he writes:

“But before they were separated off, when all things were together, not even was any color distinguishable; for the mixture of all things prevented it—of the moist and the dry; and the warm and the cold, and the light and the dark, and of much earth that was in it, and of a multitude of innumerable seeds in no way like each, other. For none of the other things either is like any other. And these things being so, we must hold that all things are in the whole.”

All these particles were mixed together and indistinguishable because they were too small. There were particles of gold, hair, dirt, and flesh, etc. Particles of all things were represented. Eventually, like particles were brought together with other like particles to make what we experience as specific objects. In other words, if a specific object has a preponderance of gold particles, then we will know that object as gold. The same goes for all other types of objects.

Even with that being the case, according to Anaxagoras, every type of object contains every type of particle. The only difference is that one type of object predominates. For example, a gold object contains particles of flesh, dirt, hair, etc. He states in Fragment 11, “in everything there is a portion of everything.” In this way, he could explain change, for he says in Fragment 10, otherwise “How can hair come from what is not hair, or flesh from what is not flesh?” There could be no change if an object of gold, for example, contained only gold particles.

Thus Anaxagoras posited his particle theory in order to uphold Parmenides’ doctrine of Being while at the same time developing a realist perspective of change. In this way, the world experienced by the senses is not an illusory world but a real one.18 Later, Aristotle would try to solve this same problem by making a distinction between potency and act.

Anaxagoras said that every object contains particles of other things.
Anaxagoras portrayed as a medieval scholar in the Nuremberg Chronicle

Motion and Separation

After reading the above account, you may be wondering how everything got from the “primordial soup” of indistinguishable, indivisible particles to the reality that we see today. In order for this to occur, two things had to be necessary: motion and separation.

Imagine this unity of frozen particles just sitting motionless in one big conglomerate. All at once, this frozen mass begins to rotate. It gathers speed as it rotates faster and faster. It reaches speeds many times faster than any speed found among humans. Eventually, the centrifugal force causes a separation of the particles into their various component parts. Through this separation, we get a distinction of objects that we are familiar with. Below I have combined Fragments 9 and 17, which describe this creation process:

“. . . as these things revolve and are separated off by the force and swiftness. And the swiftness makes the force. Their swiftness is not like the swiftness of any of the things that are now among men, but in every way many times as swift. From these as they are separated off earth is solidified; for from mists water is separated off, and from water earth. From the earth stones are solidified by the cold, and these rush outwards more than water.”

Anaxagoras and Mind

The above creation account is fairly traditional, and up until this point, Anaxagoras had done nothing to distinguish himself from other ancient philosophers.19 What set him apart from his predecessors is that he posited a causal explanation for creation. Unlike Heraclitus’ Logos that mediated the continual rebirth and destruction of the universe, Anaxagoras posited a definite beginning and, more importantly, a primal cause or initiator of that beginning.

Anaxagoras stated that the cause or initiator of creation was the Nous or Mind. The Mind caused the initial rotation and subsequent separation of the primeval material particles. This novel concept prompted Aristotle to say this about Anaxagoras:

“[He] stood out like a sober man from the random talkers that had preceded him….”

Metaphysics A 3, 984 b 15-18

According to Fragment 13:

“And when Mind began to move things, separating off took place from all that was moved, and so much as Mind set in motion was separated. And as things were set in motion and separated, the revolution caused them to be separated much more.”

This idea for and explanation of the movement of the cosmos made Anaxagoras unique, separating him from all the other Presocratics and greatly advancing philosophical and cosmological thought. It was this concept which Aristotle adopted and developed further when he realized that the universe had to have an “unmoved mover” who set it in motion at the beginning.20

The idea of motion was very important to the Greeks. Motion was equated to life, which is why the Greeks considered it a fundamental concept. Without motion, nothing was possible. Anaxagoras’ ingenious breakthrough came about by asking this simple question: What was the initial cause of motion in the universe?

The Nature of Mind

What is Mind? Is it a sentient being or a blind mechanistic force? In Fragment 12, Anaxagoras talks about the nature of the Nous:

“All other things partake in a portion of everything, while Mind is infinite and self-ruled, and is mixed with nothing, but is alone itself by itself. For if it 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. For it is the thinnest of all things and the purest, and it has all knowledge about everything and the greatest strength; and Mind has power over all things, both greater and smaller, that have life. And Mind 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. And all the things that are mingled together and separated off and distinguished are all known by Mind. And Mind 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 ether that are separated off.

In the above passage, Anaxagoras attributes divine attributes to the Mind. He describes the Mind as infinite, sovereign (“self-ruled”), pure (“mixed with nothing”), omniscient (“knowledge about everything”), and omnipotent (“the greatest strength”). Anaxagoras is describing a transcendent entity when he states that the Mind “is alone by itself.” Also, he explains that if the Mind were not alone but mixed with anything else, then the things it is mixed with would hinder it so “it would have power over nothing.” In other words, the Mind must be transcendent in order to carry out its role as the first mover. The divinity that Anaxagoras is describing is a far cry from the fickle, anthropomorphic Olympian gods of the superstitious Homeric age.

Oddly enough, in Fragment 14 he seems to contradict the above when he describes a type of immanence with the creation:

“And Mind, which ever 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.”

Also, in Fragment 12, Anaxagoras assigns physical attributes to the Mind when he says “for it is the thinnest of all things.” As hard as he tries to envision a transcendent divine entity, he still attributes a physical nature to it. But yet, by saying that it is the thinnest of all things, he is trying to say that even though the first mover is part of the physical creation, it is a more rarified form.

Transcendence and Immanence

In previous posts like the one on Philo of Alexandria, I discussed this tension between the concept of immanence and transcendence. We are seeing the beginnings of this tension here that later philosophers such as Plato and Aristotle, not to mention various Christian theologians, would wrestle with and develop.

Anaxagoras realized that there must be a first mover that was above and separate from the created order. Like Aristotle would later say, the first mover must be outside of the created order for it to affect change. But a prime mover that was too separated or transcendent would be too detached to effect change. Therein lies the tension between transcendence and immanence.

The Legacy of Anaxagoras

In Phaedo, Socrates recounts his delight on learning that Anaxagoras said that the Mind directs and is the cause of all things:

“I was delighted with this cause and it seemed to me good, in a way, that Mind should be the cause of all. I thought that if this were so, the directing Mind would direct everything and arrange each thing in the way that was best. As I reflected on this subject I was glad to think that I found in Anaxagoras a teacher about the cause of things after my own heart.”

Phaedo 97 c-e

But as Socrates read, he became disillusioned with Anaxagoras’ theory of Mind:

“This wonderful hope was dashed as I went on reading and saw that man made no use of Mind, nor gave it any responsibility.”

Phaedo 98 b-c

Likewise, the same Aristotle who said that Anaxagoras stood head and shoulders above his peers also became disillusioned. He stated:

“Anaxagoras uses Mind as a deux ex machina to account for the formation of the world; and whenever he is at a loss to explain why anything necessarily is, he drags it in. But in other causes he makes anything rather than Mind the cause.”

-Metaphysics, A 4. 985 a 18-21

At first, Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were delighted that Anaxagoras discovered the efficient cause of the universe, but they were disappointed in that he did not explain the purpose of the universe, the final cause. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle were highly interested in teleology.21 They weren’t content in knowing what or how; they wanted to know why. This is something that Anaxagoras was silent on.

Anaxagoras broke new ground in Athens with his concept of the mind. He provided movement at the origin of the universe, but he did fall short on answering the why question. He introduced this new concept, but left the development of that for future generations.

Toward the end of his life, he was charged with impiety, similar to Socrates, and made to stand trial. Part of what prompted these charges was his statement that the stars were fiery rocks and the sun was made of molten metal, thus denying their deity. Anaxagoras eventually fled from Athens to Lampsacus, where he died a few years later. The inscription on his grave read, “Here Anaxagoras, who in his quest of truth scaled heaven itself, is laid to rest.”

The best way to sum up Anaxagoras’ legacy is through this quote from Copelston:

“Nevertheless, though he failed to make full use of this principle (Mind), Anaxagoras must be credited with the introduction into Greek philosophy of a principle possessed of the greatest importance, that was to bear splendid fruit in the future.”22

Consider the following quote from St. Paul:

“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.”

– Romans 1:20

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The first problem leads to the exclusion of motion from the realm of rational investigation in Parmenides. The second was to Zeno’s paradoxes of motion. Methodological and logical developments reacting to these puzzles are shown to be present implicitly in the atomist. Plato, on the other hand, employs mathematical structures to make motion intelligible, and he does so explicitly. With Aristotle we finally see the first outline of the fundamental framework with which we conceptualize motion today.”

Footnotes and Endnotes:

  1. Anaxagoras of Clazomenae: Fragments and Testimonia : a text and translation with notes and essays. University of Toronto Press. 2007. ISBN97808082093257, as quoted from Wikipedia contributors. “Anaxagoras.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Siegfried, Tom, “2,500 years ago, the philosopher Anaxagoras brought science’s spirit to Athens,” Science News, May 4, 2021.
  4. Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Translated by C.D. Yonge, p.55, Digireads.com Publishing, 2020
  5. Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Anaxagoras”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 19 Jun. 2017, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Anaxagoras.
  6. Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Translated by C.D. Yonge, p.55, Digireads.com Publishing, 2020
  7. Siegfried, Tom, “2,500 years ago, the philosopher Anaxagoras brought science’s spirit to Athens
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Translated by C.D. Yonge, p.58
  11. Ibid.
  12. Siegfried, Tom, “2,500 years ago, the philosopher Anaxagoras brought science’s spirit to Athens
  13. Ibid.
  14. Of course, when I say “outside” the particular domain, I am using this concept rather anachronistically, for these ancient philosophers had no concept of anything existing outside of the universe. It was not in their thinking. Yet they knew that a unifying entity had to have some sort of transcendent nature in order for unity to exist. Even before Parmenides, Anaximander knew this, intuitively more than propositionally, which is why he moved toward abstractness in an attempt to obtain transcendence. Because of this, I view him as one of the more progressive Milesians.
  15. Copleston, S.J., Frederick, A History of Philosophy, Book One, pp. 66-67, An Image Book published by Doubleday, New York, 1985
  16. Ibid.
  17. Ibid.
  18. Copleston, S.J., Frederick, A History of Philosophy, Book One, p. 68
  19. Patzia, Michael, “Anaxagoras,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  20. In Greek cosmology, matter is eternal and uncreated and was there in the beginning. The Greeks, as well as all ancient cultures, did not have a concept of matter created from nothing. This idea was unique to the the Hebrew and later Christian cosmology.
  21. Patzia, Michael, “Anaxagoras,” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy
  22. Copleston, S.J., Frederick, A History of Philosophy, Book One, p.71


Anaxagoras, Fragments of Anaxagoras, translated by John Burnet, Taylor Anderson, editor, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform (December 10, 2017)

Copleston, S.J., Frederick, A History of Philosophy, Book One, An Image Book published by Doubleday, New York, 1985

Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, translated by Pamela Mensch, edited by James Miller, Oxford University Press, Oxford. 2018

Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers, translated by C.D. Yonge, Digireads.com Publishing, 2020

The First Philosophers, translated and commentary by Robin Waterfield, Oxford University Press, New York, 2000

Grayling, A.C., The History of Philosophy, Penguin Press, New York, 2019

Maximus, Valerius, Memorable Deeds and Sayings: A Thousand Tales from Ancient Rome, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., Cambridge, UK ed. edition (March 1, 2004)

Jones, E. Michael, Logos Rising, A History of Ultimate Reality, Fidelity Press, South Bend Indiana, 2020

Plato, Five Dialogues, Translated by G.M.A. Grube, Hackett Publishing Company, Inc., Indianapolis/Cambridge, 2002

Sattler, Barbara M., The Concept of Motion in Ancient Greek Thought New Edition, Cambridge University Press; New edition (November 4, 2021)

Internet Resource:

Adamson, Peter, “Mind over Mixture, Anaxagoras,” History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, King’s College, London, January 16. 2011

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  1. I have found a lot of similarities between the Greeks and Eastern philosophy, but in scholarship I have not found much written about it. I think that his is an area ripe for examination. Another area is the Persian influence in Asia minor and how that may have caused a lot of cross-pollination, or at least Persian influence of Greek philosophy. Also, thank you for your interesting comment.

  2. Anaxagoras and Buddha Shakyamuni were contemporaries, or near contemporaries, as Anaxagoras may have been born around 100 years earlier than the Buddha. Is it possible that the Buddha Shakyamuni could have heard of Anaxagoras ‘Mind as First Cause Theory’? Is it possible that the Buddha could have had knowledge of Greek philosophy of the time?