Thales, Anaximander and the Birth of Western Philosophy

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Thales lived in the city of Miletus, Illustration by Adrien Egon, (1837).

Thales was a wealthy Greek who lived from C.620 BC to C.540 BC in the city of Miletus, then in Asia Minor, but whose ruins now lie in present-day Turkey. He set the benchmark for Western Philosophy by proposing logical explanations for natural phenomena, through materialistic theories rather than relying on theology or mythology.

Thales was also an astronomer, a mathematician, an engineer and a businessman, who found time to get rich by growing olives.

Ancient Greece: Nurturing Environment for the Intellect

The Greeks established themselves in the ancient world in art and literature, but the inroads they made into other areas are even more stunning in their intellectual reach. In History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell says, “They invented mathematics and science and philosophy; they first wrote history as opposed to mere annals; they speculated freely about the nature of the world and the ends of life, without being bound in the fetters of any inherited orthodoxy.”

Thales of Melitus: A Philosophy Based on Reason

We can be sure today that the time frame claimed for the birth of Thales is correct, since he “…predicted an eclipse which, according to astronomers, occurred in the year 585 BC.”  Before this, science and philosophy were not regarded as separate fields of study.

Thales of Melitus was equally scientist and philosopher in our present-day understanding of these terms of reference. However, Bertrand Russell explains that the actual predicting of the eclipse, for which Thales is famous, was not a result of genius: “Babylonian astronomers had discovered that eclipses recur in a cycle of about nineteen years.”

However, Thales was an extraordinary thinker, and the first of the “Seven Wise Men of Greece.”

Philosophers Studying an Eclipse, by Antoine Caron, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Philosophers atudying an eclipse. Image by Antoine Caron.

Our Earth Floats on a Subterranean Ocean

Aristotle, C.384 BC – C.322 BC, tells us that Thales believed water is the original substance, and everything is formed from this. Jeremy Harwood in 100 Great Thinkers, explains Thales’ view of the world and what it is made of: “He concluded that it must all consist of one single element – water. The earth floated on an underlying sea, and earthquakes occurred when the earth was rocked by subterranean waves.”  

Thales observed evaporation through water becoming vapour, or freezing solid, and these scientific “miracles” were enough to convince him that water was, as Harwood sugggests, “...the fundamental building block of the natural world.”

Jostein Gaardner in Sophie’s World tells how Thales travelled extensively, and while in Egypt, he measured his shadow at the moment it equalled his actual height. In this way he was able to predict the height of a pyramid by measuring its shadow.

Earth’s Tiny Invisible Life-Germs

Jostein Gaardner quotes Thales as claiming that “…all things are full of gods.”  But Gaardner says that this is not because Thales has resorted to mythology: “He is not talking about Homer’s gods.”  Indeed, Thales was merely expressing his wonder that from our black, unpromising earth, sprung flowers, crops and insects.

“He imagined that the earth was filled in tiny invisible life-germs,” Gaardner speculates.

We learn about Thales from Aristotle, as he did not leave any written work.

Anaximander ~ Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.

Anaximander relief. Image courtesy of Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities, Special Superintendence for the Archaeological Heritage of Rome.

Anaximander’s Boundless Other Worlds

The dates for Anaximander’s time on earth are uncertain, but we know he was a contemporary of Thales. In Sophie’s World, Jostein Gaardner says: “He thought that our world was only one of a myriad of worlds that evolve and dissolve in something he called the “boundless.””  This, Gaardner points out, separates Anaximander from Thales, whose focus remained on known substances. According to Anaximander, created things are limited in scope, but what comes before and what comes after must be boundless.

“It is clear that this basic stuff could not be anything as ordinary as water,” says Gaardner. Bertrand Russel agrees that Anaximander is talking about a primal substance that is not water, but is “… infinite, eternal and ageless… The primal substance is transformed into the various substances with which we are familiar, and these are transformed into each other.”

The Wisdom of Anaximander

Russell quotes a statement of Anaximander, which he regards as most extraordinary and important. It makes the concept of justice play a part in religion and philosophy. It’s difficult for our modern minds to understand, but Russell’s explanation is helpful, so I shall quote him before recording Anaximander’s actual words:

“The thought which Anaximander is expressing seems to be this: there should be a certain proportion of fire, of earth, and of water in the world, but each element (conceived as a god) is attempting to enlarge its empire. But there is a kind of necessity or natural law which perpetually redresses the balance; where there has been fire, for example, there are ashes, which are earth. This conception of justice – of not overstepping eternally fixed bounds – was one of the most profound of Greek beliefs.” 

This is how Anaximander actually expressed the important insight explained above:

“Into that from which things take their rise they pass away once more, as is ordained, for they make reparation and satisfaction to one another for their injustice according to the ordering of time.”

Ancient Insights Still Relevant Today

The amazing thing is that these profoundly beautiful insights are still available to us today from around 2,500 years ago, an immense period of time. It is from the original efforts of these ancient thinkers that our present day philosophy has evolved.


Russell, Bertrand. The Rise of Greek Civilization. (2004). History of Western Philosophy: Routledge Classics.

Russell, Bertrand. The Milesian School.(2004). History of Western Philosophy: Routledge Classics.

Gaardner, Jostein. The Natural Philosophers. (1996). Sophie’s World: Phoenix House.

Harwood, Jeremy. Thales of Melitus. (2010). 100 Great Thinkers: Quercus Publishing Plc.

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© Copyright 2013 Janet Cameron, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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