Thales | by Ancient Philosophers


Thales | by Ancient Philosophers

Thales appears on lists of the 7 sages of Greece, a traditional catalogue of wise men.

The chronicler Apollodorus suggests that he was born around 625 BCE:

We should accept this date only with caution, as Apollodorus usually calculated birthdates by assuming that a man was 40 years old at the time of his “acme,” or greatest achievement.

Thus, Apollodorus arrives at the date by assuming that Thales indeed predicted an eclipse in 585 BCE, and was 40 at the time.

Plato and Aristotle tell stories about Thales that show that even in Ancient Times philosophers had a mixed reputation for practicality:

1. They say that once
when Thales was gazing upwards while doing astronomy, he fell into a well,

and that a witty and charming Thracian serving-girl made fun of him for being eager to know the things in the heavens but failing to notice what was just behind him and right by his feet.

(Plato, Theaetetus)

2. The story goes that when they were reproaching him for his poverty, supposing that philosophy is useless, he learned from his astronomy that the olive crop would be large.

Then, while it was still winter, he obtained a little money and made deposits on all the olive presses both in Miletus and in Chios, and since no one bid against him, he rented them cheaply.

When the time came, suddenly many requested the presses all at once, and he rented them out on whatever terms he wished, and so he made a great deal of money.

In this way he proved that philosophers can easily be wealthy if they wish,
but this is not what they are interested in.

(Aristotle, Politics)

Thales reportedly studied astronomy (there is evidence for his interest in:

- eclipses, whether or not he had anything to say about the eclipse of 585 BCE),

- geometry (he was said to have introduced the subject into Greece from Egypt),

- and engineering (Herodotus reports that he changed the course of the Halys river in order to aid the Lydian army).

In his account of the cosmos, Thales reportedly said that the basic stuff was water:

This could mean that everything comes from water as the originating source,
or that everything really is water in one form or another.

Aristotle, the source of the reports, seems unsure about which of these propositions Thales adopted. This shows that even by Aristotle’s time, Thales was probably not known by any direct written evidence, but only indirectly.

According to the tradition that Aristotle follows,
Thales also said that the earth rests or floats on water.

Aristotle also reports that Thales thought that soul produces motion
and that a magnetic lodestone has soul because it causes iron to move.

3. Thales said that the Sun suffers eclipse when the Moon comes to be in front of it,
the day in which the moon produces the eclipse being marked by its concealment.


4. Causes are spoken of in 4 ways, of which . . . one is matter. . . .

Let us take as associates in our task our predecessors, who considered the things that are and philosophized about the truth,

for it is clear that they too speak of certain principles and causes,

and so it will be useful to our present inquiry to survey them: either we will find some other kind of cause or we will be more confident about the ones now being discussed.

(Aristotle, Metaphysics)

5. Of those who first pursued philosophy, the majority believed that the only principles of all things are principles in the form of matter:

For that of which all existing things are composed and that from which they originally come to be and that into which they finally perish—the substance persisting but changing in its attributes—

- this they state is the element and principle of the things that are. . . . For, there must be one or more natures from which the rest come to be, while it is preserved.

However, they do not all agree about how many or what kinds of such principles there are, but Thales, the founder of this kind of philosophy, stated it to be water:

(This is why he declared that the earth rests on water.)

He may have gotten this idea from seeing that the nourishment of all things is moist,

and that even the hot itself comes to be from this and lives on this (the principle of all things is that from which they come to be)—

- getting this idea from this consideration and also because the seeds of all things have a moist nature; and water is the principle of the nature of moist things.

(Aristotle, Metaphysics)

6. Some say [the earth] rests on water:

This is the oldest account that we have inherited, and they say that Thales of Miletus said this:

It rests because it floats like wood or some other such thing
(for nothing is by nature such as to rest on air, but on water).

He says this just as though the same argument did not apply to the water supporting the earth as to the earth itself!

(Aristotle, On the Heavens)

7. Some say the soul is mixed in with the whole universe,
and perhaps this is why Thales supposed that all things are full of gods.

(Aristotle, On the Soul)

8. From what is related about him, it seems that Thales too held that the soul is something productive of motion, if indeed he said that the lodestone has soul, because it moves iron.

(Aristotle, On the Soul)