Thales of Miletus (c. 624/623 – c. 548/545 BC), A Perspective

by Dr. Parviz Dehghani​

Thales of Miletus (c. 624/623 – c. 548/545 BC), A Perspective

Who was he? He was ‘the first natural scientist and analytical philosopher in Western intellectual history’. He was truly the first thinker of Ancient Greece, and thus the founder of Western philosophy. He was from the Ionian seaport of Miletus in today Turkey. Miletus was an important center of achievement of both science and philosophy in Ancient Greece. This first pre-Socratic philosopher is known to have said the basic nature of the world is water. Both Aristotle and Herodotus said something about Thales and in fact that is all we have on him. Nonetheless his importance is not about what he said, but his method. He was the first philosopher who tried to explain the nature of the world without using the wills and idle notions of anthropomorphic, Homerian gods. Even an ant conceives of God with two antennas on His head (the holy Qur’an)

The initial phase of the Greek culture, which was about deities, gods, goddesses and God was very much about anthropomorphism. We call this period as faith or Religion stage in the history of Greece. Apparently they morphed gods according to what they were as human beings. We believe God created us in His image. However, that doesn’t give us the right to create Him in ours. There’re about 7 billion gods. In other words, there’re as many gods as the number of human beings in this world.

Thales did something which was very revolutionary for his time. He made an attempt to explain what people had thought as the acts of gods by using rational inquiry. He in fact began the period of scientific achievement in which reason is applied to find out the causes of things. He experienced different phenomena and sought to search for the underlying principle which continues to this day as scientific method. Herodotus (484?-425? B.C), the Greek historian, credited him for predicting a solar eclipse in 585 B.C during a battle between the Medes and the Lydians. Just because the sun became dark didn’t mean the sun goddess ‘Amatrasu’ was angry and depressed as it had been thought in Shinto, the ancient Religion of Japan. Thales could be regarded as the first natural scientist and analytical thinker in Western intellectual history.

He was also a business man investing in oil-presses before a heavy olive crop as a result he made a lot of money. Some say he must have been a wealthy man to be able to spend so much time in philosophy and science in 7th century BC Ancient Greece.

So much for olive oil and his investment, let us now write about his thought concerning water as the first principle of life and material world. Some scholars say what a poor start for philosophical endeavor? However, from his perspective water could go through different phases: water can turn into snow, ice and vapor. Water can evaporate and also freeze. The entire life is needed and supported by moisture; therefore it was the one and only causal principle behind the natural world. But it is possible he looked at water metaphysically, namely as the source of life which could help us when we have a thirst for a new life in spirit.

He perhaps anticipated what is called ‘plate tectonics’ in modern science. He argued that the flat earth floated on water. Why flat earth? Had he not ever seen a lunar eclipse? The shadow of the earth appears on the moon, which shows what existed under him was not flat?

Aristotle informs us that Thales had thought the earth was buoyant like wood. The earth stayed on water much like a log or a ship. Even coconuts once put together in bags can float in the ocean to act as a raft. However, we don’t know whether he thought the earth was as hollow as coconuts? In fact sea-farers of Miletus were familiar with a number of floating islands, which might have been either models or evidence for Thales’ ideas.

He also thought earthquakes were caused by the rocking of the earth through subterranean waves, just like a ship may be shaking at sea. By observing the phenomenon of sedimentation from Miletus’ port he might have possibly thought of the spontaneous formation of earth from water. This idea of his was believed till the 18th century.

Instead of appealing to the wills of gods as it was the case in the first stage of the Greek culture, he provided a naturalistic explanation of observable phenomena and argued that god exists in everything. Aetius believed Thales had said the mind of the world is god, which is blended with everything. Even though his metaphysics was not something to be followed, but he was very much like a modern philosopher. He anticipated a number of thoughts in Religion, science and philosophy.

(Philosophy, 100 essential thinkers, by Philip Stokes)