Introduction: Hegel, Nietzsche, and Heidegger on Greek Art
“Heidegger’s description of a Greek temple has to be understood as a
rewriting of Hegel that, by understanding art as a presentation of the
earth, challenges the way Hegel opposes spirit and earth and thus his
understanding of the spirit’s progress.”
So writes Karsten Harries in The Ethical Function of Architecture. By
rewriting Hegel in this manner, Heidegger offers a challenge to Hegel’s
pronouncements on the future of art. For Hegel, art belongs to the past, and
thus the ability of art to function “on the side of its highest vocation” is
now and forever lost. Nietzsche, too, shares Hegel’s view that the original
role that art played in antiquity has now been lost. For Nietzsche, it was
the rise of Socrates’ optimism of reason, the view that all things could be
known, that marks its decline. While Hegel and Nietzsche envision the future
of art differently from Heidegger, what these thinkers share is a view of a
primordial role that art, and architecture, in fact played in the past,
in Greek antiquity.
Hegel’s view of the Greek temple must be understood in the context of
spirit’s progress. In the necessary and inexorable march of spirit’s
struggle for disengagement and ultimately its freedom, Greek temple
architecture becomes a historical marker on the way to it. The project of
making a Greek temple proved to be a thoroughly human one; for Hegel: it
illustrates the human struggle to overcome and dominate nature.
is the first pioneer on the highway toward the adequate realization of the
Godhead. In this service it is put to severe labour with objective nature,
that it may disengage it by its effort from the confused growth of finitude
and the distortion of contingency. By this means it levels a space for the
God, informs His external environment, and builds Him his temple, as a fit
place for the concentration of Spirit, and its direction to the absolute
objects of intelligent life. It raises an enclosure for the congregation of
those assembled, as a defense against the threatening of the tempest,
against rain, the hurricane, and savage animals. It in short reveals the
will thus to assemble, and although under and external relation, yet in
agreement with the principles of art.
while the purpose of art and architecture is to serve the pursuit of truth,
in history’s progress we are now far away from those pioneering days. In the
pioneering days of history, art provided the truth of which Hegel speaks.
That is, art functioned “on the side of the highest vocation,” which for
Hegel means that it had achieved a level of freedom. When art reaches this
point, it shares with religion and philosophy a mode in which the most
profound interests of mankind are brought to consciousness, a mode in which
spiritual truths find expression. In history’s progress, however, reason has
now replaced art as the deliverer of truth, and art has been reduced to what
Hegel calls “fine art.” For Hegel, this meant that art could no longer
provide an essential and necessary way for the revelation of the truth that
is decisive for our historical existence.
When Harries wrestles with the question of why this highest function should
be denied to art today, he invites us to consider how reason has come to
replace art as the deliverer of the most profound interests of mankind. With
the Enlightenment, reason came to assume a place that leaves little room for
art to offer what it did to the ancient Greek communities. Nietzsche blames
the demise of art, in Hegel’s sense, on the naïve trust in reason to lead us
to the good life. Hegel envisages the role of art for the ancients to be now
lost, not as a deficiency but rather as an inexorable fact of reason’s
progress in history. Thus, the appeal to reason explains the decline of the
power of art; Nietzsche found the appeal to be naïve, and Hegel found it to
be justified, but both saw the intervention of reason to undermine the role
that art played in Greek antiquity.
Heidegger’s view of the Greek temple, Harries pointed out, must be seen as a
rewriting of Hegel. In the rewriting, however, Heidegger offers a new
vision. On the one hand, there is a new hope for the future of art and
architecture, and on the other, there is a new view about the truth that is
revealed by ancient enterprises. In “The Origin of the Work of Art,”
Heidegger tells us that art first establishes “the truth that matters.” As
Harries argues, such a view must seem hopelessly confused about both art and
truth from a Hegelian or Nietzschean point of view.
After the Enlightenment, reason, not art, offers the truth that matters. At
most, art can furnish occasions for aesthetic enjoyment, a vacation from the
business of life. As Hegel put it in the Lectures on Aesthetics,
“…the fair days of Greek art…are over.” In the epilogue to “The Origin of
the Work of Art,” Heidegger recites Hegel’s challenge: “Art no longer counts
for us as the highest manner in which truth obtains existence for itself…
[and] on the side of its highest vocation, [art is] something past.”
In responding to Hegel on the future of art, Heidegger’s position at once
challenges Hegel and Nietzsche’s view about the past of art, as well
as the future. To see Heidegger’s view, we must get clear about what
Heidegger means when he speaks of art as first establishing the truth
Heidegger’s truth is neither the one seized upon by Hegel nor by Nietzsche.
In responding to Hegel’s challenge, Heidegger rejects Hegel’s view of truth,
one that emerges in the historical opposition of spirit and earth. The truth
revealed by the ancient Greeks was not, for Heidegger, as it was for Hegel,
a truth for their time only, an early stage in the unfolding of truth’s
ultimate character. For Heidegger, the full disclosure of truth was present
already for those he calls the earliest of the earlycomers. For Hegel, Greek
art represents the second of three stages in art’s historic development.
Unlike the first stage, symbolic art, where spirit is imprisoned in matter,
Greek art announces an advance to a second stage, the classical, in which
spirit and matter are in balanced harmony. In Greek art, for Hegel,
architecture becomes subordinated to sculpture, for in the sculpted image of
the god, Hegel finds the perfect reconciliation of spirit and matter. In the
third and highest stage of art, the romantic, spirit triumphs over matter.
Hegel identifies this final stage with Christianity and the modern era.
Because Christian religion identifies the dwelling of spirit within the
individual, and not in nature as does Greek religion, the third stage of art
cannot tie the sacred to the visible. The virtue of our own time consists in
making visible whatever truth it can offer. Consequently, art can no longer
count on the side of its highest vocation. Curiously, the height of art is
achieved in the second of its three stages; the success of art, in Hegel’s
own terms is coextensive with its spiritual deficiency. Art can count in its
highest vocation only when it conceals a higher truth of being. While the
classical stage, Greek art, reveals its truth profoundly, and reveals all it
is capable of showing in this pre-Christian episode, it falls short of
revealing the highest spiritual truth. Heidegger responded to Hegel by
insisting that “Truth is the unconcealedness of that which is as something
that is. Truth is the truth of Being.” And when the disclosure of Being
takes place for the Greeks, the earliest of earlycomers, Heidegger concludes
that the Greeks had already outdistanced the latest of the latecomers.
For Hegel, however, history had not yet grown up in the time of the Greeks.
The consequence of this historical view is that the full truth of Being
remained partially concealed. The Greeks revealed the depths of being, but
only so far as the historical progress of spirit made possible. When
Heidegger reflects upon the success of the Greek temple, he envisages the
way it unconceals truth, the truth of Being. It is this idea, thought
through as alêtheia,
which leads him to discuss the Greek temple, and also the early Greek
philosophers – but he never does so together. This is a somewhat
surprising result. Particularly in the case of Anaximander, the oversight
is telling. To be sure, Heidegger is aware of Anaximander as a philosopher.
Yet his reading of Anaximander’s to xreon in light of that
unconcealedness of the truth of Being that is seen in the “Same” may do more
to bring Anaximander into the orbit of the Seins-geschick than create
a genuine encounter.
If so, Heidegger may be guilty of being arbitrary in his interpretation. How
might he respond to such a charge? In Being and Time, Heidegger’s
explication of authenticity drives him to explain how choices are not merely
To escape the charge of arbitrariness, he must supply an appropriate source
of guidance to justify our responsible choices. Heidegger rules out appeals
to God or pure practical reason, essences or norms as adequate justification
for our choices. His view of authenticity rests, instead, on the claim that
“the sole authority which a free existing can have” is that “of revering the
repeatable possibilities of existence.”
This view invests Heidegger’s relation to the philosophy of the past. His
strategy is, as Harries put it, to invest the past, the Presocratics,
with such an authority.
Now, in fact, in the period of archaic and early classical Greece,
philosophy and temple building emerge contemporaneously. And in separate
discussions by Heidegger, both the Presocratics and the temple come to
assume formidable stature in the process of revealing the nature of Being,
the truth that matters. It is surprising, however, that Heidegger never put
them together. I shall now argue that they do indeed come together, and in a
manner most decisive, in the person of Anaximander.
B. Heidegger, Anaximander, and the Origins of Greek Philosophy
Heidegger’s studies of Presocratic philosophy are not the work of an
historian of philosophy. By this I mean Heidegger was not particularly
concerned with historiography,
now the usual business of the historian of philosophy. Heidegger turned to
explore the early Greek thinkers not merely to be informed of the “facts” of
what happened in the past. Instead, the matters that interested Heidegger
are the future-projected acts, a future in which the past and the present
stand in mutual appropriation. Heidegger was not concerned, then, with the
merely “factual” but rather the “authentically “actual” history.
His concern was not with the historiographer’s past (Vergangenheit),
that which is no longer around (nicht mehr vorhanden), but instead,
with the past that is still somehow around (noch vorhanden), the past
that is still not finished with us because we are not finished with it.
Heidegger studied the earliest of the earlycomers because he came to regard
them as having out distanced the latest of the latecomers. The truly
historical is therefore not the past but rather the present (Gegenwart);
it is not the “has been” of the past which is over and done with, but rather
the “has been” of the present (dagewesene), that which is still
around. In the essays on the early Greek philosophers, then, Heidegger
addressed what he regarded as the truly historical; because it truly had
been, it is yet. In “The Origin of the Work of Art” he pursues
the same theme; his concern, again, is with the truth that matters most.
Heidegger’s essays on the Greek philosophers address “the truly historical”
and not the merely historiographical. As such, he is not concerned to debate
the minutiae of the earliest philosophers any more than was Aristotle;
instead, his aim is to reveal the truth of Being. In encountering Heidegger,
then, we must grant him this much.
In his essay on Anaximander, Heidegger expressed his approach to ancient
If we so
stubbornly insist on thinking Greek thought in Greek fashion it is by no
means because we intend to sketch an historical portrait of Greek antiquity,
as one of the great past ages of man, which would be in many respects more
accurate. We search for what is Greek neither for the sake of the Greeks
themselves nor for the advancement of scholarship. Nor do we desire a more
meaningful conversation simply for its own sake. Rather, our sole aim is to
reach what wants to come to language in such a conversation, provided it
come of its own accord. And this is that Same which fatefully concerns the
Greeks and ourselves, albeit in different ways. It is that which brings the
dawn of thinking into the fate of things Western, into the land of evening.
Only as a result of this fatefulness (Geschick) do the Greeks become
Greeks in the historic [Geschichtlich] sense.
exploration of Presocratic philosophy attempted to trace out the fateful
history of being, and in the process traced out historically the origins of
philosophy. In ancient Greece itself, according to Heidegger, we witness not
origins, but also the decline, the dawn and the twilight; in the very
origins we find the keys to understanding the decline of the west.
Heidegger’s exegesis was not a social history; for Heidegger, what is
historical (die Geschichte) proves to be something fateful (das
Geschicklich). The decline of the west was part of the fate of being
itself. To grasp Being in a Heideggarian way we must come to terms with the
primordial moments in which there was a fundamental accord between
being and thinking, a fundamental belonging together of Being and
beings: they are the Same. That accord is signaled, according to Heidegger,
by Anaximander’s xreôn, Heraclitus’ logos and alêtheia,
and Parmenides’ eon.
Only with Plato’s formulation of being as idea, does there arise a
fundamental rupture between the two, between the subject and object, between
the thinker and what is thought, between the unity and plurality of being.
In this rupture, in this lack of accord, philosophy, as it has come to be
known in the West, begins. In this sense, philosophy becomes a basically
remedial activity; it is born of the inauthentic but fateful separation of
the knower and the known, and takes as its project the overcoming of it.
Philosophy arises as the search of the knower for its proper object, once
the original accord has been cast asunder. It arises only when consciousness
has become disconnected; only then does the subject become aware of its
separation from its object, only then, in fact, does this become its
defining character. The separation is no small gulf, no simple lacuna that
can be easily spanned. Instead, with this rupture, an abyss appears. And the
consciousness of this abyss, arising from this separation of subject and
object, is no mere contingent fact. Instead, this ontological rupture is
inherent in the fate of being itself. In the pre-Platonic world, “being”
and “thinking” are still experienced as the same, and Being and beings still
belong together. Authentic thinking appears as the very act of “presencing”
(Anwesende), what is “present” (Anwesen). Being was grasped
as the presencing of what is present, and so becomes taken up in thought.
But all this changed, fatefully, with Plato.
In an essay on Heraclitus, Heidegger wrote:
more at stake than a securing of objective truth – in the sense of valid
propositions. Why is it that we are ever and again so quick to forget the
subjectivity that belongs to every objectivity? How does it happen that even
when we do note that they belong together, we still try to explain each from
the standpoint of the other, or introduce some third element that is
supposed to embrace both subject and object? Why is it that we stubbornly
resist considering even once whether the belonging-together of subject and
object does not arise from something that first imparts their nature to both
the object and its objectivity, and the subject and its subjectivity, and
hence is prior to the realm of their reciprocity?
earliest Greek philosophers, then, Heidegger contends that there was still a
primordial connection between subject and object. For human being, that is
authentic human being or Dasein, this connection played out in terms of the
sameness of being and thinking. Heidegger claimed they are to auto,
the Same. This does not mean that being and thinking are identical. Instead,
to say that being and thinking are the same means that they belong together
primordially. So long as we grasp “being” as presencing, thinking and being
converge. In the essay on Anaximander he puts it this way: “Thinking does
not originate; it is, when Being presences;
in the essay on Parmenides, “Thinking first becomes thinking when it thinks
In Heidegger’s essay “Building Dwelling Thinking,” the connection between
thinking and the presencing of Being is announced in terms of the
fourfold. For thinking to arise, we must know how to dwell. Only when we
know how to dwell, that is how to be, can we build meaningfully. Even in the
title to the essay, Heidegger’s refusal to separate his terms by commas
shows that “thinking” is inextricably interwoven with both building and
dwelling. When we build authentically, Heidegger claims we bring together
earth and sky, divinities and mortals, experienced as the oneness of
the fourfold. Since Heidegger explains dwelling as a “staying within the
fourfold…a preserving of the fourfold in its essential being, its presencing,”
some have wondered how genuine dwelling is still possible.
If genuine dwelling is called into question, however, so must genuine
thinking. Heidegger confronts this issue in just the same way he confronts
the decline of Being in the west, fatefully traced to Plato’s conception of
Being as idea. Since the original accord has long since been ruptured
between Being and beings, a presencing of Being that appears as authentic
thought, the problem arises about how the original unity might yet be
regained. What is clear by Heidegger’s phrasing of the problem is that
genuine thinking was once possible, and thus so was genuine dwelling and
building. As Anaximander and the early Greek philosophers had been in accord
with the Being of beings, the Greek temple also displays such an accord. The
success of Greek temple, and indeed all authentic art and architecture,
rests for Heidegger on an understanding of the true meaning of the earth.
The earth shows us how Being reveals itself as fundamentally undisclosable.
In “The Origin of the Work of Art” Heidegger says the earth “remains itself
only when it remains undisclosed and unexplained. Earth thus shatters every
attempt to penetrate into it…The earth appears openly cleared as itself only
when it is perceived and preserved as that which is by nature undisclosable,
that which shrinks from every disclosure and constantly keeps itself closed
In “The Anaximander Fragment” Heidegger describes alêtheia as “this
concealing of its essence and its essential origin…characteristic of Being’s
Across the early Greek tradition, then, the experience of truth shares with
the experience of the earth, a fundamental sameness in disclosing the
undisclosable nature of Being. In discussing Anaximander and the early Greek
philosophers, Heidegger maintains that “The oblivion of Being is oblivion of
the distinction between Being and beings.”
The oblivion of the distinction means the forgetting of the disclosure of
that which remains forever undisclosed in its disclosure. The experience of
the earth, the grounding of our being-in-the-world, is, for Heidegger,
pivotal to the early Greeks’ original accord.
When Karsten Harries explores these themes in The Ethical Foundations of
Architecture, he traces the problem of determining the reciprocity
between dwelling and building to Heidegger’s reminiscences on the Black
But, perhaps, Harries wonders, our understanding must presuppose an even
more primordial building. If “dwelling” names the “relationship between man
and space,” this primordial building must mean “space”, but space understood
as a placing of persons and things. This leads him to follow the analogy
between human building and divine creation, for God is the archetypal
architect. If we have lost the primordial meaning of dwelling, a meaning
inextricably connected with the primordial meaning of building, perhaps the
place to look for insight is an understanding of the archetypal building as
the representation of the cosmos itself? Harries points out that the
medieval understanding of the Church was grasped as a representation of the
And the view of buildings as cosmogonic acts is also not unique, as Mircea
Eliade has shown.
If we follow Harries’ lead, shall we come to see the primordial house as the
cosmos itself, and the stages of construction to be cosmogony or cosmology?
Can the case be made for the Greek temple? Did the archaic Greeks experience
the temple as a representation of the cosmos? In it, did they envisage
cosmogony, or cosmology? Can the case be made for Anaximander who reckoned
the size and shape of the cosmos – like no other earlier Greek of whom we
know – in earthly proportions, and expressed the cosmic architecture
in cosmological stages, and by means of architectural techniques? Might it
be that, in Anaximander, the disclosure of the undisclosurable earth is
already announced? In Anaximander, shall we come to see the interweaving of
two central Heideggarian themes, ontological and architectural? And if so,
what of the fate of Heidegger’s argument?
C. Heidegger, the Greek Temple, and the Fourfold
Heidegger’s description of a Greek temple can be understood as a rewriting
of Hegel. Heidegger’s presentation of the earth challenges the way
Hegel opposes spirit and earth and thus his understanding of the spirit’s
progress. The interpretation of earth suggests how the ancient Greeks
experienced the truth of Being. The ground of the building is the earth, but
Heidegger warns us that this is not be taken merely as the idea of a mass of
matter deposited somewhere, or even as a planet. “Earth is that whence the
arising brings back and shelters everything that arises without violation.
In the things that arise, earth is present as the sheltering agent.”
Remarkably, Heidegger employs almost exactly this parlance in “The
Anaximander Fragment” when he identifies Being itself. He says “…it becomes
manifest that Being, as the presencing of what is present, is already in
itself truth, provided that we think the essence of truth as the gathering
that clears and shelters.”
Thus, when Heidegger describes the Greek temple in terms of the earth, we
must think together in its revealing opacity, the fitting together of Being
and truth. And so, Heidegger describes the Greek temple:
A building, a
Greek temple, portrays nothing. It simply stands there in the middle of the
rock-cleft valley. The building encloses the figure of the god, and in this
concealment lets it stand out into the holy precinct through the one
portico. By means of the temple, the god is present in the temple. This
presence of the god is itself an extension and delimitation of the precinct
as a holy precinct. The temple and its precinct, however, do not fade away
into the indefinite. It is the temple work that first fits together and at
the same time gathers around itself the unity of those paths and relations
in which birth and death, disaster and blessing, victory and disgrace,
endurance and decline acquire the shape of destiny for human being. The
all-governing expanse of this open relational context is the world of this
historical people. Only from and in this expanse does the nation first
return to itself for the fulfillment of its vocation.
There is much
to say about Heidegger’s description, but for now let us focus on his claim
that the Greek temple “portrays nothing.” The description he provides is
initially acceptable. The building of monumental Greek temples, an invention of the
archaic period, follows long intervals of time in which sites were sacred.
In Ionia, prior to the archaic period, there were no monumental Greek temples. The
sacred precincts in Samos, Ephesus, and Didyma were holy places long before
the building of these special houses. Sacred altars, often connected to
sacred trees or groves signaled the dwelling places of Hera, Artemis, and
Apollo. In the archaic period, a small structure was, at first, built to
house a sacred icon. In Samos, for example, Hera was presented as a plank of
wood from the sacred Lygos tree. In front of it, for countless generations,
sacrifices were made. The trees and the bloodstained altar indicated the
presence of the god. With temple building, the god comes to life as a plank
of sacred wood or statue, and the house is built to protect it. In the later
seventh or early sixth century BCE, more permanent stone constructions on
monumental scale were introduced and the unique dipteral form was adopted in
Ionia. The temples were, no doubt, places of assembly, and they proved to be
a means whereby the disparate elements in the community were organized
through regularity of worship. But did they portray nothing? Or is
Heidegger’s interpretation here arbitrary? How shall we decide the issue?
In the mid-sixth century, at the same time that Anaximander wrote the first
philosophical book in prose (c. 548-7 BCE), the architects, alone of the
archaic Greeks of whom we know, wrote prose treatises.
We know of these treatises only by their echoes in later writers. Vitruvius,
writing hundreds of years later, mentions the prose books by Theodorus,
architect of the temple of Hera in Samos (c. 575 BCE), and Chersiphron and
Metagenes, architects of the temple of Artemis in Ephesus (c. 560 BCE), one
of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The contents of these books can
at best be conjectured, but there is good reason to suppose that they
contained not only the rules of proportion for the various dimensions of the
Ionic temple but also the techniques of construction. The architectural
books, written in prose, were uniquely suited to explain difficulties that
might be encountered in the construction process itself. When difficulties
presented themselves at the quarries, or in the transport of weighty stones
to the site, or in the installation of large blocks to great heights,
rational accounts in prose, not mythopoesis couched in hexameter, was the
chosen medium for the discourse. However, if the Greek temple portrayed
anything, it is unlikely that we could discover much from the architects’
prose treatises, should the lost treatises ever be found. For there is no
indication that these architectural books discussed the symbolic meaning of
the temple or its parts. However, Anaximander’s prose book, rivaling the
architects’, in that agôn civilization, gains illumination in this
context. Could Anaximander’s book shed any light on the issue of what the
Greek temple meant to the archaic communities that built them? Perhaps,
after all, they portrayed something, not nothing.
In order for us to begin to see how the Greek temple and sacred architecture
inspired Anaximander’s cosmic vision, we can profitably turn to the case for
the Egyptian temple. The case for the mythological origins of the Egyptian
temple is more accessible, and less speculative, than for the Greeks. The
case has already been made that the products and techniques of the Egyptian
architects inspired the archaic Greek architects, in the absence of any
monumental building for hundreds of years in Greece. In the seventh century
BCE when relations between Egypt and the Ionian Greeks became close, when
the Egyptian Pharaohs hired Greek mercenaries from Ionia,
the Greeks were in a position to see multi-columned Egyptian temples first
hand, and to learn how they were built. This is not to say that the Greek
architects simply copied the Egyptians. This is certainly not true. Indeed,
the Greeks created a unique and original architecture that suited their
specific rituals and beliefs. But, those Greeks, who would have inspected
the Egyptian architecture and learned their techniques, could not have
escaped notice of the foundation scenes and mythological motifs that adorned
the temple walls. One recurring motif concerning the origins of the Egyptian
temple is the one that focuses upon the earth, a meaning that echoes
Heidegger’s interpretation of it as that “whence the arising brings back and
shelters everything that arises.”
The mythical origins of the Egyptian temple are to be derived from the bas
reliefs on the enclosure walls of ancient temples. The story is far from
clear but by appeal to the foundation scenes, two distinct stories can be
reconstructed in broad outline. The older version is the Temple of the
Falcon; the subsequent version is the Temple of the Sun-God. The Temple of
the Falcon seems to deal with the creation of the earth and the making
sacred of the sites where that happened. The Solar Temple, also founded in
ancient mythical time, seems to have supplanted a site formerly occupied by
the Falcon and Ptah. In the case of the Sun-Temple, creation had already
taken place. Let us focus upon the earlier, original account of the origins
of the temple, for in it we overhear the origins of creation itself.
The Falcon Temple reliefs describe the emergence of the päy-lands from Nun,
the primordial ooze, the spirit of the waters. The scene is the emergence of
virgin land from the receding flood. The annual inundation of the Nile,
witnessed from time immemorial, produced the same recurring phenomena. Long
before the water receded, reeds and lotuses began to sprout on the flooded
plains. Slowly, mounds of mud appeared as the waters receded, and tender
shoots continued to emerge from the muddy shore (päys). Here was the magical
moment of creation, the appearance of the earth from the waters, witnessed
year after year. As the sprouts continued to grow, there was a time when
their growth was noted and marked by the appearance of a falcon, alighting
on one of them. Perhaps such a time would have coincided with a change of
season, a marker in time. Sometime later, the reeds would be strong enough
to support a falcon, and by this time the floods were in retreat. As the
reeds grew, they would be bundled together and wrapped in string to make a
better perch for the falcon. Since the perch was itself a growing thing, it
would have had obvious fertility connotations for the river people, and
because of its shape, phallic associations. Subsequently, it became
symbolized as the Djed pillar, a symbol of fertility and prosperity;
later this symbol was used coextensively with the Ankh, a symbol of life
everlasting, by virtue of its eternal renewal.
While it must certainly have been true that there were many sites in the
primitive landscape where the newly appearing life emerged from mud mounds,
there seems to have been one principal island, the highest ground, which was
never flooded. Did the original gods live here? This might be so. Perhaps
also parts of several of these päy-lands enclosed by reed fences and perches
constructed within them, each became a sanctuary hut. Such huts were known
to contain symbols of the ritual occasion. What is clear amidst all the
obscurities is that the mythical origins of the Egyptian temple mirrored
cosmological processes. Could Anaximander’s book offer the promise to begin
to fill in what had been taken to be an unbridgeable lacuna in the preserved
record concerning the Greek temple, its cosmological and symbolic meaning?
The case for the Greek temple, and Anaximander, must be seen within this
ancient context. While the Greek temple, new to archaic Greece, did not
simply belong to their mythical past, Anaximander’s cosmic vision, relying
on temple architecture, suggests cosmological and symbolic origins. For
Greeks of the archaic period, such as Anaximander, the Greek temple
portrayed something, not nothing. This new case offers promise but is still
circumstantial. Judging from the literature on Anaximander, prior to a
no one would have guessed that among the several factors that drove his
rationalizing prose and his cosmic imagination, the architects and their
prose treatises were formidable influences. Now that case has been made, we
shall explore it shortly in outline. But, let us see what might follow from
it, if we accept for the moment the hypothesis that Anaximander’s exegesis
of the architecture of the cosmos was driven by architectural techniques. If
we accept the hypothesis, then, we might be able to overhear, as it were,
discussions in his archaic community concerning the symbolic meaning of
If this is so, we might see a whole new horizon appear. Not only did the
temple not “portray nothing” but it portrayed cosmology itself.
Furthermore, the meaning of earth, for Anaximander and his community
was a primary consideration. The irony is that Heidegger may yet prove to be
insightful about the importance of earth, a cosmological foundation “whence
the arising brings back and shelters everything that arises,” while
nevertheless being mistaken when he supposes it portrays nothing. This one
point, however, might lead to a more general unraveling of Heidegger’s
assessment of Anaximander, and perhaps the early Greek philosophers
themselves. Thus, had Anaximander’s cosmology, a vision of cosmic
architecture, been driven by temple architecture, a reconstruction of his
vision might help to supply something that has otherwise escaped notice
concerning the symbolic meaning of the temple.
When Homer speculates about the cosmos, he imagines the flat and round earth
in the center, equidistant from the heights of the Heavens and the depths of
Hesiod shares the same imagery of the earth and the symmetry of cosmic
extremes that places us in the middle.
What Hesiod adds, however, are numbers and proportions that allow us to
begin to form a picture, that is, the broad outlines of the geometry of
cosmic architecture. Hesiod tells us that the heights of heaven are so great
that a heavy anvil would fall for nine days until it finally reached the
earth on the tenth. The depths of Tartarus are equally distant, nine plus
one anvil days below the gates of Hades.
How big is the earth in itself? Or, how big is the earth in relation to
these cosmic dimensions of nine plus one? We do not hear anything from
Hesiod about the size of the earth. The absence of earthly dimensions
frustrates an attempt to produce the geometry of an architectural rendition.
This impediment to produce an architectural rendition is overcome by
Anaximander. To understand how Anaximander was able to supply what was
missing, we must first turn to consider a central architectural technique
being utilized in his own backyard. Monumental architecture requires a
common measure. Temple building, especially out of stone, is inconceivable
without it. In architectural planning, the common measure is known as the
module. Once the architect identifies a module, the building is
calculated in multiples or submultiples of it – the heights of the columns,
architraves, geison and syma, the measurements of the stylobate itself.
Vitruvius tells us that in Ionia the module was column diameter,
and there has been agreement among the architect-excavators throughout the
twentieth century about it.
Once the column diameter had been specified in ancient units – feet or ells
(i.e. cubits) – the rest of the building parts could be calculated in terms
of rules of proportion. The archaic architects likely discussed these rules
of proportion in the early prose treatises.
After many debates, the excavators working in Samos, Ephesus, and Didyma
during the twentieth century attempted to reconstruct those original rules
There is general agreement now that, for example, column height in the
archaic Ionic temples to Hera, Artemis, and Apollo was nine or ten times the
lower column diameter.
Since the column had a symbolic meaning for the ancient Greeks – Homer
regard the column to separate heaven and earth, Pindar says the column joins
heaven and earth
– it is not surprising that the architectural proportions echo the archaic
poetic formula. Thus, as in Hesiod, the separation of earth and heaven is
given in the formula ‘nine plus one.’ But, now, in temple architecture
out of stone, there is a common measure, a module – column diameter – in
terms of which the geometry of the whole picture gains clarity. The
architecture of the house for the god, the cosmic and divine power, requires
a module. How about cosmic architecture? Neither Homer nor Hesiod furnishes
Anaximander’s thought must be seen in the context of the on-going monumental
projects in sixth century Ionia, if we are to grasp his cosmic architecture.
Arguably, no activity, with the exception of war and its preparations, so
consumed archaic Greek communities for so long a time, and so markedly
transformed their landscape, indeed, their very horizons. The Greek
architects produced thaumata, “objects of wonder.” It is this very
experience of thaumazein, says Aristotle, with which philosophy
Unlike Homer and Hesiod, Anaximander’s cosmic architecture identifies a
module, and the whole cosmos is reckoned in proportions of it.
Significantly, Anaximander’s module is the very same one that the architects
in archaic Ionia identified when they set out to make their cosmic temples.
For Anaximander the cosmic module is also column diameter. The cosmos, for
Anaximander, is calculated entirely in terms of column diameter. Heidegger
neglected completely the import of the words that Diels identified as
genuinely by Anaximander: the shape of the earth was likened to a stone
column, lithôi kioni tên gên prospherê.
When the shape is described to be cylinder-like, and the dimensions are
identified as 3 x 1, the diameter is three times its depth, we can be
confident that Anaximander imagined the shape of the earth to be likened to
a column drum. Moreover, it is worthy of note, that Anaximander imagined the
cosmos in terms of a column, an architectural element that not only had
symbolic and cosmic meaning for his archaic culture but also had become the
defining feature of the Greek temple. Anaximander’s identification of the
earth as module, in shape and size like a column drum, brings together
two communities of interests in his world. The poets had already envisaged
the column as having symbolic and cosmic meaning, and the architects made
use of column drums roughly 3 x 1 in size.
Anaximander’s cosmic architecture bridges these two worlds. He is able
bridge them because he was part of both of them. His originality thus must
be seen as emerging from a cluster of burgeoning archaic interests and
Furthermore, Anaximander enlarges upon the work of the architects, by
appealing to archaic poetic formulas. He reckons that the distances to the
fiery wheels of stars, moon, and sun are to be reckoned in column-drum
Each wheel is exactly one earth-diameter thick,
– one module thick – just as we should expect of the architects setting out
the stylobate in column-diameter units. When we try to reconstruct
Anaximander’s cosmic architecture, we must rely upon only a few numbers, and
so we must supply the missing ones if we have any hopes of reconstructing
his picture. The description of the distances to the heavenly wheels is
commonly given in the geometrical progression of 9, 18, 27. The wheel of the
stars is reckoned to be distant from the earth by 9 earth diameters, the
moon 18, and the sun 27, in the familiar scholarly presentations. The
attribution of geometrical regularity is certainly correct, but these
numbers alone are inadequate to explain how Anaximander imagined the
cosmos. According to the tertiary testimony, the distance to the farthest
wheel, the sun, is given in one doxographical report as 27 earth diameters
and in another as 28.
The only number that survives for the moon wheel identifies its distance as
19 earth diameters, not 18.
Some scholars have tried to explain them as a manuscript corruption.
But, if we consider how the architects worked, these numbers make perfectly
good sense. The first number is the measure to the inside of the
wheel; the second to the outside of the wheel, and each wheel is
precisely one module in size. Just as the architect would measure out on the
stylobate a distance to the inside of the column base and then the outside –
that is an intercolumnar measure, each column diameter being one module unit
in length – so Anaximander imagined his cosmic architecture in
column-diameter distances. Thus, Anaximander’s picture is this. The sun
wheel is distant from the earth by 27 earth diameters to the inside of the
wheel and 28 to the outside. The moon wheel is distant by 18 modules to the
inside and 19 to the outside. No numbers at all survive for the star wheel,
but from this reconstruction of the distances to the sun and moon,
the conjecture of the star wheel as 9 modules to the inside and 10 to the
outside is more than plausible. This is because the distances now appear to
echo exactly the archaic formula also embraced by Hesiod: 9+1 to the stars,
9 + 9+1 to the moon, and 9 + 9 + 9+1 to the sun. Unlike Hesiod, however,
Anaximander’s numbers are reckoned in modules – the architect’s module, that
is, column diameter. In plan view, literally a horizontal
cross-section through the plane of the earth, Anaximander’s cosmos is
We thus have a perfect illustration of the architects’ technique for
building their monumental architecture of the cosmic forces. If we follow
this line of thought, we are grasping not only Anaximander’s architectural
imagination but also, at the same time, overhearing his contemporaries, and
perhaps the archaic architects themselves as they might have explained how
In this initial description, however, we are still missing a central point.
The point is that the original meaning of Anaximander’s cosmology is
cosmic architecture. Just as the archaic architects would have discussed
the stages by which the cosmic and divine house is to be built in their
prose books, so also Anaximander, the cosmic architectural historian,
described the stages by which the house that is the cosmos was built, in his
prose book. In the beginning was the apeiron, an undifferentiated
stuff. At the same time,
motion is eternal. An
all-encompassing hot and dry fire, like “bark around a tree” (note the
cylindrical, not spherical, model – Anaximander’s cosmos is a great and
sacred tree) surrounded a cold and wet earth at its center.
The fire was somehow separated off into wheels, and due to evaporation from
the wet earth, caused by the surrounding fire, the evaporated mist somehow
came to encase each of the cosmic wheels.
What we see as the sun is not a round body at all but rather an opening in
the farthest wheel. The
compressed air or mist hides the fiery wheel, and the sun, moon, and stars
prove to be puncture holes in those fiery wheels; the fire radiates through
these holes as through the nozzle of a bellows.
Anaximander’s cosmic architecture, then, is the imaginative picturing of
cosmology. Here is our clue that the Greek temple portrayed something,
Anaximander’s cosmos is alive; scholars routinely refer to his hylozoistic
universe. The holes in the heavenly wheels through which the fire appears
are said to be ekpnôe or “breathing holes,” and not simply openings.
The mechanism for transmission of the fire is likened to a blacksmiths’
bellows – prêstêros aulos
– and we know from archaeological evidence, Hephaistos’ bellows appear as
two large lungs (made of animal skins). Anaximander’s cosmos is alive by
means of its everlasting fire-breathing mechanism.
Finally, we find those testimonies anachronistic that suggest Anaximander
imagined the cosmos within a spherical frame, that a sphere of fire first
surrounded the cold moist earth,
and that he had constructed a globe.
Before Aristotle, the model of the cosmos that predominated was cylindrical,
not spherical; echoes of this are presented in Pherecydes of Syros’ book,
datable to the mid-seventh century B.C.E. Anaximander’s cosmos is a great,
living, and growing tree. The testimony that the original fire that
surrounded the earth was like “bark around a tree” makes the picture
Anaximander imagined the cosmos, in orthographic projections other than
plan, as his construction of a seasonal sundial – requiring the plotting of
changes in the altitude of the sun – certainly confirms. To imagine the
cosmos in elevation, looking across the cosmos from outside of the
cosmos, the universe appears as a series of virtual cylinders, one inside
the other. The heavenly wheels rise and fall on these virtual cylinders,
without changing their angle of inclination.
In a three-dimensional view, very different from a plan or aerial view,
Anaximander’s cosmos appears as a cosmic axle, a spindle, and its overall
shape is cylindrical. This fits well within the context that Anaximander
imagined the shape of the earth as an architectural element, a column drum,
that had both symbolic and cosmic significance for his community. The stone
architecture replaced the earlier wooden architecture, in which the columns
were trees. And since Anaximander’s cosmos is conceived in terms of
these tree segments, it makes sense to imagine Anaximander’s living cosmos
as a great cosmic tree.
If we imagine, for the moment, a cross-section of a tree, with concentric
rings, and then project that plan view into three dimensions, the
cylindrical, not spherical form pops out. Below, we have a reconstruction of
Anaximander’s cosmos, after Couprie, in a three-dimensional projection:
How does this new reading of Anaximander square with Heidegger’s vision,
either of Anaximander or art and architecture? In the Epilogue to “The
Origin of the Work of Art,” Heidegger asks us to reflect again on Hegel’s
pronouncement that art can no longer count on the side of our highest
vocation. Is it still possible for art to function as an essential and
necessary way in which truth happens which is decisive for our historical
If art can no longer provide this truth, the question certainly remains why
this is so. But, according to Heidegger, the truth of Hegel’s judgment has
not yet been decided. No final verdict has been given. Why? Because “behind
this verdict,” says Heidegger, “there stands Western thought since the
Greeks, which thought corresponds to a truth of beings that has already
Thus, for Heidegger, there is still a promise for the future because there
was such a happening of truth in the past. For Hegel, the happening of the
truth in the past was not the highest truth of being, just the
highest truth available at that stage in history’s progress. And so, there
is no need for Hegel, as there is for Heidegger, to seek a return to this
philosophical Garden of Eden, this original and primordial accord.
For Heidegger, who does not subscribe to the particular historical progress
that Hegel identifies, the fact of Presocratic philosophy is the testimony
to the highest truth of all time, since it is the truth of Being in all of
its obfuscating disclosure. Since there was, long ago, a primordial accord
for the earliest of earlycomers, there may still be yet a revival for the
latest of the latecomers. But, what if Heidegger is mistaken in his
attribution of this accord, named for Anaximander as to xreon (and
for Heraclitus alêtheia, Parmenides eon, and so forth),
Heidegger’s project seems to collapse. Perhaps, however, the new reading of
Anaximander is not as devastating as it first seems. Heidegger’s
interpretation of the early Greek thinkers rests on the question of how
Being presences. If the new interpretation of Anaximander does not undermine
Heidegger’s assessment of how Being presences, perhaps no radical revision
is called for. But, perhaps not.
The fragment of Anaximander testifies to a vision of nature’s
self-regulating mechanism. There is a cosmic justice that appears in the
cycles of nature. The justice appears, not as an arbitrary or contingent
fact, but rather as to xreon, as “necessity” itself. Human being, and
human meaning, find a place in this context. But Anaximander’s cosmic vision
is not the self-unfolding of Dasein, a truth that is revealed in human
being. The truth for Anaximander reaches outward, it announces the origins
of cosmology in which humans seek to grasp what is absolutely external to
ourselves, while, at the same time, it affirms our capacity to do so.
Anaximander invites us to reject a vision of Dasein’s self-disclosure, and
embrace instead the metaphysically real that is outside myself.
Anaximander thus offers an example of a "Denken" which lacks "Geborgenheit".
For Anaximander deconstructs the dome of the universe under which "Dasein"
felt safe and "geborgen". His universe is no longer the warm cover of
the mantle of the heavens, nor the safety of the goddess arching over
mankind, but the unfathomable depth of the circling celestial bodies, wheels
of cosmic fire somehow separated off from a more original, more primordial
fire. The cosmos is not a dome, and not spherical, but is rather
cylindrical, containing cylinders within cylinders. The cosmos is a living,
growing – perhaps fire-breathing – tree. What then of Heidegger’s project in
the light of the new horizon that appears from our re-thinking of
Anaximander and the Greek temple?
Karsten Harries, The Ethical Function of Architecture
[henceforth, EFA] Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press, 1997, p.
Hegel, Vorlesungen über
die Aesthetik, 1937, 12:125., Trans.
F.P.B. Osmaston, in
Selections from The Philosophy of Fine Arts,” in Philosophies of Art
and Beauty, ed. Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns Chicago: Chicago
University Press, 1976, p. 439.
Harries, EFA, p. 354.
Vorlesungen, Osmaston p. 388; Martin Heidegger, “The Origin
of the Work of Art” [henceforth, OAW], in Poetry,
Language, and Thought, Trans. A. Hofstadter, New York: Harper
Torchbooks, 1975, p. 80.
Cf. Martin Heidegger, “The Anaximander Fragment” [henceforth AF],
in Early Greek Thinking, Trans. D.F. Krell and F. Capuzzi,
New York: Harper and Row, 1975, pp. 26, 36, et alia, in
addition to the usual citation in the Heraclitus essays.
Harries, EFA, p. 209.
Heidegger Sein und Zeit [henceforth, SZ] pp. 391; Being and Time
[henceforth, BT], Trans. J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson, New York:
Harper and Row, 1962, p. 443.
Harries, EFA, p. 209.
Heidegger, AF, p. 50.
Heidegger, “Aletheia” in Early Greek Thinking, Trans. D.F.
Krell and F. Capuzzi, New York: Harper and Row, 1975.
AF, p. 40.
Heidegger, “Building Dwelling Thinking” in Poetry, Language, and
Thought, Trans. A. Hofstadter, New York: Harper Torchbooks,
1975, p. 150.
Harries, EFA, p. 158.
OWA, p. 47.
AF, p. 26.
Heidegger, AF, p. 50.
Harries EFA, p. 157ff.
Harries, EFA, p. 158.
Cf. Mircea Eliade, Cosmos and History: The Myth of the Eternal
Return, trans. Willard R. Task (New York: Harper Torchbooks,
1959), pp. 76ff.
Heidegger, OWA, p. 42.
AF, p. 37.
OWA, pp. 41-42.
It is important to note that Pherecydes of the 7th century BCE also
is credited with a prose treatise. But, since he became regarded as
a theologos, not phusiologos like Anaximander, it is
Anaximander who enjoys recognition as the first philosophical writer
in prose. In archaic Greece, the only other evidence we have for
prose writing is in terms of legal inscriptions. In the sixth
century, however, Anaximander and the architects, alone, are
recognized for the earliest prose books.
Herodotus, Histories 1.56 et alia.
The Djed pillar also came to be associated with the backbone of god
Osiris, the cosmic vertebrae.
Hahn, Anaximander and the Architects: The Contributions of
Egyptian and Greek Architectural Technologies to the Origins of
Greek Philosophy [henceforth, A&A], Albany, New York:
SUNY Press, 2001.
Cf. Hahn, A&A, ch.2-F for an exploration of the theories
concerning the symbolic meaning of the Greek temple and its parts.
Cf. Homer, Iliad 8,13016; 18,607ff; 21, 194ff; 14,200ff. Cf.
also Kirk-Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers, Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press, 1957, p. 10.
Hesiod, Theogony 722-726; cf. also the 9+1 formula at
Vitruvius, The Ten Books on Architecture, Trans. M.H. Morgan, New
York: Dover Press, 1960, III,3.7.
Wesenberg, Beiträge zur Reconstruktion griechischer Architektur
nach literarischen quellen, Mitteilungen des Deutschen
Archäologischen Instituts, Athenische Abteilung, 9 Beiheft, 1983,
pp. 23ff. Where
Wesenberg traces out the reception of the module and theory of
proportions from Krischen’s 1921 work, and following.
J. J. Coulton, Ancient Greek Architects at Work, Ithaca, New
York: Cornell University Press, 1977, p. 24. For discussion of how
the rules of proportion worked, cf. pp. 64-67.
Cf. Wesenberg, 1983, pp. 23-36ff. Wesenberg traces the discussion
from Krischen and investigates the problem of determining where,
precisely, on the tapering column, the column diameter – the module
– is to be measured.
Cf. Wesenberg, 1983, esp. 29ff, but for the criticism, cf. Gruben
Homer, Odyssey, 1,53.
Hesiod, Theogony, 517ff.
Pindar, Pythian Odes, 1,39ff.
Aristotle, Metaphysics A.
 H. Diels and
W. Kranz, Die fragmente der Vorsokratiker, Berlin: Felix
Meiner Verlag, 1935, DK 12B5.
Cf. Hahn, A&A, ch. 3-D.
I have already argued that the numbers must be distances to the
wheels, not sizes of them, cf. A&A, ch.4. While I
certainly do acknowledge that the testimony from Aetius and
Hippolytus – plasiona – suggests size of, not distance to, the
heavenly wheels, I regard the testimony to arise from either a
corruption or misunderstanding. Anaximander was the first of the
Greek philosophers to grasp the very idea of cosmic space, that is,
depth in the cosmos. He places the stars so distant that only poetic
formula could express the great expanse that separates us from them.
The moon is not merely farther than the extraordinarily distant
stars but extraordinarily more distant than them. And the sun lies
behind the moon, which in turn lies behind the stars, at distances
so incomprehensible that they can only be indicated by proportions
Cf. DK 12A11, Aetius II,25,1: “The sun is equal to the earth….”
Cf. DK 12A22, Hippolytus, Ref. 1,6, 4-5. –
Cf. DK 12A21, Aetius, II,20,1 – oktôkaieikosaplasiona. But,
cf. also in Aetius II, 21, 1 where the number 27 is also given. The
scribe (so it has been conjectured by M.L. West, Early Greek
Philosophy and the Orient, Oxford, 1972, pp. 86,n.3) saw ‘9’ for
the star wheel, but his eye ran on to the distance of the moon
wheel, and wrote ‘19’ rather than ‘18’. Then, another scribe who saw
‘18’ for the moon wheel, let his eye run ahead to corrupt ‘27’ as
West, op cit. p. 86,n.3.
Cf. Hahn, A&A, ch.4 for reconstructions of the 3-dimensional views
of Anaximander’s cosmos. They present completely different pictures
that Anaximander imagined. Cf. also c.4 for the argument that
Anaximander was capable of imagining in plan view. The fact that he
is credited with the first map of the inhabited earth is proof
positive of this capacity. The map, worked in bronze or carved in
wood, could only have been in plan view.
DK 12A9, 12A10, 12A11.
Aristotle, Physics 187a20ff; DK 12A9, 12A10; DK 12A22 and
12A21. Cf. also the commentaries by Holscher 1970, and Lloyd 1970.
Literally, the opening is an ekpnoê or “breathing hole,” on
the authority of Hippolytus Ref. 1,6.3.
Hippolytus Ref. I, 6,4.
DK 12B4. Diel’s rightly regarded the expression as genuinely
The anticipation of Heraclitus is obvious here.
DK 12A10, on the authority of Psuedo-Plutarch, is mistaken.
DK 12A1, on the late authority of Diogenes Laertius, and in the Suda,
DK 12A10, hôs tên dendrôi phloion.
Cf. West, op. cit., p. 85-86; cf. also Couprie 1998.
This ideal of a the tree as cosmos is the one embraced by Pherecydes
who, in the seventh century BCE wrote a prose treatise on the
marriage of Zas and Chthoniê.
By kind permission of Dirk Couprie, cf. also Hahn A&A, ch.4.
Heidegger, OWA, p. 80.
Heidegger, OWA, p. 80.
Cf. Heidegger, OWA, p. 51 where he insists that this
recognition is not a call for a revival of Greek philosophy, as