Neil Mach

Author – Fantasy Realism

Apeiron is an ancient Greek word and idea that means: “(that which is) unlimited, boundless, infinite, or indefinite...”

The word is used to describe a construct: in other words, a thing that does not exist in objective reality but exists only because we humans agree the thing exists…

A book is an Apeiron. And, presumably, so is the Universe! I will get into that in a second…

The Apeiron concept (pronounced APE EAR RON) was the central contention of a pre-Socratic philosopher called (by his mates) Anaximander (who lived in the 6th century BC.) He postulated that beyond all the natural materials that make up our universe, beyond all the solids, liquids, fire and gases, beyond all the atoms of which these materials are made, there must be something else that is unseen yet renders such things capable of being treated as fact — there must be another boundless and non-dimensional “thing” that can’t be seen, touched or measured by us — but nonetheless it is appreciated and works very effectively. He called this boundless, indefinite thing: Apeiron.

What does this Apeiron thing have to do with me and my writing?

If you think about the creation of our world (I use the word creation deliberately, but not trivially), you might agree that, out of a vague and limitless nothingness in space, a mass was formed, a planetary mass that we call earth. Burning fires surrounded the gases around this planet known as earth, until much later, when things got cooler. Once things cooled sufficiently, living creatures spawned in the waters (because the face of the earth was just water) but as earth formed, so land-based animals emerged, and they thrived upon the earth. These land animals ate plants and sometimes other beasts which shared their land. All the animals on earth and under the sea and all the vegetation growing on the planet were transmuted by the effect of the sun and held into place, on the surface of the earth, by the power of immense mass we now call gravity. Humans arose from one of the land animals, although it was originally a water-born creature similar to a fish, but had crawled onto land quite early, and this is how you and I got here.

If this “creation myth” seems recognizable, it should be: it is the same creation myth that is taught in schools. It also has many points in common with the creation myth told in Genesis, the first book of the Holy Bible, although it sounds more scholarly and scientific than the Bible version of events. And that’s because it is scholarly and scientific: it’s how ancient Greek philosophers, astronomers and cosmologists explained the existence of the world back in ancient times. You see, what is remarkable is that this theory, a theory that seems quite modern to us, was developed 2,500 years ago by the scientist known as Anaximander, born in 610 B.C.

All of that is fine, you might say, but what does this Apeiron thing have to do with me and my writing? Well, this is it: Anaximander guessed there must be another limitless “thing” that all other scientists overlooked: something that cannot be seen but is nevertheless very effective. He gave this “thing” a name. He called it Apeiron. In the Holy Bible there is something called the “word” (it is strongly hinted that the “word” is actually an omnipotent creator-God). In fact, the Aramaic Bible states: “In the origin The Word had been existing, and That Word had been existing with God and That Word was himself God.” Yet, in Anaximander’s ancient scientific version of the “creation myth” there is no God, there is no word. There is no supernatural “magic” that makes things appear “out of nowhere.” There is only science (which is why his ideas seem up-to-date to us!)

Anaximander was a rational scientist, and he did not like the “knowledge gap” that his contemporaries overlooked. It’s an obvious gap too! How did the earth come to be formed from a vague and limitless nothing in space? That part of the creation myth makes little sense. Anaximander did not know (at that stage) that the Universe is constantly expanding. He did not know about the uniqueness of the Big Bang, either. But he knew something was missing from the ancient Greek model. So he came up with Apeiron.

Is a book just words on paper or encoded ciphers on a tablet?

Well, that’s all very well, you say, so what if an ancient Greek guy came up with a fancy word to describe something that is too difficult to understand but is kinda an attempt to provide a scientific explanation for God and magic. Is that so? What does it have to do with me, living in the 21st century, doing my best to write stories and create literature using modern technology?

Well, here’s a thing: in Anaximander’s efforts to explain the origins of life, the world and universe, he stumbled upon something amazing! Something spectacular! He stumbled upon the metaphysical aspect of us, the universe and, well, the metaphysical aspect of absolutely everything! You see (and this is the hardest part to understand, so grip onto something firm before you try) nothing actually exists unless there’s some “thought” behind it. (see, I hinted it was a tricky concept to follow!)

As an author and creative, you must reconcile with the Apeiron of Anaximander. Why? Because you use metaphysics all the time. Don’t believe me? Is a book just words on paper or encoded ciphers on a tablet? No. How can I be sure? Because the books I write and the books I choose to read are much more than words on paper: they are sets of ideas. Yes, those sets of ideas — the thoughts behind them — are transmitted via words & ciphers onto a page or screen, but it’s the ideas themselves that have value, not the paper/screen and the encoded ciphers.

Do you understand this? Books are made of material, but the thoughts contained within the material are the “important” bit of the concept. The idea in the book is the Apeiron of Anaximander. The thoughts behind the story are limitless, infinite, and undefined (see the Apeiron definition at the top of the page) and it’s these thoughts that make a book valuable, not the construction materials.

Still don’t get it? Well take money, then. Cash money, I’m talking about, stuff you can hold, like a banknote for example. Currency is constructed from material (our banknotes in Britain are made of plastic these days, yours might be made of paper or cloth) and each banknote has negligible value. Yes, it is true, one bill has exactly the same (infinitesimal) value as any other bill, but which would you prefer me to give you? A twenty-dollar bill? Or a five-dollar bill? Hold both in your hands and inspect them. They are the same, aren’t they… except for an image and some numbers… however, one is four times more valuable than the other? How come? It is the Apeiron of Anaximander at work: it is the “thought behind” the note that makes it valuable. Not the material that’s used in its construction. The “agreed value” of one bank-note makes it more valuable than another, though, in fact, all notes are the same.

Or take a nation. Take England, for example. England just played in the UEFA European Football Championship. But how could England (a nation) do that? How could a nation play a game of football? Don’t you have to be one of eleven humans to play a game of soccer? And, anyway, is England a real thing? Or is England, the thoughts behind it anyway, just an idea, just a construct? Does England even exist as a nation? Kind of yes, and kind of no. It’s part of Great Britain, isn’t it, and also part of the United Kingdom. But it’s also part of an island group in Northern Europe. Do you see? England is “just” an idea. The “idea of England” is an Apeiron. How else can it be explained? Yes, the people who live in the nation have a genuine sense of certainty that it exists. But it does not exist as any material thing, it’s just an “idea”. England is an Apeiron.

Once you go down this boulevard of opportunity, nothing can stop you! Multinational conglomerates don’t really exist: they are Apeirons. Politics do not really exist: they are Apeirons. Governments do not really exist: they are Apeirons. Emotional and mental states are just constructs, aren’t they? In reality, they do not exist: they are Apeirons. Likewise vanity and selfishness. Apeirons. What about love and hate? Apeirons. And religions? And God? And ghosts? And angels? What about living? And what about death? What about the entirety of the universe? All these things are Apeirons! Once you tumble head-first into this frabjous rabbit hole of metaphysics, there is no escape. Some of Anaximander’s colleagues thought his idea was somewhat negative: it implied that life was meaningless (because we humans just make what we want out of it.) They said his idea was nihilistic.

But the Apeirons of Anaximander are also liberating. And I don’t think they are nihilistic at all. They allow us to understand nothingness. Apeirons allow us to give value to nothing. And, let’s be honest, the value of nothing things: things like money, time, love, hate, nationality, life, and creative imagination (just a few on the list) are the most valuable things you and I possess. And that is why I say that Anaximander stumbled upon something amazing! Something spectacular! He came up with a way of attributing breadth & height to the things we least understand but most appreciate. Using his principle of Apeiron, we are able to attribute broadness and stature to the “thoughts behind” the things we can’t see, and the things we can’t easily explain… but these are the things we love the most and the things we understand to be true.

Apeiron is a gift. Use it wisely. Use it well.

I’ll leave the last thought to Anaximander :

The principle and element of things is the undefined...”

— Anaximander of Miletus

Words: @neilmach July 2021 ©

Neil Mach is the author of “So You Want to Write Fantasy?” and host of the Myth & Magic fantasy writer’s podcast

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