Thales is the earliest known1
, grouped along with Anaximander
as the earliest of the pre-socratics2
, referred to as the Milesians. This is an altogether fitting name for the three
, as they lived in the ancient Hellenic3
city of Miletus
. They used to hang out a lot and figure out how the Universe worked, inventing things like reason and logic along the way4
. We credit Thales with being the first "natural philosopher
" because Aristotle5
does, and who are you to question it
ABOUT THE WATER THING:
Yeah, sure, Aristotle says that Thales described the origin of all things as water
. Do me the brief favor of looking at the area settled by the ancient Ionian6
Greeks. You will notice that Miletus is actually a city in Turkey, and that everywhere is water! From a certain perspective, the "we all came from the water" perspective
of Thales is actually a fairly simple and relatively common creation myth -- most primitive peoples have similar quasi-metaphorical tales that actually impart a great deal of knowledge about their origins.
But this would be an incorrect reading of Thales, because the Greeks already have a creation myth
. It is very long, fairly complex, and prominently features castration
. Thales's creation theory (for it is presented as a philosophical theory
, instead of mythological fact
) attempts to create a materialistic
account of the origin of earth, devoid of the ancient gods
. It is unclear (well, even more unclear
) whether or not Thales is describing life, earth, or the universe
in this origin account; but it makes sense given other Milesian theories (in particular, the distinction between things which operate according to scientific laws
, and the things which create and sustain them
) that water here is used as a metaphor
for creation. Remember, if you're creating philosophy from scratch you don't have neat words like ontology
, you have to invent them.
This understanding of Thales is bolstered by another Aristotle7
quote "all things are full of gods
" which sounds really stupid
if taken literally. It also sounds stupid if understood in light of some sort of modern pantheism
. But it makes perfect sense if read backwards. Saying that all things are equally
full of gods means that all things are also empty of god
s. Again, read with what we know of the two guys he hung out with all the time, it appears that Thales is very close to being the first Atheist
, in addition to being the first Philosopher.
We have no idea who Thales was, if he even existed. The only direct evidence of his mere existence comes from a few footnotes in Aristotle, who admitted that his knowledge
was not firsthand, and a couple of random references in antiquity
. We can't even prove that Thales existed beyond a reasonable doubt, much less have any idea what he wrote, and even less of an idea what he meant by it.
But there may be a chance, dear reader, that you will find yourself in a college classroom with a professor enamored of the pre-socratics. And this professor may insist upon making factual
statements about things that no one knows a damn bit about. I encourage you to throw your own feces at him/her
Hey, it's better than what the Spartan
s would've done.
1. Perhaps it would be better to say "discussed" rather than known. How can we really claim to know anything about Thales or even this so-called "time
" by placing him earliest. It is more precise to merely describe our actions in discussing his supposed existence
2. If you buy into the whole "time" concept, we discuss them as PRE-Socratics because they came before Socrates
, a thoroughly annoying (and ugly) Athenian Proto-Fascist
elevated to fame by the lies of his disciple Plato
3. This is how you say "Greek" when you wish to sound like a pretentious snob
4. We seriously know nothing about the dude
firsthand. Most of our ideas about what he thought come from the two Anas, because they both wrote stuff down. About Thales in particular, we rely
upon Aristotle's writings.
5. I should mention here that Aristotle's writings are actually just lecture notes
of his that he used to teach classes. Ever looked at your
professor's lecture notes? Think you could figure out not only what he's trying to say, but also everything that happened in his general geographic location
for the previous three hundred years
? So sure, Aristotle had some really good notes, but let's read critically
, shall we?
6. This word means "Not Doric." It could also be used to mean the eastern tribe of seafaring Greeks who established colonies all over the eastern Mediterranean
. Also, a type of column
used in ancient architecture
7. Reading Aristotle is almost as bad as reading Kant
. And reading Kant is almost as bad as reading Heidegger
. And reading Heidegger almost made me commit suicide
Anything actually informative in this write-up comes from Edward Hussey's 1972 bore, "The Pre-Socratics" published in New York by Charles Scribner's Sons. Did you know they also published all of Hemingway's novels? True story.