Thales of Melitus (c. 620 B.C.-c. 540 B.C.) is famous for being the first philosopher to seek rational explanations for natural phenomena. He favoured a materialistic approach rather than relying on theology or myth.
Thales’ major project was to figure out the materials that make up the earth, and he came to the conclusion that everything we know is derived from water.
Unfortunately, his logic did not lead him in the right direction. Perhaps, in spite of his logical approach, the Greek myth of Poseidon had some bearing on his thought, as there is some similarity between that myth and Thales’ actual conclusion.
Will Bouwman in “Philosophy’s Roots and Branches,” says, “[Poseidon] would wreak havoc by stamping the sea floor petulantly.”
Thales believed that the “earth floated on an underlying sea, and earthquakes occurred when the earth was rocked by subterranean waves,” claims Jeremy Harwood in “Thales of Melitus.”
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Thales also realised that water became vapour when it evaporated and that freezing made it solid. This was enough to convince him that water was the single, fundamental element of the natural world.
In spite of his faulty logic, Thales achieved great things through his many interests. Harwood describes him as follows: “…a noted astronomer, geographer, mathematician and engineer; he was also a shrewd businessman who made a fortune out of olives.”
Thales also inspired future philosophers, notably Anaximander, Pythagoras and Parmenides.
Thales: Early Life
We don’t know much about Thales’ early life, although there are many unsubstantiated, conflicting accounts. Miletus, his birth place, was in Asia Minor, and was a “busy Aegean maritime port at the mouth of the River Meander, from which we get the verb,” says Will Bouwman in “Philosophy’s Roots and Branches.”
Bertrand Russell in “The Milesian School,” describes Miletus as “…a flourishing, commercial city, in which there was a large slave population, and a bitter class struggle between the rich and poor among the free population.”
Russell indicates that this was a violent and tyrannical society during the sixth and seventh centuries B.C.
As a young man born into a noble family, Thales was probably sent to Mesopotamia (modern-day Iraq) and Egypt for his education.
Thales and the Eclipse
We can produce accurate dates for Thales’ contribution to philosophy. In “The Rise of Greek Civilization” in his “History of Western Philosophy,” Bertrand Russell says:
“Philosophy began with Thales, who, fortunately, can be dated by the fact that he predicted an eclipse, which, according to the astronomers, occurred in the year 585 B.C. Philosophy and science – which were not originally separate – were therefore born together at the beginning of the sixth century.”
However, later in “Early Greek Mathematics and Astronomy,” Russell maintains that the Egyptians and Babylonians laid the foundations for astronomy and geometry and predicted a cycle of eclipses.
He claims that these foreign influences enabled Thales to predict this particular eclipse; “…there is no reason to suppose that he added anything to what he learnt from Egyptian or Babylonian sources, and it was a stroke of luck that his prediction was verified.”
Thales and the Pyramid
I cannot guarantee that this story is authentic, but it’s a charming one and it seems likely it is true, since Thales was an expert in geometry and in problem-solving.
Bertrand Russell relates how Thales was in Egypt and the king allegedly asked him to judge the height of a pyramid.
“He waited for the time of day when his shadow was as long as it was tall; he then measured the shadow of the pyramid, which was, of course, equal to its height.”
Matter is Alive, Says Thales, and the Primordial Substance is Water
In Thales’ view, water, not the gods, gave birth to the world. The gods had no control over the world, which was alive and which changed, grew and developed of its own accord. “Thus Thales formulated the first naturalistic explanation of the cosmos,” says Will Bouwman.
To prove that matter is alive, Thales came up with two novel examples: firstly, magnets and secondly, amber.
Magnets have the power to attract other items such as iron or steel through a magnetic field. Amber, explains Bouwman, “…when rubbed with fur like children rub balloons on their jumpers will be charged with enough electricity to make your hair stand on end.” (The Greek world for amber is “electron.”)
These two examples encouraged Thales to reach his final conclusion.
“Thales believed the primordial water metamorphosed into earth, to air, to fire, creating the universe we are familiar with – much as the Egyptians and Mesopotamians had envisaged, but, as he was now committed to explaining events without the intervention of the gods, he tried to show how what happened could be attributed to natural causes,” explains Bouwman.
I cannot help but feel that Thales found inspiration from the myth of Poseidon for his “world floating on an underlying sea being rocked by huge waves” theory, but to his credit, he does not mention this scary god in his hypothesis.
Bouwman tells another charming story about Thales, that he was so busy studying the stars, he fell into a well, or maybe it was a ditch.
Thales: Questions, Mistakes, and False Assumptions
It is hard to say which stories are true and which stories are merely fanciful anecdotes, but what is certain is that Thales, for all his mistakes and false assumptions, questioned and speculated and got the whole philosophy show on the road, inspiring others to pit their wits against his and advance their own scientific and philosophical theories.
Thales’ ideas, says Bouwman “…could be challenged and tested in the ways that the whim of divine beings could not.”
That is why we regard Thales as the world’s first great Philosopher of Science.