Book Profile: Anaximander and the Architects

a review of Robert Hahn, Anaximander and the Architects: The Contributions of Egyptian and Greek Architectural Technologies to the Origins of Greek Philosophy. State University of New York Press, Albany, 2001. 320pp. $28.95/$81.50. ISBN: 0791447944

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Michael J. Zerbe
York College of Pennsylvania

    In Anaximander and the Architects, Robert Hahn proposes that ancient Greek scholar Anaximander (and, to a lesser extent, Thales) in specific, and the 6th-century BCE Greek turn toward rationalizing activities in general, were influenced prominently by the Greek architects who planned and built monumental temples to gods such as Hera, Artemis, and Apollo. Hahn asserts that Anaximander, whom Hahn names as the author of the first philosophy text in prose, relied on techniques used by these architects to argue for his vision of the cosmos. Scrupulously researched, soundly supported, and carefully planned, Hahn presents a convincing case.

  1. While the idea that technology has a significant impact on society is not new, the notion that there is an association between (a) architecture, characterized as a technology, and politics and (b) the beginning of what we consider to be rational thinking in ancient Greece certainly is. It is refreshing to see Hahn think about the place of technology, and attendant sociopolitical questions, in an age that is so important to western thought, and one that we do not ordinarily think of as being technological but which of course was just as heavily impacted by its own technology as our own era is.

  2. In the book's first chapter, Hahn categorizes research on the origins of Greek philosophy into two "tiers." The traditional first tier argues that Greek philosophy coalesces with the epistemological and ontological issues discussed by Plato and Aristotle and selected previous figures whose work on these issues connects in an obvious way with that of Plato and Aristotle. The second tier contends that Presocratic rationalizing explanations, often in prose instead of the mythopoetic discourse of the epics, form the basis of Greek philosophy, and proponents of this tier seek to examine this prose rationalizing and the cultural context surrounding this activity. Hahn introduces a new third tier—in which he places himself—that focuses on investigations of what exactly in Greek culture caused the ancient Greek thinkers to begin to rationalize in prose, along with sociopolitical questions such as why the temples were built and who paid for the architects. While Hahn's third tier seems more like an extension of the second tier rather than an entirely new way of thinking about the origins of Greek philosophy, his review of the literature is nonetheless extensive and well presented. Hahn contends that technology, in the form of architecture, and the sociopolitical context of which it was a part, have not been acknowledged and studied as important factors in the origins of ancient Greek philosophy. He remedies this problem in the remainder of his book.

  3. In Chapter 2, Hahn establishes a date for the publication of Anaximander's work (548 or 547 BCE), provides an overview of Ionian philosophers, the beginnings of prose as manifested in legal inscriptions and, especially, architectural treatises, briefly traces the notable influence of Egyptian architects on their Greek counterparts, describes temple building projects in Ionia, and explores the meanings of some of the design choices for the temples. In Chapter 3, Hahn explicates techniques used by the ancient Egyptian and Greek architects; he includes the use of syngraphē (a prose description in words and numbers written at the outset of a project), the use of aerial views (i.e., plan view or horizontal cross section), the use of models, the theory of proportions, and the practices of anathyrōsis and emplion, fixing techniques which were used to construct the critically important column-drums, the joining of which formed mammoth single columns, for the temples.

  4. Hahn presents the heart of his case in Chapter 4, where he draws clear, direct connections between the above-mentioned architectural techniques and the techniques Anaximander used to construct his map of the cosmos. First, Hahn asserts, Anaxiamander wrote a syngraphē of the cosmos. Then, Anaximander presented an aerial view the earth as a column-drum and adapted proportions used in the construction of these column drums to establish distances and diameters. For example, Hahn points out that in Anaximander's work, "[t]he distances of the stars, moon, and sun form the earth are in a ration of 1 : 2 : 3, precisely the same kind of simple ratios that characterize the overall structure of the archaic temple. Seen in this light, Anaximander imagined the cosmos to be a kind of temple, the cosmic house... (187–188). In addition, Hahn argues compellingly that the column drum itself, a crucial component of a sacred structure, is a logical analogy choice for Anaximander's cosmology. Then, according to Hahn, Anaximander must have also developed other models of the cosmos—specifically, three-dimensional views—to account for the seasonal movement of the sun. Finally, Hahn claims persuasively that Anaximander borrowed the architects' techniques of anathyrōsis and emplion to fix the position of the earth, so that it would not drift laterally or vertically, in his cylindrical model of the cosmos.

  5. Hahn explores important features of the complex sociopolitical context of archaic Greece in his last chapter, demonstrating that the drive to build monumental temples "did not emerge ex nihilo . . . but rather against a continuous and transitional background of activities" (221). He illustrates, with evidence from the temples themselves and from the works of Herodotus, Polyainos, and Plutarch, that wealthy, powerful patrons financed the design and building of the temples in an effort to solidify their eroding prestige and position within society, especially concerning control of land. Their efforts were to no avail. Because of the architectural activities required for the construction of the temples, rational discourse was needed and promoted. This increased use of rational discourse, according to Hahn's reasoning, was responsible at least in part for the gradual shift from lineage or cycles of nature to rational self-awareness as a source of excellence. Rational self-awareness and the ability to reason was not restricted solely to the aristocrats.

  6. I do have one complaint about the book, and it stems from my bias as a rhetorician. In some places, Hahn seems to imply that rational discourse did not exist before Anaximander, Thales, and other scholars began to use it in 6th-century BCE Greece. For example, at one point Hahn contends that "[Anaximander's] contribution is significant to the gradual process of rejecting supernatural fancies [i.e., mythopoetic discourse], endorsing rational explanations, and moving forward a new kind of discourse to meet the increasing demands of rigorous proof and second-order questions about the nature of the inquiry itself" (34). It is my belief that rational discourse existed before this period; after all, rational thinking was necessary to construct the mythopoetic accounts that were the dominant explanations at the time for how the world operated. I would prefer that Hahn treat language similar to the way that he treats technology: namely, asking questions such as why rational discourse was suppressed before the 6th-century BCE and who in power sought its increased usage and why.

  7. Despite this objection, Anaximander and the Architects fulfills its mission quite admirably. An interdisciplinary scope and generous amount of pictures and drawings compliment the book's engagingly and carefully presented development of a compellingly original thesis. Anyone with an interest in the impact of technology on the origins of the growing influence on rational discourse and experimental science should read this book.

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