The first ancient Greek philosopher on record, by the name of Thales, lived and pondered about the nature of things in the city of Miletus some 2,600 years ago. He is among those thinkers who will be called the Pre-Socratics (all who were before Socrates. i.e. a period of ~150 years). Also, he belongs to a special ‘sub-group’ of early philosophers, the so-called Milesians. There were three of them, in chronological order – Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes. This trio stemmed from the same city of Miletus (hence, the title Milesians) and was active roughly during the same time, the first half of the 6th century BCE (before common era). Thales was the oldest, Anaximander a little younger and Anaximenes the youngest. It is not certain, although sometimes assumed, that they had successive teacher-student connections. Nevertheless, we can be reasonably sure that they knew of and influenced each other’s ideas. If you are curious to learn a bit more about the historical context leading up to these first thinkers, have a look at my articles – part 1 and part 2. And now, let`s get to know Thales of Miletus, the first Greek philosopher.
Not much evidence is available about these first philosophers and least of all about their oldest member, Thales. The richest source of information about the early Pre-Socratics is Aristotle and his student Theophrastus. Nevertheless, also back then it was tough historical research with roughly 200 years separating them from the Milesians. Also, Aristotle is not always the most reliable source as he tends to interpret the thoughts of early thinkers from his own conceptual perspective. Still, he and his student offer the richest source available to us.
In this article, I explore the following three ideas of Thales that are interesting to understand his philosophical point of view:
- the fundamental principle of everything is water
- “All things are full of gods”1
- magnets have souls
To many of us, these thoughts might seem either crazy or, at least, arbitrary. Perhaps except for the first one. So, let`s start with that.
The fundamental principle of everything is water
Thales, like the other Milesians, tried to understand the world around him. He was searching for the underlying power, the fundamental force, the cosmic principle that governs all that exists. Note, philosophers were not the first ones to consider such things. The whole account of how the ancient Greek gods came to be and then created and shaped everything is an early, pre-philosophic version of such an explanation. However, there is a crucial difference between the mythological/religious and philosophical approaches. The ‘object’ of research remains the same but the method of enquiry changes. Aristotle called Thales the first to engage in the search for “causes and principles” of the natural world. He was the first trying to understand the nature of the world on its own terms, based on its own inherent principles. The mythological account explains everything through supernatural forces that are, ultimately, incomprehensible to mere mortal humans. Early Greek thinkers with Thales leading the way did not accept such an approach and basically stated that everything is an ordered natural structure and it is, therefore, possible for us to understand it. Out of this emerges the first philosophical approach to searching for an answer to the big question – what is the nature of the world.
For Thales, the answer is – water. He saw this as a crucial ‘stuff’ for the existence of everything. Potentially, Thales considered water as the original state of things and the condition required for everything natural. Possibly, he came to this idea based on his observations of the importance of water to all life and how it perishes without water. However, we should be careful not to interpret this thought from the modern natural sciences perspective.
As we saw, if Thales started to ask questions about the nature of everything, he would initially have landed in the realm of mythology that offered commonly accepted answers. If he was no longer satisfied with the literal account of the myths, he still could have probed into the deeper layers of that ancient tradition. If gods from the myths with their creative capacities are regarded as fundamental cosmic principles and if life needs water to survive and thrive, perishing without it, then it is easy to imagine how Thales could have connected the dots and created this conceptual bridge. The ‘divine’ – or life-creating/sustaining – principle of everything is water because in its absence there is and can be no life. If so, this brings us to his second idea.
“All things are full of gods”
Following our interpretation so far, if we substitute the literal reading of the word ‘gods’ for its deeper sense of the cosmic principle that underlies all that is natural, all life, then, indeed, it is easier to agree with Thales on this one. Perhaps, if we want to be very precise, we should add that all living things are full of what he refers to as ‘gods’. Here, however, we come to the third idea of Thales, probably the most surprising one.
Magnets have souls
According to Aristotle, what we see here is the beginning of a long philosophical tradition to associate the soul with motion. Soul, in turn, is linked with the life principle itself. Indeed, this idea will still be very much alive 21 centuries after Aristotle (that’s more than 2,000 years!). The famous French philosopher Descartes will use this thought as part of his dualism argument stating that our bodies are just physical substances that we have in common also with corpses and they need another substance that would make them move around – soul/mind.
So, with this in mind, if magnets can initiate motion, as Thales had probably observed, then it must be because they have souls, the life principle that enables movement. This, in turn, means that also magnets are “full of gods” – that fundamental cosmic principle underlying all nature. This, incidentally, is a good place to link to the first idea of Thales (water as the nature of the world), which will allow us to close the circle.
We saw how the concept of life force is connected with motion. Based on this, it is clear how Thales could have explained that a magnet has a soul and, thus, is also full of ‘gods’. Yet, how does his fundamental water principle fit in with the case of the magnet? Was Thales really claiming that magnets consist of water? Aristotle proposed that, indeed, the early Greek philosophers, including Thales, thought that their chosen fundamental substances not only initiate everything and thereby represent the essence, but also are the basic constituent parts that everything is made of. This, however, seems unlikely. It might just be one of Aristotle`s more biased interpretations of his predecessors. What is more probable and, also, more in line with the little evidence that is available, is that Thales, like other Milesians, searched for the fundamental nature/principle of everything, not necessarily the structure of everything. Still, if we want to remain persistent, how can water be the inherent nature or cosmic principle of a magnet?
Let’s think about the seemingly simple characteristic of water. What is it? Fluidity. Water flows, drips, drops, rushes. Even apparently stagnant water bodies can have deep currents below the surface. All of this means movement. Since motion is associated with having a soul or the life force, it is this simple property of water that lets us link all three philosophical claims of Thales together in a coherent framework. Moreover, it may well be that this property of water along with its importance to all nature was what inspired Thales to associate motion with soul and with life force. From this perspective, water really seems like a perfect candidate for the role of the underlying principle of everything.
With this, I conclude the brief introduction of Thales the Milesian, the first Greek philosopher and a man who gave magnets souls. Hope you enjoyed, until next time!
Sources I used to write this article:
- Peter Adamson “Classical Philosophy”, the first volume in his series “A history of philosophy without any gaps”, Oxford University Press 2014
- Wilhelm Weischedel “Die philosophische Hintertreppe: Die grossen Philosophen in Alltag und Denken” (in German), 46th edition dtv Verlagsgesellschaft mbH & Co. KG, Munich 2018
- Curd, Patricia, “Presocratic Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2019/entries/presocratics/>
(a) Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=190746
6 thoughts on “Thales of Miletus or the First Greek Philosopher”
Thales is starting to make sense to me now. I think of the ancient Greeks as believing that water is the softer gentler element. So whereas “Time” tells you “You’re going to get old and die,” “Water tells you the same thing but in a nicer softer way that is easier to take. But I see how water can also be animating, as you point out. At the risk of seeming really really weird–no, I mean really–I sometimes wonder if that is what the singer Florence Welch means by “What the Water Told Me.”
Thanks for your comment and I’m glad you liked the article. Later Greek thinkers, like one of the other Milesians, will choose different elements than water to serve as their fundamental principles of nature. However, it seems to me they tried to capture the dynamism of what they saw everywhere in nature. Perhaps that made them associate life with motion. Your idea about the meaning of the song – why not! It may well be the case. Also, the flow of water can be seen as an eternal cycle of life-death-life, unending. On a more optimistic note, water always finds a way. Where force doesn’t work, it gently carves itself a tiny path where to flow around all obstacles in a stream that with time grows into a mighty river.
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