Of Anaximander (c. 611- c. 547 BCE), kinsman pupil and successor of Thales, Diogenes Laertius reports:
he said that the principle [αρχην] and element [στοιχειον] is the Indefinite, [το απειρον] not distinguishing air or water or anything else … *
Which, in the grand scheme of things is like saying Bam! Thwok! Crash! Wakka! Wakka! So before elaborating on this we will need to take a little Pixie Pause.
Right. You’re back. Either that or you didn’t press <Play> in the first place. Doesn’t matter.
What does Anaximander mean by το απειρον?** Aristotle apparently takes it to mean “spatially infinite”*** but, contra Aristotle, Cornford and other have taken Anaximander to mean principally ” ‘that which is internally unbounded, without internal distinctions’, i.e. that which is indistinct, indefinite in kind”**** though may also assume the apeiron to be unlimited in extent and duration. However, says Barnes, “we might imagine Anaximander’s universal starting-point to be spatially infinite, sempiternal, and qualitatively indeterminate: in the beginning, before the cosmogonic moment, there was a mass of qualityless stuff, unlimited in extent and infinitely old.”***** The Urstoff is indeterminate, which is perhaps a bit of a jazzy way of saying it is תהו ובהו.
But don’t just trust me on this:
Some scholars find the source of Anaximander’s conception of his Urstoff in Hesiod’s description of the horrid chasm between earth and Tartarus (Theogony 736-43); that chasm is vast, not infinite. Hence to apeiron is not ‘the Infinite’ but ‘the Vast’; and its origin is to be found not in cosmogonical ratiocination but in poetical inspiration.******
Yet again, the inspiration is the East.
Oh you know me I love the universe. I love all the listeners.
* A longer-form version via Simplicius here, along with I much more informative article than I could ever write about Anaximander.
** The rather wide semantic net of απειρος (apeiros) with a hat-tip to the ever trustworthy Liddell-Scott : A. 1. without trial or experience of a thing, unused to, unaquainted with 2. inexperienced, ignorant; B. 1. boundless, infinite, countless, indefinite 2. without outlet.
*** “We may legitimately doubt whether the concept of infinity was apprehended before questions of continuous extension and continuous divisibility were raised by Melissus and Zeno.” Kirk, Raven & Schofield, The Presocratic Philosophers, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: CUP, 1983), 110.
**** Kirk, Raven & Schofield, 110.
***** Barnes, Jonathan, The Presocratic Philosophers, rev. ed. (London: Rouledge, 1982), 29.
****** Barnes, 36.