Thales of Miletus

Pythagoras had benefited by the instruction of Thales in many respects, but his greatest lesson had been to learn the value of saving time, which led him to abstain entirely from wine and animal food, avoiding greediness, confining himself to nutriments of easy preparation and digestion. As a result, his sleep was short, his soul pure and vigilant, and the general health of his body was invariable.

– Iamblichus

Thales, a man of Miletus, of Phoenician descent…

John Burnet:
The founder of the Milesian school, and therefore the first man of science, was Thales; but all we can really be said to know of him comes from Herodotos, and the Tale of the Seven Wise Men was already in existence when he wrote. He says that Thales was of Phoenician descent, a statement which other writers explained by saying he belonged to a noble house descended from Kadmos and Agenor. Herodotos probably mentions the supposed descent of Thales simply because he was believed to have introduced certain improvements in navigation from Phoenicia. At any rate, his father’s name, Examyes, lends no support to the view that he was a Semite. It is Karian, and the Karians had been almost completely assimilated by the Ionians. On the monuments we find Greek and Karian names alternating in the same families, while the name Thales is otherwise known as Cretan. There is therefore no reason to doubt that Thales was of pure Milesian descent, though he probably had Karian blood in his veins.

When he had attained his eighteenth year, there arose the tyranny of Policrates; and Pythagoras
foresaw that under such a government his studies might be impeded, as they engrossed the whole of  his attention. So by night he privately departed with one Hermodamas, – who was sumamed Creophilus, and was the grandson of the host, friend and general preceptor of the poet Homer, – going to Phorecydes, to Anaximander the natural philosopher, and to Thales at Miletu. He successively associated with each of those philosophers in a manner such that they all loved him, admired his natural endowments, and admitted him to the best of their doctrines, Thales especially, on gladly admitting him to the intimacies of his confidence, admired the great difference between him and other young men, who were in every accomplishment surpassed by Pythagoras. After increasing the reputation Pythagoras had already acquired, by communicating to him the utmost he was able to impart to him, Thales, laying stress on his advanced age and the infirmities of his body, advised him to go to Egypt, to get in touch with the priests of Memphis and Jupiter. Thales confessed that the instruction of these priests was the source of his own reputation for wisdom, while neither his own endowments nor achievements equaled those which were so evident in Pythagoras. Thales insisted that, in view of all this, if Pythagoras should study with those priests, he was certain of becoming the wisest and most divine of men.

John Burnet:
So far as we know, Thales wrote nothing, and no writer earlier than Aristotle knows anything of him as a scientific man and a philosopher; in the older tradition he is simply an engineer and an inventor.

John Burnet:
No doubt he constructed a παράπηγμα like those of much later date which have been discovered at Miletos. The παράπηγμα was the oldest form of almanac, and gave, for a series of years, the equinoxes and solstices, the phases of the moon, the heliacal risings and settings of certain stars, and also weather predictions. Even Aristotle does not pretend to know how Thales arrived at the views he ascribes to him or by what arguments they were supported. This very reserve, however, makes it hard to doubt that he was correctly informed with regard to the few points about them he mentions, so we may venture on a conjectural restoration of his cosmology. This, of course, must be taken for just what it is worth.

Laurency ():
5.9 Aristoteles
3Most of what the historians know of earlier philosophers comes via Aristoteles. He had a habit of reporting in his own way what he did not use himself.

John Burnet:
The statements of Aristotle may be reduced to three:
(1) The earth floats on the water.
(2) Water is the material cause of all things.
(3) All things are full of gods. The magnet is alive; for it has the
power of moving iron.
The first of these statements must be understood in the light of the second, which is expressed in Aristotelian terminology, but would undoubtedly mean that Thales had said water was the stuff of which all other things were transient forms. We have seen that this was the great question of the day.

Thales, the founder of this type of philosophy, says the principle is water (for which reason he declared that the earth rests on water), [getting the notion perhaps from seeing that the nutriment of all things is moist, and that heat itself is generated from the moist and kept alive by it (and that from which they come to be is a principle of all things). He got his notion from this fact, and from the fact that the seeds of all things have a moist nature, and that water is the origin of the nature of moist things].

[Here, Aristotle provides the exoterists with an explanation which can be observed from nature. This is not the complete explanation, however.]

Some think that even the ancients who lived long before the present generation, and first framed accounts of the gods, had a similar view of nature; for they made Ocean and Tethys the parents of creation, and described the oath of the gods as being by water, to which they give the name of Styx; for what is oldest is most honourable, and the most honourable thing is that by which one swears. It may perhaps be uncertain whether this opinion about nature is primitive and ancient, but Thales at any rate is said to have declared himself thus about the first cause.

Others say the earth rests upon 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, which are so constituted as to rest upon but not upon air. As if the same account had not to be given of the water which carries the earth as of the earth itself! It is not the nature of water, any more than of earth, to stay in mid-air: it must have something to rest upon. Again, as air is lighter than water, so is water than earth: how then can they think that the naturally lighter substance lies below the heavier? Again, if the earth as a whole is capable of floating upon water, that must obviously be the case with any part of it. But observation shows that this is not the case. Any piece of earth goes to the bottom, the quicker the larger it is. These thinkers seem to push their inquiries some way into the problem, but not so far as they might].

[Again, he has to explain how this revered philosopher could have arrived at his view from a physicalist perspective.]

John Burnet:
We shall see that Anaximander made some remarkable discoveries in marine biology, which the researches of the nineteenth century have confirmed (§ 22), and even Xenophanes supported one of his theories by referring to the fossils and petrifactions of such widely separated places as Malta, Paros, and Syracuse (§ 59). This is enough to show that the theory, so commonly held by the earlier philosophers, that the earth had been originally in a moist state, was not purely mythological in origin, but based on biological and palaeontological observations. It would surely be absurd to imagine that the men who could make these observations had not the curiosity or the ability to make many others of which the memory is lost. Indeed, the idea that the Greeks were not observers is ludicrously wrong, as is proved by the anatomical accuracy of their sculpture, which bears witness to trained habits of observation, while the Hippokratean corpus contains models of scientific observation at its best. We know, then, that the Greeks could observe well, and we know that they were curious about the world.


Dietrich Eckart:
The Jewish conception of God is of no interest to us Germans! We seek God nowhere but in ourselves, for us the soul is divine, of which the Jew on the other hand, knows nothing! The Kingdom of God is within you (Luke 17:21); thus God also, who belongs to the Kingdom of Heaven. We feel our soul is immortal, eternal from the beginning, and therefore we refuse to be told that we are created from nothingness.

The Track of the Jew
The Jew cannot work with myths and symbols, and if he adopts them it becomes the driest magic (see the Zohar, the Kabbalah), that is why Christ and his teaching of the heavenly kingdom that is “within us” is repugnant to him, here he feels the strongest assault on his being.

Laurency ():
6With the “neo-Platonists” appears the old symbol of “creation out of nothing”, which is beginning to turn up again in modern research. Nuclear physics is “splitting atoms” so that “nothing” remains. According to Pythagoras, the atoms of primordial matter seem to be “impenetrable, infinitesimal voids in primordial matter” and thus “nothing”. The cosmos is made up of primordial atoms and thus is “created out of nothing”.

Dietrich Eckart:
The result would again be chaos. For this word, correctly translated, means an infinite void, nothingness.

Laurency ():
14“Everything has come from water” (Thales, the first generally known hylozoician). This is a hint that the solid state of aggregation has crystallized out of the liquid state. This was an esoteric tenet that was found in the ancient Kabbalah of the Chaldeans, which the Jews later revised. It was because of this that, “according to Moses”, spirit produced everything by “hovering over the waters”.

Genesis 1:2 LXX
But the earth was unsightly and unfurnished, and darkness was over the deep, and the Spirit of God moved over the water.

Quran 21:30
Have those who disbelieved not considered that the heavens and the earth were a joined entity, and We separated them and made from water every living thing? Then will they not believe?

Against the Galileans
But whether that spirit was ungenerated or had been generated he does not make at all clear. In all this, you observe, Moses does not say that the deep was created by God, or the darkness or the waters. And yet, after saying concerning light that God ordered it to be, and it was, surely he ought to have gone on to speak of night also, and the deep and the waters. But of them he says not a word to imply that they were not already existing at all, though he often mentions them. Furthermore, he does not mention the birth or creation of the angels or in what manner they were brought into being, but deals only with the heavenly and earthly bodies. It follows that, “according to Moses”, God is the creator of nothing that is incorporeal, but is only the disposer of matter that already existed. For the words, “And the earth was invisible and without form” can only mean that he regards the wet and dry substance as the original matter and that he introduces God as the disposer of this matter.

Thales of Miletus, who was the first person to investigate these matters, said that water was the first principle of things, but that god was the mind that moulded all things out of water.

Certain thinkers say that soul is intermingled in the whole universe, and it is perhaps for that reason that Thales came to the opinion that all things are full of gods.

This earth of ours is full of varied life-forms and of immortal beings; to the very heavens it is crowded. And the stars, those of the upper and the under spheres, moving in their ordered path, fellow-travellers with the universe, how can they be less than gods? Surely they must be morally good: what could prevent them? All that occasions vice here below is unknown there evil of body, perturbed and perturbing.

Chrysippus, who is deemed to be the most skilful interpreter of the Stoic dreams, musters an enormous mob of unknown gods — so utterly unknown that even imagination cannot guess at their form and nature, although our mind appears capable of visualizing anything; for he says that divine power resides in reason, and in the soul and mind of the universe; he calls the world itself a god, and also the all-pervading world-soul, and again the guiding principle of that soul, which operates in the intellect and reason, and the common and all-embracing nature of things; beside this, the fire that I previously termed aether; and also the power of Fate, and the Necessity that governs future events; and also all fluid and soluble substances, such as water, earth, air, the sun, moon and stars, and the all-embracing unity of things; and even those human beings who have attained immortality.
He also argues that the god whom men call Jupiter is the aether, and that Neptune is the air which permeates the sea, and the goddess called Ceres the earth; and he deals in the same way with the whole series of the names of the other gods. He also identifies Jupiter with the mighty Law, everlasting and eternal, which is our guide of life and instructress in duty, and which he entitles Necessity or Fate, and the Everlasting Truth of future events; none of which conceptions is of such a nature as to be deemed to possess divinity.
This is what is contained in his Nature of the Gods, Book I.

Thales, too, to judge from what is recorded about him, seems to have held soul to be a motive force, since he said that the magnet has a soul in it because it moves the iron.

Thales of Miletus and Hippo said it is water because they saw that the seeds of animals and the nourishment of both animals and plants are made of water.

Diogenes Laertius:
Aristotle and Hippias affirm that, arguing from the magnet and from amber, he attributed a soul or life even to inanimate objects.

Laurency (L3e2):
3Philosophers have fantasized in the clouds on such sayings of the ancients as “everything is ensouled” or “the magnet has a soul, for it attracts iron”. “Soul” and “spirit” were hylozoic terms that both denoted consciousness in general. In their usual naïveté the exoterists then thought that the “soul of everything” meant that the same kind of soul or consciousness was present in all things. The souls of the stone, of the plant, of the beast, and of man were placed on a par, and then they could indulge in an orgy of roaring laughter at such superstition. The same old story: ignorance taking the throne of wisdom. But were the Bostromian philosophers much smarter? At philosophical seminars they could assert that the chairs they were sitting on had “self-consciousness”, for Boström said so.

William Gilbert:
Thales, as Aristotle writes, De Anima, Bk. I., deemed the loadstone to be endowed with a soul of some sort, because it had the power of moving and drawing iron towards it. Anaxagoras also held the same view. In the Timæus of Plato there is an idle fancy about the efficacy of the stone of Hercules. For he says that “all flowings of water, likewise the fallings of thunderbolts, and the things which are held wonderful in the attraction of Amber, and of the Herculean stone, are such that in all these there is never any attraction; but since there is no vacuum, the particles drive one another mutually around, and when they are dispersed and congregated together, they all pass, each to its proper seat, but with changed places; and it is forsooth, on account of these intercomplicated affections that the effects seem to arouse the wonder in him who has rightly investigated them.”

“Some people hypothesise one only, some hypothesising water, some air, some fire, and some hypothesise that it is something finer than water but denser than air, which they say contains all the heavens, being infinite.”

“There are several such people, and different people hypothesised this one element to be something different. Thales of Miletus and Hippo said it is water because they saw that the seeds of animals and the nourishment of both animals and plants are made of water. Anaximander, a fellow citizen and pupil of Thales, said it is something indefinite which is finer than water and denser than air because the substratum should be naturally adapted for the change to either; he was the first to hypothesise that this one is infinite, so that he could use it for comings to be without stinting; and it is thought that he hypothesised infinite worlds and that each of the worlds came to be from an infinite element of this sort. Anaximenes, a pupil and fellow citizen of Anaximander, also hypothesised that the principle is infinite, but not also indeterminate; he said it is air, thinking that the volatility of air is sufficient to account for change. Diogenes of Apollonia hypothesised the same thing, and Hippasus of Metapontum and Heraclitus of Ephesus, taking into consideration the active power of fire, said that it is the principle.”

“Of those who say that it is one, moving, and infinite, Anaximander, son of Praxiades, a Milesian, the successor and pupil of Thales, said that the principle and element of existing things was the apeiron [indefinite or infinite] being the first to introduce this name of the material principle. He says that it is neither water nor any other of the so-called elements but some other apeiron nature, from which come into being all the heavens and the worlds in them. And the source of coming-to-be for existing things is that into which destruction, too, happens ‘according to necessity; for they pay penalty and retribution to each other for their injustice according to the assessment of time,’ as he describes it in these rather poetical terms. It is clear that he, seeing the changing of the four elements into each other, thought it right to make none of these the substratum, but something else besides these; and he produces coming-to-be not through the alteration of the element, but by the separation off of the opposites through the eternal motion.” (Physics, 24)


The first point relating to the Jews which is fitted to excite wonder, is that they should worship the heaven and the angels who dwell therein, and yet pass by and neglect its most venerable and powerful parts, as the sun, the moon, and the other heavenly bodies, both fixed stars and planets, as if it were possible that ‘the whole’ could be God, and yet its parts not divine…

Against the Gnostics
Still more unreasonably: There are men, bound to human bodies and subject to desire, grief, anger, who think so generously of their own faculty that they declare themselves in contact with the Intelligible World, but deny that the sun possesses a similar faculty less subject to influence, to disorder, to change; they deny that it is any wiser than we, the late born, hindered by so many cheats on the way towards truth.
Their own soul, the soul of the least of mankind, they declare deathless, divine; but the entire heavens and the stars within the heavens have had no communion with the Immortal Principle, though these are far purer and lovelier than their own souls…

Against the Galileans
What need have I to summon Hellenes and Hebrews as witnesses of this? There exists no man who does not stretch out his hands towards the heavens when he prays; and whether he swears by one god or several, if he has any notion at all of the divine, he turns heavenward. And it was very natural that men should feel thus.
For since they observed that in what concerns the heavenly bodies there is no increase or diminution or mutability, and that they do not suffer any unregulated influence, but their movement is harmonious and their arrangement in concert; and that the illuminations of the moon are regulated, and that the risings and settings of the sun are regularly defined, and always at regularly defined seasons, they naturally conceived that the heaven is a god and the throne of a god.
For a being of that sort, since it is not subject to increase by addition, or to diminution by subtraction, and is stationed beyond all change due to alteration and mutability, is free from decay and generation, and inasmuch as it is immortal by nature and indestructible, it is pure from every sort of stain. Eternal and ever in movement, as we see, it travels in a circuit about the great Creator, whether it be impelled by a nobler and more divine soul that dwells therein, just as, I mean, our bodies are by the soul in us, or having received its motion from God Himself, it wheels in its boundless circuit, in an unceasing and eternal career.