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Thales (c. 624–c. 548 Bce) October 13, 2011

Posted by nellysiska in girls, history, science.
Tags: , , , , , , ,


Thales is the person often credited with being the world’s first philosopher, a claim first made by Aristotle. He belongs to the Presocratic group of philosophers, a grouping of people who had little in common except having lived before Socrates was born. His dates of birth and death are unknown, but the least unreliable estimates place him between 624 and 548 BCE.

Little is known about the life of Thales, except that he was a native of the Ionian city of Miletus and that he traveled widely in the eastern Mediterranean. He is customarily associated with, and thought to have been the tutor of, Anaximander and Anaximines. These Milesian philosophers are the earliest of the Presocratics.

Nothing written by Thales has survived; his thoughts are known only from later writers who paraphrased them. In addition to his work in philosophy, Thales was credited with significant work in mathematics, astronomy, politics, and economics. A theorem in geometry still bears his name.

Whatever the truth about his actual contribution, he was clearly thought to be outstanding. Aristotle’s pupil Theophrastus credited Thales with being the first “to reveal the investigations of nature to the Greeks.” Thales was regularly counted among the seven sages of classical Greece.



The contribution of Milesian philosophers like Thales was their seeing the need for finding a single source that could serve as a general explanation for the natural world.

Their world abounded with supernaturalist explanations and explanations we would now describe as mythological. But these were insufficient for the thinkers of Miletus. Where Homer attributed the origin of all things to the god Oceanus, Thales taught that water was the prime element in all things.

Aristotle—our source for this information—speculated on some reasons for this teaching, including the primacy of water on the earth, its core nutritive function, and the moist nature of most things when reduced to their core elements. This is not to say that Thales had no role for the gods at all.

Aristotle alluded to Thales’s conviction that all things are full of gods, which he gave as an explanation for the ability of a magnet to move iron. Most commentators interpret Thales at this point to mean some variation of a vital principle when he speaks of the gods.

Another important anecdote about Thales comes from Herodotus, who reports him predicting a solar eclipse. It took place during a battle between the Medes and the Lydians, who promptly abandoned the contest and fled in disorder. The eclipse has been traced to May 28, 585 BCE, a date the American physicist Victor Stenger has given as the day science was born.

Victor Stenger

Victor Stenger

As Stenger argued it, Thales got the date right because his mathematics and his science were right, not because he divined the gods or conferred with oracles. Others have expressed some skepticism that Thales made anything more than an inspired guess.

Other information about Thales comes in the form of anecdotes. Plato tells of Thales tumbling down a well while engrossed in study of the stars, much to the amusement of a Thracian maidservant. And Aristotle tells of Thales buying up all the olive presses in winter, when they were cheap and unused.

This occasioned much scorn among the locals and confirmed them in their suspicion that philosophers were an unpractical lot. But his knowledge of the stars and the seasons meant he knew the spring promised a bumper olive crop.

When this duly transpired, the people had to come to Thales and hire the equipment from him at whatever rate he asked. This showed, Aristotle wrote, “that philosophers can easily be rich if they like, but that their ambition is of another sort.”

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