On Diogenes Laertius’s Biography of Anaxagoras

Per Diogenes Laertius, Anaxagoras was a native of Clazomenae, an Ionian city near Smyrna in present-day Turkey. He was a student of Anaximenes. He descended from a noble family and lived off an inheritance. He focused his energies on studying nature, never troubling himself with the affairs of the city. He was said to have been twenty years old when Xerxes crossed the ocean to invade Greece in 480 BC with the construction of a pontoon bridge.

Anaxagoras, in his ‘pleasing and lofty’ treatise, argues that “All things were together; then mind came and set them in order.” In fact Anaxagoras was nicknamed “Nous” for his defense of mind as separate from matter. Latter-day theologians would adopt and refashion this “cosmic mind” to fit their narrative.

Anaxagoras was also something of an atomist (though Democritus is credited with being the original atomist). Anaxagoras believed the cosmos was filled with tiny homogeneous particles -in the same way that gold can be broken down into tiny specks of dust. He posited other theories of light, gravity, weather, and celestial objects. Apparently the playwright Euripides was a student of Anaxagoras, hence why many of his plays feature speculations about nature and the gods. Anaxagoras was later indicted for impiety by the Athenians and he was subsequently exiled. His close association with the rising demagogue, Pericles, did not help his case with the Athenian aristocracy. He died in the city of Lampsacus. Diogenes suggests Anaxagoras died around 423 BC during the eighty-eighth Olympiad.

For this reading I used the ‘Compact Edition’ of the Lives of the Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertes translated by Pamela Mensch and edited by James Miller.

In the preface to the Compact Edition the editors note: “Our common goal has been to make Lives as accessible as possible to English-speaking readers -and at the same time to convey some of the essential strangeness of what philosophy once was, in hopes that readers may wonder anew at what philosophy might yet become” (xiii).

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