28. Anaximenes – Air, the Spirit, and the Soul

Here is old Anaximenes of Miletus sitting and pondering the fact that everything comes from air.
Anaximenes (Getty Images)

Anaximenes, the philosopher who theorised that air was the principal element of the universe, may have inadvertently discovered the soul.

He was also known as Anaximenes of Miletus, was one of the three Milesian philosophers along with Thales and Anaximander.1 He was born around 586 BC and died around 526 BC. He is said to have either been a younger colleague of Anaximander or one of his pupils. 

Thales, the first philosopher, asserted that the arche, the fundamental principle of the universe, was water.2 This concept refers to the origin from which everything emerges. (For a more in-depth exploration of the term arche, please refer to Post 26.) Following Thales, his pupil Anaximander sought a nonmaterial solution in the apeiron. The apeiron can be viewed as infinite, indeterminate, indefinite, or boundless. Consequently, it holds the potential to be considered everything or even nothing.

Air as the Fundamental Principle of the Universe

As with many students who glean ideas from their predecessors and come up with something more innovative, Anaximenes agreed with his teacher Anaximander that the arche was infinite, but he did not believe it was indeterminate.3 Rather, like Thales, he agreed that the arche was also an element. But unlike Thales, he chose air rather than water as the arche. He combined some of the ideas of Anaximander and Thales and said that the arche was infinite air. I don’t know for sure, but I would guess that Anaximenes had more of a compromising personality. 

The more intriguing question in all of this is: why did Anaximenes choose air as the arche? Additionally, remember that there were four things that the Greeks considered elements – water, air, fire, and earth. Consequently, these were the four candidates for the arche. At that point, water and air had been chosen as the arche, while fire and earth were still waiting in the wings.

There was a reason Anaximenes chose air as a more formidable candidate (than even water) for the arche, the first principle of all things. To adhere to my theory that Anaximenes possessed a compromising personality, he asserted that air, as an element, had the flexibility to sway in either direction. It could be rarified or condensed, transforming into distinct substances.4 In this way, he was more comprehensive than Thales, who never did explain how water could change states between liquid, solid, and gas.

Anaximenes said that when air became rarified or less condensed, it turned into fire.5 When it became more condensed, it turned into water, and eventually if it became even more condensed, it turned into earth. Anaximenes had an explanation of how his arche, air, could give rise to all of the other elements, while Thales never had such an explanation.

Anaximenes even offered proof. If you open your mouth wide and blow it out, you will notice that the air is warm. Additionally, if you purse your lips and blow them out, you will notice that the air is cool. This observation led him to the idea that by becoming rarified or condensed, air could give rise to the other elements that make up the universe. Specifically, if rarified, it could transform into fire, and if condensed, it could manifest as water and earth.that,

The beauty of Anaximenes’s theory is that his material cause, air, was also eternal, which made it the source of eternal motion in the universe. Aristotle’s general critique of the Presocratic philosophers centered on the observation that they did not adequately account for motion while searching for a first principle of the universe within physical causes.

“Those who were the very first to take up this inquiry, and who maintained that the substrate is one thing, had no misgivings on the subject; but some of those who regard it as one thing, being baffled, as it were, by the inquiry, say that that one thing (and indeed the whole physical world) is immovable in respect not only of generation and destruction (this was a primitive belief and was generally admitted) but of all other change. This belief is peculiar to them.7

-Aristotle, Metaphysics

Anaximenes was an exception to that critique. Not only did he identify air as the infinite material cause of the universe, but he also attributed it as the cause of all motion in the universe, providing a complete package.

Air and the Concept of the Soul

It also eliminated the need for a soul as the cause of motion, like Thales proposed, that animated that material universe.8 Anaximenes noticed that people who were alive were also breathing and that when they stopped breathing, they died. Like Thales, he saw a connection between the microcosm and the macrocosm. He reasoned that air also animated the universe and that without air, the universe would seek to have motion. 

I find it paradoxical that in eliminating the need for a soul, he actually stumbled upon the concept of a soul. The concept of equating air with spirit or soul has a long tradition in the Christian faith. The Latin word spiritus can mean both breath and spirit. E. Michael Jones states in Logos Rising, “Saying that the soul is air is simply another way of saying that it is the spiritual element which informs the body and holds it together, a concept which reached its fullest explication when Aristotle claimed that the soul, which had ceased to be material in any sense, was the form of the body.”9 

Spirit and air have had a close association in Christianity. Jesus said in John 3, “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” 

There is another way in which Anaximenes was closer than Thales in discussing the fundamental principle of the universe. The Presocratics made a break with their predecessors by looking for a material-first principle. But such a radical shift does not mean that there was no sense of continuity with the past. What Thales did have in common with the mythological explanations of the origin of the universe was water. In almost all ancient accounts of creation, including the Hebrew account in Genesis, water played an important role; it was there at the beginning. What separated the Judeo-Christian account from other ancient accounts was that the water, though present, was not the source of the creation. The source of creation was, as Genesis states, “the Spirit of God hovering over the waters.” So in this way, Anaximenes may have been more correct than he realized. 

The Legacy of Anaximenes

For commentary on the Presocratic philosophers, I always like to turn to Nietzsche. Intrigued by them, unlike many modern philosophers, his writings and lectures about them make them come alive in a certain sense. He referred to them as the pre-Platonic philosophers. Notably, there is a book listed in the bibliography below by Nietzsche on this topic.

As mentioned above, Anaximenes explained how air could turn into other elements, something that Thales never provided. In one sense, it could seem like a step backwards from Thales in that air would seem to have less substance than water. But Nietzsche correctly points out that Anaximenes made a giant leap forward precisely because he actually has shown how the ache of air can give rise to other elements. In this way, Anaximenes was a pioneer in positing the idea of development. Below are Nietzsche’s own words to that effect:

“The significance of this principle of thinning and thickening lies in its advancement toward an explanation of the world from mechanical principles – the raw material of materialistic atomistic systems. That, however, is a much later stage that already assumes Heraclitus and Parmenides: atomism immediately after Anaximander would be a miraculous leap! What we have here is the first theory answering the question, How can there be development out of one primal material? With this he ushers in the epochs of Anaxagoras, Empedocles, and Democritus – in other words, the later movement of the natural sciences. In the later period this problematic how is still not brought up at all. Anaximenes is a significant student of nature who, as it appears, rejected the metaphysics of Parmenides and rather to consult his other theories scientifically.”11

Nietzsche makes the thought provoking claim that, of all of the Presocratics, it was Anaximenes that laid the foundation for the modern natural sciences because he chose to development of the elements rather than just positing a cause for all things. Science is not interested in merely describing the what of natural phenomena, but seeks to know how and why. In this way Anaximander moved the ball down the field further than most people realize.

Because he introduced the concept of change, he influenced later philosophers like Heraclitus, whose concepts of universal flux and the unity of opposites were integral to his view of the cosmos. This allowed Heraclitus to unify the theories of Thales and Anaximander with those that of Anaximenes. Using Anaximenes as a starting point, we know that change is observable, but yet like Anaximenes’ aperion was seemingly eternal, and like Thales’ water, it was unified.12 Anaximenes concept of change and development provided the catalyst for a more unified theory.

Consider the following quotes:

“Just as our soul, being air, holds us together, so do breath and air encompass he whole world.”10


“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep; and the Spirit of God was moving over the face of the waters.”

-Genesis 1:1-2

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  1. Graham, Daniel W., “Anaximenes (d. 528 B.C.E.),” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, https://iep.utm.edu/anaximen
  2. Jones, E. Michael, Logos Rising, a History of Ultimate Reality, p. 148, Fidelity Press, South Bend, Indiana, 2020
  3. Finkelberg, Aryeh. “Anaximander’s Conception of the ‘Apeiron.’” Phronesis, vol. 38, no. 3, 1993, pp. 229–256. JSTOR
  4. Grayling, A.C., The History of Philosophy, p. 17, Penguin Press, New York, 2019
  5. Grayling, A.C., The History of Philosophy, pp. 16-17
  6. Graham, Daniel W., “Anaximenes (d. 528 B.C.E.)
  7. Aristotle, The Metaphysics, section 984a, pp. 13-4, translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred, Penguin Books, London, 1998, reprint 2004
  8. Graham, Daniel W., “Anaximenes (d. 528 B.C.E.),” section 1
  9. Jones, E. Michael, Logos Rising, a History of Ultimate Reality, p. 155,  Fidelity Press, South Bend, Indiana, 2020; Lloyd, Geoffrey and “Pneuma between Body and Soul.” The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, vol. 13, 2007, pp. S135–S146. JSTOR
  10. Copleston, Frederick, A History of Philosophy, Book 1, p. 26, Image Press, Cicero, N.Y., 1981as cited in Jones, E. Michael, Logos Rising, a History of Ultimate Reality, p. 155
  11. Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Pre-Platonic Philosophers, translated by Gregory Whitlock, p. 42, University of Illinois Press; Reprint edition, June 5, 2006
  12. Mark, J. J. (2019, September 11). Anaximenes, World History Encyclopedia

Bibliography and Sources:

Aristotle, On the Soul, translated by Fred D. Miller, Jr., Oxford University Press, Oxford World Classics, Oxford, England, 2018

Aristotle, The Metaphysics, translated by Hugh Lawson-Tancred, Penguin Books, London, 1998, reprint 2004

Aristotle, Physics, David Bostock, author, translated by Robin Waterfield, 1st ed., Oxford University Press, Oxford, England, 2008

Brann, Eva, The Logos of Heraclitus,  Paul Dry Books, Philadelphia

Copleston, Frederick, A History of Philosophy, Book 1, Image Press, Cicero, N.Y., 1981

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

Hollis, Christopher, The Noble Castle, Longmans, Green and Co., London, New York, Toronto, 1941

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

Nietzsche, Friedrich, The Pre-Platonic Philosophers, translated by Gregory Whitlock, University of Illinois Press; Reprint edition, June 5, 2006

Waterfield, Robin, The First Philosophers: The Presocratics and Sophists, 1st ed., Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2009

Internet Sources:

Adamson, Peter, Lecture 1 “Infinity and Beyond: Anaximander and Anaximenes, December 23, 2010, History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, King’s College, London, https://historyofphilosophy.net/anaximander-anaximenes

Check out this short video on Anaximenes:

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