VII. GREEK SCIENCE IN THE EARLY ATTIC PERIOD
The exact position which Anaxagoras had among his contemporaries, and his exact place in the development of philosophy, have always been somewhat in dispute. It is not known, of a certainty, that he even held an open school at Athens. Ritter thinks it doubtful that he did. It was his fate to be misunderstood, or underestimated, by Aristotle; that in itself would have sufficed greatly to dim his fame—might, indeed, have led to his almost entire neglect had he not been a truly remarkable thinker. With most of the questions that have exercised the commentators we have but scant concern. Following Aristotle, most historians of philosophy have been metaphysicians; they have concerned themselves far less with what the ancient thinkers really knew than with what they thought. A chance using of a verbal quibble, an esoteric phrase, the expression of a vague mysticism—these would suffice to call forth reams of exposition. It has been the favorite pastime of historians to weave their own anachronistic theories upon the scanty woof of the half- remembered thoughts of the ancient philosophers. To make such cloth of the imagination as this is an alluring pastime, but one that must not divert us here. Our point of view reverses that of the philosophers. We are chiefly concerned, not with some vague saying of Anaxagoras, but with what he really knew regarding the phenomena of nature; with what he observed, and with the comprehensible deductions that he derived from his observations. In attempting to answer these inquiries, we are obliged, in part, to take our evidence at second-hand; but, fortunately, some fragments of writings of Anaxagoras have come down to us. We are told that he wrote only a single book. It was said even (by Diogenes) that he was the first man that ever wrote a work in prose. The latter statement would not bear too close an examination, yet it is true that no extensive prose compositions of an earlier day than this have been preserved, though numerous others are known by their fragments. Herodotus, "the father of prose," was a slightly younger contemporary of the Clazomenaean philosopher; not unlikely the two men may have met at Athens.
Notwithstanding the loss of the greater part of the writings of Anaxagoras, however, a tolerably precise account of his scientific doctrines is accessible. Diogenes Laertius expresses some of them in very clear and precise terms. We have already pointed out the uncertainty that attaches to such evidence as this, but it is as valid for Anaxagoras as for another. If we reject such evidence, we shall often have almost nothing left; in accepting it we may at least feel certain that we are viewing the thinker as his contemporaries and immediate successors viewed him. Following Diogenes, then, we shall find some remarkable scientific opinions ascribed to Anaxagoras. "He asserted," we are told, "that the sun was a mass of burning iron, greater than Peloponnesus, and that the moon contained houses and also hills and ravines." In corroboration of this, Plato represents him as having conjectured the right explanation of the moon's light, and of the solar and lunar eclipses. He had other astronomical theories that were more fanciful; thus "he said that the stars originally moved about in irregular confusion, so that at first the pole-star, which is continually visible, always appeared in the zenith, but that afterwards it acquired a certain declination, and that the Milky Way was a reflection of the light of the sun when the stars did not appear. The comets he considered to be a concourse of planets emitting rays, and the shooting- stars he thought were sparks, as it were, leaping from the firmament."
Much of this is far enough from the truth, as we now know it, yet all of it shows an earnest endeavor to explain the observed phenomena of the heavens on rational principles. To have predicated the sun as a great molten mass of iron was indeed a wonderful anticipation of the results of the modern spectroscope. Nor can it be said that this hypothesis of Anaxagoras was a purely visionary guess. It was in all probability a scientific deduction from the observed character of meteoric stones. Reference has already been made to the alleged prediction of the fall of the famous meteor at aegespotomi by Anaxagoras. The assertion that he actually predicted this fall in any proper sense of the word would be obviously absurd. Yet the fact that his name is associated with it suggests that he had studied similar meteorites, or else that he studied this particular one, since it is not quite clear whether it was before or after this fall that he made the famous assertion that space is full of falling stones. We should stretch the probabilities were we to assert that Anaxagoras knew that shooting-stars and meteors were the same, yet there is an interesting suggestiveness in his likening the shooting-stars to sparks leaping from the firmament, taken in connection with his observation on meteorites. Be this as it may, the fact that something which falls from heaven as a blazing light turns out to be an iron-like mass may very well have suggested to the most rational of thinkers that the great blazing light called the sun has the same composition. This idea grasped, it was a not unnatural extension to conceive the other heavenly bodies as having the same composition.