0003 Readings in the History of Philosophy – Thales of Miletus

For an explanation of this series, see 0001 – Readings in the History of Philosophy – Introduction

thales
Thales of Miletus

 

Thales of Miletus (624-586 BC) is regarded by many to be the first philosopher of the western world.  He is noted for being one of the first to predict events in astronomy, for holding that water is the basic element of matter is water, and for allegedly discovering Thales’ Theorem in geometry.

 

Miletus Greece in Modern Day Turkey
Miletus Greece in Modern Day Turkey

 

Since no material written by Thales survives, a quotation from Plato is provided which uses Thales’ example to point out that the philosopher tends to be undistracted by things such as politics, reputation, power, money, ancestries, social events, etc. because his mind is occupied with discovering the foundational principles of the world.

 

Socrates:  “I will illustrate my meaning by the jest of the witty maid-servant, who saw Thales tumbling into a well, and said of him, that he was so eager to know what was going on in heaven, that he could not see what was before his feet. This is applicable to all philosophers. The philosopher is unacquainted with the world; he hardly knows whether his neighbour is a man or an animal. For he is always searching into the essence of man, and enquiring what such a nature ought to do or suffer different from any other. Hence, on every occasion in private life and public, as I was saying, when he appears in a law-court or anywhere, he is the joke, not only of maid-servants, but of the general herd, falling into wells and every sort of disaster; he looks such an awkward, inexperienced creature, unable to say anything personal, when he is abused, in answer to his adversaries (for he knows no evil of any one); and when he hears the praises of others, he cannot help laughing from the bottom of his soul at their pretensions; and this also gives him a ridiculous appearance. A king or tyrant appears to him to be a kind of swine-herd or cow-herd, milking away at an animal who is much more troublesome and dangerous than cows or sheep; like the cow-herd, he has no time to be educated, and the pen in which he keeps his flock in the mountains is surrounded by a wall…” (Theaetetus by Plato)

Theaetetus
Theaetetus

Whether or not this story recounted by Plato is true is a subject of debate.  Thales, however, is also thought to have been a very savvy businessman and problem-solver.  Aristotle recounts an interesting story that give another angle on Thales:

 

“For when they reproached him because of his poverty, as though philosophy were no use, it is said that, having observed through his study of the heavenly bodies that there would be a large olive-crop, he raised a little capital while it was still winter, and paid deposits on all the olive presses in Miletus and Chios, hiring them cheaply because no one bid against him. When the appropriate time came there was a sudden rush of requests for the presses; he then hired them out on his own terms and so made a large profit, thus demonstrating that it is easy for philosophers to be rich, if they wish, but that it is not in this that they are interested.” (Politics by Aristotle)

 

Primary Sources

None

Other Reading:

  1. Lives of the Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laërtius – Book 1
  2. IEP – Thales of Miletus
  3. Wiki – Thales
  4. Gordon H. Clark. Thales to Dewey: A History of Philosophy (Kindle Locations 217-218). The Trinity Foundation. Kindle Edition.
  5. More Quotations about Thales

Audio

  1. The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps – Thales

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