Book Review: Anaximander By Carlo Rovelli


I first encountered Anaximander in a course I took in Ancient Greek philosophy, and I didn’t have the sense to be impressed.  Only four brief lines of his work survive, and to me they were utterly mysterious:

All things originate from one another, and vanish into one another according to necessity; they give to each other justice and recompense for injustice in conformity with the order of Time.

Rovelli, Carlo. Anaximander (p. 79). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Neither my textbook nor my professor pointed out that these rather mysterious lines contain a profound idea – the notion of natural law, the idea that the phenomena of nature are due not to the whims of this god or that, but the operation in time of natural laws, or necessity.

This was a profound innovation.  All previous explanations of rain, storms, thunder, lightning and other phenomena seem to have attributed them to the actions of gods and spirits.  Anaximander’s idea thus began a long war between the partisans of science and those of various gods, a war in which all the casualties were on the side of science: Anaxagoras was driven from Athens, Socrates was executed for allegedly teaching Anaximander’s theory of evaporation and rain, Hypatia murdered and her great library in Alexandria burned by a Christian mob, Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake, Galileo imprisoned.  2600 years later, the war goes on, albeit at a less furious pace.

I like the way Rovelli sets the scene for Anaximander, detailing the peoples of the time and their goings on, the ten millennia of city existence that proceeded that time, the math accomplishments of Egypt and Babylon, and in a grim prefiguring of later history:

Josiah of the House of David reigned over Jerusalem. With the Assyrian Empire weakened and Babylonia not yet restored to full power, he took advantage of international instability to reaffirm Jerusalem’s pride by imposing exclusive worship of the single God, Yahweh. He destroyed all the ritual objects of other gods (such as Baal and Astarte), tore down their temples, massacred their living priests, and exhumed and burned upon their altars the bones of the dead priests,[3] establishing a mode of behavior toward other religions that would later characterize triumphant monotheism.

Rovelli, Carlo. Anaximander (pp. 2-3). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Rovelli is not a big fan of religion. Religion, it seems, has always also resented the intrusion of naturalistic explanations into what was its domain.  Two centuries after Anaximander, Aristophanes’ play, The Clouds, mocked Socrates for allegedly holding Anaximander’s views of wind, rain, and lightning to the disrespect of Zeus and other gods.  Later, these same charges were used in Socrates’s trial which led to his execution by Athens.

So what was the special sauce that set Anaximander, Ptolemy, Newton and Einstein on a more fruitful path?

Even if the actual explanations proposed by Anaximander were mistaken, the very fact of his proposing research into natural causes and explanations for atmospheric phenomena marks the birth of scientific inquiry in the world. But Anaximander’s explanations are not all mistaken. On the contrary, most are surprisingly accurate. The origin of rainwater is indeed the evaporation of water on Earth caused by the heat of the sun. The key physical event in an earthquake is indeed the fracturing of the earth. Life did indeed begin in the seas and evolve to exist on land. How did Anaximander manage to understand all this?

Rovelli, Carlo. Anaximander (p. 48). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Rovelli argues that Anaximander, who was born in Miletus in 610 BC is the true progenitor of modern science, the first to seek naturalistic causes for natural phenomena, and apparently the first to place the Earth as a globe in space, rather than supported under the sky by pillars, elephants, turtles or whatever as believed by essentially every other culture in the world at the time: the writers of the Bible, the Chinese, Indians, and Babylonians.


Rovelli notes that despite long observational records, neither China nor Babylon managed much astronomical progress.  In spite of an elite imperial astronomy bureau that started in 2000 BC, he claims that in the Eighteenth Century they still had not achieved the predictive accuracy of Ptolemy or figured out that the Earth was round.

I had often wondered why China, with technologically superior ships, did not discover the New World or the oceanic path to Europe.  Not knowing that the Earth was round was doubtless a major obstacle, but when Jesuits arrived in China and explained it to them, they grasped the point quickly.

This is a short but great book, deep and a work of considerable erudition.  Rovelli’s meditations on the nature of science, reality, and our quest to understand the world are also interesting. Highly recommended.



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