Origins of Speculative Thought
He was an astronomer, an engineer, a speculative thinker, and one of the earliest of Greek philosophers, whose names remains synonymous with wisdom…
Thales was, as can best be deduced, born in the Phœnician port of Miletus around 625 B.C. His parents being Euxamius and Cleobule were said to have descended from the noble family of Cadmus, the great founder of the city of Thebes (where the ill-fated Œdipus once ruled as King). According to Diogenes Lærtius in his Lives & Opinions of Eminent Philosophers Thales involved himself with affairs of the state before turning to philosophy.
Life Before Philosophy
Herodotus writing in the fifth century B.C. says Thales was serving as a military engineer to King Crœsus who wished to pass his armies across the river Halys (now known as the Kizilirmak River in Turkey). Thales oversaw the diverting of the river by various channels and canals making the river fordable. Herodotus reports the engineering feat: “Crœsus was in doubt how he should get his army across, as the bridges were not made at this time, and that Thales, who happened to be in the camp, divided the stream and caused it to flow on both sides of the army instead of the left only.” (Histories I. 75) This tactic was later used by King Cyrus when he marched into Babylon by way of the mighty Euphrates.
As an astronomer the poet Callimachus attributes the discovery of Ursa Minor to Thales, by which Phœnician sailors used for navigation. He is also credited with predicting a solar eclipse which modern astronomers have dated to May 28th 585 B.C. Thales had studied in Babylon whose astronomers were intimately acquainted with the knowledge of solar and lunar eclipses, though, perhaps not sufficiently enough to accurately predict solar eclipses.
Thales also studied in Egypt and there he learned geometry from the Priesthood, and here Thales is said to have calculated the height of pyramids by measuring the length of their shadows; he also placed a right angle triangle within a circle, and discovered that two angles of the isosceles triangle are identical.
Some sources say he led a solitary reclusive life, others that he was married and had a son named Cibissus, still others say he adopted the son of his sister. When his mother encouraged him to marry he replied that it was not yet time, but in his old age he lamented: “Alas! for there is no more time.”
In his own lifetime he was counted as one of the Seven Sages of Greek antiquity and is said to have written various treatises none of which are extant. Several of Thales’ aphorisms are preserved by Diogenes Lærtius but whether or not they can be definitively attributed to Thales is in some doubt, though the infamous “Know thyself” is among the said aphorisms.
Philosophy of Thales
As far as his philosophy is concerned it is less natural than mystical. Thales, we are told by Aristotle, advanced the theory of the earth resting on water, a notion that had its antecedents in ancient Egypt. Aristotle in his De Cælo writes: “Others say the earth rests on water. This, indeed, is the oldest theory that has been preserved, and is attributed to Thales of Miletus. It was supposed to stay still because it floated like wood and other similar substances”
Thales seemed to believe that water was the first principle, or αρχη (arche) that water in various forms as either condensed, solidified, or rarefied, made up the tangible and visible world. He ascribed the influence of gods to the transformation of water into its varying stages, thus the attribution that all things are “full of gods,” though Aristotle can do no more than conjecture as to how Thales came by this theory.
His theory that water is the first principle is not as nonsensical as it sounds to modern ears when seen perhaps as a remnant of earlier beliefs. The Greek Hesiod said that all life sprang from the primeval waters Okeanos (whence our word ocean derives), the Egyptians too believed in a watery chaos whom they called Nun on which the earth rested; and in the first chapter of Genesis we read: “Now the Earth proved to be formless and waste and there was darkness upon the surface of the watery deep.” The Hebrew word used is thehohm meaning ‘primeval ocean’ or ‘watery abyss.’
It seems probable that the vestige of a dark and primeval watery beginning for mankind lay buried deep in the vault of man’s unconscious for many millennia…
Many of the Greek deities were inherited from those established on the Mesopotamian plain along with their Mystery cults which continued through the advent of Christianity; but something new developed with Thales, in that, he was somehow emancipated from cultural myth and sought answers in natural phenomena: his philosophy leaned more toward science than religion.
Legacy of Thales
It would be improper not to end with an anecdote preserved by Diogenes in his Lives & Opinions… where it is said that Thales was walking along and staring up at the skies when suddenly he fell into a well, whereupon a young servant girl saw this eminent sage and began to mock him saying: “What is the use of studying the skies if you are not aware of what is beneath your feet?”
Thales died at either seventy-eight or ninety depending of which source one chooses, but how old he was is not as important as how he lived. While he was not wholly free of myth he took a giant step toward the beginning of speculative thought among the Greeks. More scientist than philosopher he remains first in the Greek tradition that saw its zenith with the Grecian trinity of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. It is quite apt that after Thales died these words were inscribed upon his tomb.
“You see this tomb is small, but recollect
The fame of Thales reaches to the skies.”