The Vocabulary of Myth, Part XVII

Anaximenes’ Air…

 Air, Wind, and Breath as Soul-substances and God-images…

 The World as a Divine Animal…

 Macrocosm and Microcosm, again…

The Divinity of Man…

     Cosmogony and cosmology continued to be the preoccupations of Anaximander’s pupil and fellow Milesian, Anaximenes (born c. 584 B.C.).  Like his master, Anaximenes is reported to have taught that the source and underlying nature of all things is one and infinite; but unlike Anaximander, for whom the infinite was none of the four elements (while encompassing them all), Anaximenes identified it with air.

Anaximenes’ air remained nonetheless an indeterminate substance–not unlike to apeiron—insofar as it was capable of being transformed into all the other elements in turn.  This occurred by a process that Anaximenes called “dilation and compression”.

When air is compressed it becomes colder, denser, and heavier, and so takes on the properties first of water and then of earth; when it is dilated, it becomes hotter, rarer, and lighter, and takes on those of fire.  In Anaximenes’ scheme, Anaximander’s opposites are thus engendered through the mechanism of thickening and thinning.

Once again, however, we may readily detect the afflatus of pre-rational, religious ideas and modes of thought in Anaximenes’ apparently mechanical explanation of things.  According to one doxographer, “Anaximenes says that air is a god”, while another fragment runs, “Just as our soul (being air) controls us, so breath and air encompass the whole world-order”.


Air, breath, and wind are primordial and ubiquitous God-images, since they were commonly held to constitute the essential substance of the Divine.  In ancient Hebrew, for instance, Yahweh is ruach, that is, “breath or wind”.  In Genesis, his Spirit is said to brood over the face of the waters at the beginning.  As we’ve already seen, this is a sexual image:  God fecundates those waters with the seed of his Spirit as the male inseminates the woman’s watery womb. 

But he does more than that, of course.  The English word “spirit” comes from the Latin verb spiro, spirare (to breathe), and indeed God creates the world in Genesis, as he creates Adam, by breathing his own enlivening soul into their otherwise inert and inanimate material bodies.

Throughout Greek thought, analogously, there persists the idea that the world itself is, as Plato called it, a Divine Animal, whose outer body is composed of those corporeal members that are discernible to the senses, and whose inner soul, which regulates the orderly movements and processes of the universe, is the invisible Soul of God.  God inspirits and governs the cosmos, as the human soul inspirits and governs the human body; and this becomes the function of Anaximenes’ supposedly de-mythologized and impersonal “air”.

As Anaximenes was well aware, whether in God or man, the soul had been universally and immemorially conceived as being made of an airy substance, identified with the breath.  Primitive peoples almost all believe that when a person dies, his soul escapes–is exhaled–in his final breath, and from this belief we get our expression, “he breathed his last”.

Homer accepted this assumption too, as we may infer from his description in the Iliad of Sarpedon, who is wounded, almost fatally, on the battlefield before Troy:

His soul left him, and mist covered his eyes.
But he recovered his breath, and the blast of the north wind,
Blowing, gave him life, though he was sorely spent in spirit.

It is the air, wind, or breath in us, then, which is soul.  And the airy breath in us animates our bodies, just as the air, according to Anaximenes, animates the body of the world.


Like the soul in man and God, Anaximenes naturally attributes to his archetypal air the quality of “intelligence”.  As the airy soul rationally directs and regulates the movements and processes of living creatures, so Anaximenes’ air regulates the life of the world-order, preserving within it that state of harmony and justice of which Anaximander had written.

The whole argument–indeed, the whole argument of so much theology and philosophy–, is based on the analogy between the little world of man—the microcosm—and the greater world of the cosmos—the macrocosm.  And from Anaximenes himself we have one of the earliest statements of this perennial Western theme:

The living creature, he says, is a world in miniature.

I’ve already alluded to Greek medical theory, which is rooted in this analogy:  just as the elements earth, water, air, and fire, comprised of the opposites hot and cold, moist and dry, must observe their limits if the health of the cosmos is to be preserved, so the elements of the body—the four humours, which are comprised of the same four opposites—must coexist in balance lest the body succumb to disease.

But the most important, and characteristically Greek, deduction from the correspondence between macrocosm and microcosm is what it implies about the essential divinity of the human soul.  This is already the planted axiom in the following statements by one of Anaximenes’ later disciples, Diogenes of Apollonia:

It seems to me that that which has intelligence is what men call air, and that all men are steered by this, and that it has power over all things.  For this very thing seems to be a god and to reach everywhere and to dispose all things and to be in everything.  For it would not be possible, without intelligence, to be divided up so as to dispense measure in all things—winter and summer, night and day, rain and wind and fair weather.

Thus the Divine Intelligence that suffuses and is immanent in all things, that regulates and orders the seasons and the cosmos “in measure”, is also immanent in man, regulating and ordering in measure his life as it regulates and orders the life of the World-Animal

Man’s soul, then (as the later Platonists and Stoics would call it) is already conceived as a “seed” or “particle” of the Divine Reason, and so participating in the Divine, man is in essence a god.

But we’ll come back to these ideas later.

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