Anaximenes And The Air

Hitherto our attention has been almost exclusively fixed upon

the mystical influences of water in motion or at rest. And even

though we went no farther afield, a fair presentment has been

gained of what a modern nature-mystic might advance in

explanation and defence of his characteristic views and modes

of experience. We now turn to consider other ranges of physical

phenomena, which, though of equal dignity and signifi

will not meet with equal fullness of treatment--otherwise the

limits proposed for this study would be seriously exceeded.

We have seen how and why Thales deemed water to be the

_Welt-stoff_. His immediate successors, while adhering to his

principles and aims, were not content with his choice. They

successively sought for something less material. One of them,

Anaximenes, was attracted by the qualities and functions of the

atmosphere, and his speculations will serve as an introduction to

the mysticism of winds and storms and clouds. Only a single

statement of his is preserved in its original form; but fortunately

it is full of significance. "As our soul" (said the sage), "which

is air, holds us together, so wind and air encompass the whole

world." This, interpreted in the light of ancient comments,

shows that Anaximenes compared the breath of life to the air,

and regarded the two as essentially related--indeed as identical.

For the breath, he thought, holds together both animal and

human life; and so the air holds together the whole world in a

complex unity. He reached the wider doctrine by observing that

the air is, to all appearance, infinitely extended, and that earth,

water, and fire seem to be but islands in an ocean which spreads

around them on all sides, penetrating their inmost pores, and

bathing their smallest atoms. It was on such facts and

appearances that he based his main doctrine. If we think of the

modern theory of the luminiferous ether, we shall not be far

from his view-point. But the simpler and more obvious qualities

of the air would of course not be without their influence--its

mobility and incessant motion; its immateriality; its

inexhaustibility; its seeming eternity. It is, therefore, not

astonishing that with his attention thus focussed on a group of

truly wonderful phenomena, the old nature-philosopher should

have selected air as his primary substance--as the universal

vehicle of vital and psychic force.

It is of especial interest to the nature-mystic to find that

Anaximenes was faithful to the doctrine that the primary

substance must contain in itself the cause of its own motion.

And the interest is intensified in view of the fact that his

insistence on the life-giving properties of air rests on a widely

spread group of animistic notions which have exercised an

extraordinary influence on the world at large. Let Tylor furnish

a summary. "Hebrew shows _nephesh_, 'breath,' passing into all

the meanings of life, soul, mind, animal, while _ruach_ and

_neshamah_ make the like transition from 'breath' to 'spirit'; and

to these the Arabic _nefs_ and _ruh_ correspond. The same is

the history of the Sanskrit atman and prana, of Greek _psyche_

and _pneuma_, of Latin _anima, animus, spiritus_. So Slavonic

_duch_ has developed the meaning of 'breath' into that of 'soul'

or 'spirit'; and the dialects of the gypsies have this word _duk_

with the meanings of 'breath, spirit, ghost,' whether these

pariahs brought the word from India as part of their inheritance

of Aryan speech, or whether they adopted it in their migration

across Slavonic lands. German _geist_ and English _ghost_,

too, may possibly have the same original sense of breath." How

marvellously significant this ascent from the perceptions of

wind and breath to what we now understand by soul and spirit!

The most attenuated concepts have their basis in the physical

world. Even to this present day, as Max Mueller remarks, "the

soul or the spirit remains a breath, an airy breath, for this is the

least material image of the soul which they can conceive."

Another doctrine of Anaximenes is most worthy of note by

nature mystics, as well as by scientists. It is well stated by

Theophrastus. "The air differs in rarity and in density as the

nature of things is different; when very attenuated it becomes

fire, when more condensed, wind, and then cloud; and when

still more condensed, water and earth and stone; and all other

things are composed of these; and he regards motion as eternal,

and by this changes are produced." We have here a distinct

adumbration of the atomic theory in its most defensible form--

that is to say, a conception which makes the differences in

various substances consist in differences in condensation or

rarefaction of the particles of the primary substance. The simple

normal condition of this substance he deemed to be air. In its

rarefied condition, it becomes fire, and in its condensed

condition it progresses by stages from liquid to solid. And just

as the modern chemist is beginning to have good ground for

believing that all substances, or so-called elements, may be the

result of a series of differentiations and compositions of an

originally homogeneous substance, in spite of the fact that he is

not yet able to effect the transformations in his laboratory, so,

all those centuries ago, the Milesian sage seized on the same

root idea and made it the basis of a world philosophy. It is a

long cry from the old idea, familiar to Homer, that mist or

vapour is condensed air to the cosmology of a Herbert Spencer,

and yet nature is so rich in material for prompting intuitions of

her deepest truths that one ultimate cause of material evolution

was revealed in days when science was hardly brought to the


An examination, albeit cursory and partial, of this ancient

speculation, has thus revealed at any rate two results of prime

importance in the study of Nature Mysticism. The one is that

the air has furnished the primary type of the soul as the

principle of life--man's fleeting breath has suggested and

fostered the idea of immortality; the wind that bloweth where it

listeth, the idea of a realm of changeless spirit! The other result

is that certain of nature's most obvious phenomena, when seized

by intuition, can supply a key to some of her profoundest

secrets. Shall not these results be as true for the world of to-day

as for the flourishing times of old-world Miletus?