Among the Presocratic philosophers, Anaximander of Miletus (C. 610 – C. 546 BCE), a student of Thales, had neither an elaborate nor a fully articulated concept of time, but the word chronos (time), which emerges in the one preserved statement of his lost book, signifies a personified cosmic power. In this much-discussed and variously interpreted fragment, time is depicted as a mighty arbiter that, like a magistrate, amends injustice by determining the compensation and the retribution that things at a continuous, cosmic strife are to pay to one another. The notion of time as a judge, whose assessment no act of injustice can escape, also appears in the political and moral reflections of Solon, approximately a generation later. Generally speaking, these reflections imply that a culprit will be punished sooner or later and that time is the best judge of who and what we are.
Anaximander’s time acts as a judge in the cosmic affairs in the sense that it determines when the predominance of one occurrence is to be replaced by the predominance of some other, opposite occurrence, and this process is reversible. By these phenomena he presumably understood warring opposites, like hot and cold, light and darkness, wet and dry, seasonal and mortal changes, progressive drying out of moisture by fire and vice versa.
As something that is “boundless,” time fixes the boundaries of certain processes, punishing any kind of excess. Restricting the supremacy participants in a cosmic strife, Anaximander’s time creates balance in the world as a unified whole. Consequently, the role of time is not only to lay down the sequence of physical occurrences but also to maintain measure and stability in nature’s functioning. It is a criterion used to determine the birth, development, duration, and the limits of one occurrence in relation to another.
The shift of hot and cold, of the seasons of the year, of old age and youth as well as their mutual limitations are governed by the same periodic law. Anaximander believed that physical cycles happen in a strictly defined periodical order, which applies to both celestial and meteorological phenomena. With his notion of time as a cosmic judge that dispenses justice by imposing inevitable and immutable norms in the functioning of physical processes, Anaximander, in a way, inaugurated the concept of natural law in Western science and philosophy.
Results concerning the measurement of time are also attributed to Anaximander. He introduced in Greece the gnomon, an upright stick for measuring shadow lengths, which was used to give the time of the day, the position of the sun on the elliptic, and the seasons of the year.
See also Anaximines; Empedocles; Heraclitus; Presocratic Age; Thales; Xenophanes
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