Study Guide

Thales of Miletus

Thales of Miletus Biography

Biography (Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)

0111200394-Thales.jpgThales of Miletus (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Greek philosopher{$I[g]Greece;Thales of Miletus} Through his various theories, Thales countered supernatural and mythical explanations of nature, attempting to replace them with empirically derived answers. He became a transitional figure between the worlds of philosophy and science.

Early Life

Few details are known about the life of the man many call “the father of philosophy.” Ancient tradition often fixed a person’s birth date by a major event. According to Apollodorus, an Athenian historian of the second century b.c.e., the major event in the life of Thales (THAY-leez) was the solar eclipse of 585-584 b.c.e., when he was forty years old. If this is correct, Thales was born c. 624. He was a member of a distinguished family from the port city of Miletus, Ionia, on the west coast of Asia Minor. Thales’ upper-class background meant that he had the luxury of spending his life engaged in intellectual pursuits.

Although probably from Phoenicia originally, Thales’ family most likely lived in Miletus for several generations. Besides his social standing, his place of birth is also significant. Miletus was the major trading center of the Aegean Sea in the sixth century b.c.e. The coastal city entertained merchants from Egypt, Greece, and the Persian Empire. It possessed both a frontier spirit and a cosmopolitan, intellectual environment. A thriving economic center with a rich mixture of Near Eastern and Greek cultures, Miletus had no traditional, government-imposed beliefs that it sanctioned; life in Miletus was unconventional.

The body of knowledge familiar to the young Thales came principally from two sources: the earliest Greek writers and the scholars of Egypt and Babylon. Their ideas played a significant role in the philosophy of Thales, not because of their influence on him but rather because of his departure from them. Among the first ideas Thales encountered were those from the writings of Homer and Hesiod. Both these Greek writers speculated on the origins of the world and certain natural phenomena. Their answers, however, were always found within the realm of the Olympian gods. Homer and Hesiod did gather some factual data that they incorporated into their writings, but scientific advancement was impossible as long as nature was interpreted as the supernatural caprices of the gods. Greek thinkers before Thales had some knowledge of natural occurrences but never moved toward a more rational analysis. Theirs was an anthropomorphic world. Mythology served as both science and history prior to the revolution in thought that occurred in Miletus during the mid-sixth century.

The other information common to scholars such as Thales came from the Near East. The ancients of Egypt and Babylon had long experimented with their own forms of science and mathematics. The wonders of the Egyptian pyramids and other structures interested the Ionians, and the Babylonians claimed the attention of scholars for their study of the stars. While the achievements of these Near Eastern civilizations were remarkable, they were also limited in their scope. The Egyptians never converted their practical knowledge of mathematics and engineering into theories and principles. The Babylonians compiled volumes of notes on the heavens and developed astrology, a discipline hardly resembling astronomy. This was the intellectual climate, complete with preconceptions and misconceptions about natural “science,” into which Thales was born.

Life’s Work

The philosophy Thales espoused must be gleaned from the excerpts and comments of other authors. Herodotus, Aristotle, and Diogenes are the most notable ancient writers who included Thales in their works, and Thales’ contributions are represented consistently in all three accounts. Thales bridged the gap between superstition and reason. Aristotle credited Thales with being the first recorded Milesian in a line of pre-Socratic philosophers who attempted to define nature in terms of nature itself. The questions Thales asked and the assumptions he proposed changed philosophy and science and laid a rational foundation on which others could build.

Thales searched for the “stuff,” as the ancients referred to it, which composed all existing matter. He assumed that among the infinite variety of things on Earth there must be one underlying source of their existence. Though the stuff might change its form, it essentially retained its properties. Through observation, Thales concluded that the first principle of the world must be water. It was the prime substance of all things, and Earth floated on a cushion of it.

The matter of Thales’ theory also possessed the quality of fluidity. It was to some degree alive and caused the change perceived in the visible world. Thales compared the inner power of water to a magnet that moves a piece of iron. This animism was typical of sixth century philosophy. It compelled Thales to conclude that all things are “full of gods.” Although he used religious language, Thales did not adhere to a prevalent religious system—nor did he attempt to deify water in the traditional sense of ancient custom. To Thales, that which gave continual life must, in the vernacular of the time, be to some extent divine. Water was that life-giving substance that, in one form or another, composed everything and thus merited the term “god,” not an anthropomorphic Olympian god but a new secular...

(The entire section is 2239 words.)