The work of the pre-Socratic Ionian philosophers often has been interpreted, over centuries, in a simplistic way throught the prism of a modern reductionist materialism that actually has little to do with the original approach of these ancient thinkers. It has been done, many times, a naive reading of their thesis on the elements of earth, water, air and fire as creative principles of the universe. A classical naturalist aproach considered these authors the remote initiators of the natural sciences, which visions and solutions becamed logically obsolete. These called physical philosophers have made contributions of great merit to geography, astronomy, meteorology, mathematics and biology, certainly, but their production is not limited, in my opinion, to the conventional interpretation throught the prism of current science, as their purpose was not that of making a science detached from the whole of man and his daily experiences. Do not be fooled, they were philosophers in the broadest sense and not 'physical' or scientists who provide some sort of technical solution as we understand now. Their goals were far-reaching.
Angel Cappelletti (1987, 59) points out in this regard that study of each of the pre-Socratic philosophers separately, and an overview of them, impels precisely to break schematic and restrictive conceptualizations of their work and look for something much more fundamental and intuitive: "... what compels us to see in them a true philosophical school are especially common problems centered on the idea of 'physis' and the shared worldview derived from an original intuition. A single, eternal, infinite and active reality which is at once matter, life and spirit, from which all things arise and return, and all are made of it, and by which all become what they are, that is the core of such a worldview ".
As Cappelletti says, these thinkers had a clear universal orientation and wondered for the principle ('arche') or origin of reality, of the whole reality. Their thought concerns the investigation of the origin of reality and being, poses an ontology, seeks a unifying principle, a common element to suggest that all is essentially the same. This concern converges in all cases in humans because despite the apparent subject of investigation is physical or a foreign to person matter, these thinkers assume that all natural phenomena arises from human experience or manifests in it. Thus, natural phenomena, the physical and material world, converges with the phenomena of perception, thought, consciousness (the phenomena of the soul and spirit). There is only one fundamental reality that is at once matter and spirit, which is life, by which all things exist and are what they are. Man, nature and being are either the same single reality, which works by unique (and eternal, infinite and active) principles.
We begin by noting the proposal of one of the initiators, Anaximenes, that the principle of all is air (single reality), an element that is unmeasurable (infinite reality), which precedes all things (eternal reality) and it is also the generator of all things (active reality). In its process of mutation, the air generates the other elements and these are also dissolved in it in their corruption, says Anaximenes. It is the first rise of both material things as mental and spiritual. We can say that the air is God. "Anaximenes established that the air is God, and that it is engendered, immense and infinite, and is always moving" Cicero collected in 'The nature of gods'. Matter, soul and God are manifestations of a single principle or reality.
Tradition places Anaximenes (acme around 546 BC) as a disciple of Thales and colleague and successor of Anaximander. Theophrastus said about him: "The Milesian Anaximenes, son of Eurístrato and colleague of Anaximander, said, as the first, that the underlying nature is infinite, but not undetermined, as Anaximander, but determined, and called it air; Anaximenes differentiates into the particular substances by rarefaction and condensation. By becoming more subtle becomes fire, more condensed becomes wind, then cloud, further condensed water, earth and stone. The other things are produced therefrom. Conceives also eternal its movement by which also generates change." (Simplicio, Physics, 24, 25-26)
Anaximenes sets as 'arche' the air, which is an invisible and infinite principle like the 'apeiron' of Anaximander, but the air of Anaximenes, as the water of Thales, is actually a precise and specific principle, has a physical and concrete existence. (In fact, philosophy of Anaximenes is generally understood as an attempt of synthesis between Thales and Anaximander: the air as 'arche' replaces the water of Thales, but also incorporates properties of undetermined 'apeiron' of Anaximander, as is infinity.)
Why chooses Anaximenes air as 'arche' and not fire, earth or water? Fernandez Cepedal notes that Anaximenes found in the air some empirical properties exercising better than the other elements functions of 'arche'. The air would be better than water the adequate material for the 'logos' of transformations of elements, throught its processes of rarefaction and condensation, because it would manifest very diversely becoming more subtle or, conversely, more condensed: becoming more subtle and slight increases its volume and temperature and is to become something like fire or fire itself. When condenses, on the contrary, decreases in volume and temperature and becomes something colder and stronger as water and earth, according Anaximenes. Are quantitative changes, the increase or decrease in density, what generates resulting qualitative differences. The same applies to the opposites hot and cold which Anaximander extracted forcedly from the 'apeiron' and that Anaximenes says that occur naturally from these same quantitative changes of condensation - rarefaction. "What is compressed and condensed is cold, and the rare and lax is hot" Plutarch says (De primo frigido, 7, 947 F).
This is a parsimonious theory because the whole comes simply from a single element which varies quantitatively. Then there is the special and interesting property of invisibility of air. As Hippolytus (Refutatio. Y 7, 3) says the air "when it is perfect is imperceptible to the eye". The air is infinite and determined, but the determination of the air is much more 'abstract', as it is imperceptible to the senses, than water, because it is invisible (like the 'apeiron'). So much so that the air is usually confused with emptiness (the existence of air as a matter actually was not demonstrated until the time of Empedocles and Anaxagoras).
The invisible air is infinite and "includes the entire cosmos" (Aetius, I 3, 4) because the air is empirically imperceptible and seems limitless and occupy a vast region of the world ('whole') and penetrate everything. Omnipresence of the invisible air is much greater than that of water, is almost complete. It is the perfect 'arche'.
Air is a very subtle element in motion and change, of which we are unaware precisely because of its great subtlety and lightness (plus invisibility), that being omnipresent and touching all the other elements and created things must be affected by or be involved in the continuous movement and changing of the 'whole'. It is not unreasonable to think, therefore, that the air must be the first cause, the dynamic principle that generates the rest of nature, hidden from our senses, which has therefore 'divine' character. "Anaximenes says that the air is God" Aetius and Cicero agree in affirming regarding our philosopher. Categorically.
We have seen elsewhere the explicit identification of air with the divinity that did Orphism, that the gods themselves are originated from air or are made of air, literally. Saint Augustine also makes an interpretation of Anaximenes in this sense when he writes "... Anaxímenes attributed all the causes of things to infinite air and did not deny the gods nor was silent about them, he did not believe, however, that the air was produced by them, but they themselves were born from the air" (City of God, VIII, II).
The 'divine' nature of air is related to the idea that the power of this element extends everywhere and penetrates everything, especially the bodies of human and animals, by carnal and 'solid' they seem. Thus the divinity of outside air, when it enters the body, becomes lifeblood, the soul is the air itself and its properties are the air ones. Thus we can say that soul is breath. Within us is soul and outside is air while spirit or divinity. The soul is the action of air in each individual person, and the spirit or divinity is the action of universal air on humanity.
The air is related to divinity and soul at least from Orpheus and Homer. "As our soul being air unifies us, so the breath (pneuma) or air covers the entire cosmos" (Aetius, I 3, 4). Our soul is air, Anaximenes says, specifically is the inside air that holds us united, and he says, is the same air that covers and bindeth the whole universe. He identifies cosmic air with 'pneuma', which in Greek meant air or breath while soul, just as the term 'psyche'. He considers the air as our soul and as the breath of the world ('the spirit of the world').
The 'aither' acts in the universe as the 'pneuma' in the body. Similarly the 'pneuma' (air-soul) penetrates and remains attached the body, giving life and governing it, the 'aither' (air-spirit) penetrates and remains attached the universe, giving animation and governing it. There are no boundaries between our body and other material objects. All is one. The Milesians regarded the universe as a living being, a kind of huge body. The soul and life are not generated individually from the body, but it receives them from air-spirit of the universe, which is 'God'.
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