Sunteți pe pagina 1din 3

Fragments

Thales

*************

Introduction

Thales is often given the title of First Philosopher of the Western World.
While there is some dispute on this point - some point instead to
Anaximander - Thales is the first of the Natural Philosophers. Natural
Philosophy [ The approach to understanding the world that involves seeking
natural explanations for natural events, rather than, for example,
supernatural explanations for natural events.] is the attempt to observe
the phenomena in the world and give natural explanations for those
occurrences. Appeals to gods, demigods, or other supernatural entities to
account for natural happenings is regarded as out of bounds. A very early
precursor to modern science, the intuition of the pre-Socratic natural
philosophers, was that the world is essentially an orderly place and one that
can be understood if the observer approaches the world systematically
without invoking things beyond the realm of nature.

Very little is known of Thales and much of what is known is the stuff of
legend. It is recorded that he correctly predicted an eclipse of the sun in
585 BCE and that he diverted an entire river around the army of which he
was a part in order to make it possible for the army to advance against its
enemy. Two tales stick out particularly. The first points to a "head in the
clouds" kind of character that later the comedian Aristophanes will attribute
to Socrates. One night, while gazing at the stars, Thales failed to notice
where he was going and fell into a well. Apparently unfazed by this
unwelcome turn of events, he spent the night gazing up and observing the
motion of the stars through the circular opening of the mouth of the well.
Having observed the celestial motion in this restricted way, he was taken to
develop further theories of the motion of the stars and to observe them in
such restricted manners again in order to isolate certain features of their
motion from the vastness of the total sky. The second story is of a more
down to earth sort. To settle a dispute concerning whether philosophers
could live in anything but abject poverty, he collected some cash, bought all
the olive presses in the region (which had experienced droughts for years
and had no olive crops), and thus cornered the olive market when there was
the first substantial olive crop in years.

Central to the endeavor to understand the natural world by natural means is


the answer to the question, "What is the basic building block, or blocks, of
the universe?" Or, from what is everything made? Thales supposed that
the fundamental "stuff" of the universe, the primordial principle, was water.
We have this account from Aristotle who records that Thales took water to
be the basic stuff for three reasons. First, any explanation of the universe,
in all its complexity, must ultimately and foundationally be simple; that is;
there must be a single kind of thing out of which everything else is made.
Second, whatever this single kind of thing is, it must actually be a thing, a
material or physical object. And third, since the universe has multiple
objects within it that have different physical features, this basic stuff must
be malleable; able to be hard and fluid and mobile and stationary, not
necessarily at the same time, but potentially. Water, which can satisfy all
three of these features, is the most obvious and most common thing in the
universe that can. Indeed, from Thales' perspective, water might very well
be the only thing that can.

While obviously Thales' foundational principle has been rejected, the intuition
that gave rise to it has not. Additionally, his approach to the attempt to
understand the world was adapted by his successors from Heraclitus to
Aristotle and through them has been preserved in the philosophical
discourse.

Reading

[1] A witty and attractive Thracian servant-girl is said to have mocked


Thales for falling into a well while he was observing the stars and gazing
upwards; declaring that he was eager to know the things in the sky, but that
what was behind him and just by his feet escaped his notice.

[2] 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.

[3] When he came to the Halys river, Croesus then, as I say, put his army
across by the existing bridges; but, according to the common account of the
Greeks, Thales the Milesian transferred the army for him. For it is said that
Croesus was at a loss how his army should cross the river, since these
bridges did not yet exist at this period; and that Thales, who was present in
the army, made the river, which flowed on the left hand of the army, flow on
the right hand also. He did so in this way: beginning upstream of the army he
dug a deep channel, giving it a crescent shape, so that it should flow round
the back of where the army was encamped, being diverted in this way from
its old course by the channel, and passing the camp should flow into its old
course once more. The result was that as soon as the river was divided it
became fordable in both of its parts.

* * *

[4] Thales. . . says the principle is water (for which reason he declared that
the earth rests on water), getting the notion perhaps from seeing that the
nutriment of all things is moist, and that heat itself is generated from the
moist and kept alive by it.
and from the fact that the seeds of all things have a moist nature, and that
water is the origin of the nature of moist things.

[5] Moist natural substance, since it is easily formed into each different
thing, is accustomed to undergo very various changes: that part of it which
is exhaled is made into air, and the finest part is kindled from air into æther,
while when water is compacted and changes into slime it becomes earth.
Therefore Thales declared that water, of the four elements, was the most
active, as it were, as cause.

[6] He [Thales] said that the world is held up by water and rides like a ship,
and when it is said to "quake" it is actually rocking because of the water's
movement.

[7] Thales, too, seems, from what they relate, to have supposed that the
soul was something kinetic, if he said that the [Magnesian] stone possesses
soul because it moves iron.

[8] Some say that it [soul] is intermingled in the universe, for which reason,
perhaps, Thales also thought that all things are full of gods.