Now Thales was a wise man, as wise as wise can be.
He thought the earth was floating like a raft upon the sea,
And everything is water (though not that you can see).
So Thales was a wise man, as wise as wise can be.
Most accounts of the beginning of Western Philosophy begin with Thales, for better or worse. We could spend time wondering why we should or shouldn’t begin with Thales: was he really doing philosophy? Weren’t the poets doing some already before that? Didn’t the Milesians get their ideas from travelling abroad to other places? He may be the start of Western philosophy, but what about the rest of the World? And anyway, it’s all hearsay and we have no writings to prove it… Nevertheless, since we have a convention of starting the story with Thales, let’s start there, and begin by seeing whether there might be some good reasons for doing that.
The fact that Aristotle begins with Thales in his most famous review of earlier philosophy, in the first book of the Metaphysics, might seem like a good reason. On the other hand, it’s also reasonable to quibble with Aristotle’s “primitive thinkers” narrative. He is inclined to insist that thinkers — including Thales — from the group he calls “physikoi” (maybe “naturalists”, from physis meaning nature?) hadn’t really understood causation properly and were limping towards getting a grasp of just one kind of cause (while he, Aristotle, had properly grasped that there should be four). So it suited him to look exclusively at what those thinkers said about the material underpinnings of reality, and to downplay any contributions they might have made in other fields or to explanations invoking form, purpose, or motion.
A second good reason for starting with Thales is the fact that he seems to have been the eldest of a group of three roughly contemporary and hugely innovative thinkers who lived (and probably discussed things) in Miletus in the sixth century BC. Miletus was then a coastal port at the seaward front of a fantastic harbour in a thriving part of the Greek world, though it is now somewhat inland, near the coast of Turkey. “Thinkers” they certainly were, and it seems plausible that that they were interested in far more topics than the ones Aristotle reports in the Metaphysics (such as what holds the earth up, and what everything is made of). But we certainly struggle to glean much reliable information from the reports in later thinkers who focus on topics that they, with hindsight, find interesting.
The achievements specifically attributed to Thales include political intervention (reorganisation and centralisation for the communities of Ionia), military engineering (getting the army across the river Halys by splitting the stream and sending half of it round the back of the camp, so that the forward stream became fordable), and astronomical predictions. The most famous bit of astronomy that we hear about is his prediction of the solar eclipse (probably 28 May 585 BC). This eclipse, according to Herodotus, ended a six-year war between the Medes and the Lydians since fear at the omen, when “day turned to night” as the battle commenced, caused both sides to abandon the battle and agree a truce. By contrast the people of Ionia (that is the Greeks, of Miletus and the other Ionian settlements) remained unfazed by the occurrence, since they had been advised by Thales to expect an eclipse that year. “That year”, rather than “that day”, suggests that Thales was not in a position to calculate exact alignments, and presumably didn’t actually know what a solar eclipse was — or so we suppose — any more than the Babylonians (from whom he may have had access to tables of observed phenomena) or his fellow Milesians, such as Anaximander who reckoned that eclipses occur when the blow-hole in the rim of the sun’s wheel gets blocked so that the fire which blows out of the hole (which is what we see as the sun) is obscured. And the same, mutatis mutandis, for the wheel of the moon and lunar eclipses. But perhaps what it tells us most is that Thales was interested in, and promoted, the idea that eclipses were natural happenings which occurred in cycles due to in-principle-predictable causes. And what interests Herodotus is the fact that learning to approach them in that way frees the Ionians from that superstition and fear that was such a powerful influence on their unenlightened neighbours, the Medes and the Lydians.
They say (the story is told by Socrates in Plato’s Theaetetus 174a4) that Thales fell into a well when he was doing astronomy, because his gaze was turned upwards and he couldn’t see what was at his feet. The details of the story as told by Plato are quaint (Socrates focuses attention on the Thracian servant girl who laughs at him, with considerable detail on her pretty looks — whereas in the equivalent story in Diogenes Laertius it is an old woman who takes him out to look at the stars), but there are probably several jokes here, besides the point that Socrates is making (that philosophers are ridiculed for turning their attention to higher things and being unable to cope with everyday tasks that involve knowing the particulars of life).
Thales devotees will have an answer to that latter “anti-Platonist” charge, which we shall consider in a moment. But meanwhile, we must surely notice that Thales would have a special interest in what you find at the bottom of wells, so the story may be part of a kind of “just-so-story” for why he came up with the idea that the earth floats on water like a raft. And it raises the question of whether the theories of these ancient thinkers were based on experimental enquiry (do you need to fall into a well, in order to invent or test the hypothesis that the earth rests on water?) and also of what kind of evidence would constitute support for such a hypothesis. Given that finding water in the bottom of a well is not a good way of proving the hypothesis that the earth rests on water, we can see clearly that complaining about these thinkers (or any other physicists) that they worked in the study (or in debate over the calculations on a blackboard) rather than out looking for evidence in the real world is misguided.
In reality progress is and was made by the recognition — which the Babylonians did not have, for all their tabular records — that testing the answers for mathematical coherence will bring up insights that could not be brought up by regarding them as isolated empirical phenomena lacking any regular pattern besides divine whim or hidden messaging from astrological forces of control. For sure we don’t see clear evidence of mathematical modelling in Thales’ own work (but then we have no unmediated evidence for Thales’ own reasoning), but in Anaximander, his close successor, the exposition of the structure of the universe is clearly based on mathematical and geometrical modelling, with the suggestion that geometrical structures would render the need for a “support” under the earth to keep it from “falling” otiose — for there would be no “falling” if the “up” and the “down” are two sides of a symmetrical drum whose centre is the centre of a sphere.
While these theories look as though they are theories in cosmology, astronomy, physics, and dynamics (which in a sense they are) they are also experiments in the philosophy of science. They are implicitly positing new ways of thinking about scientific truth, about proof, about the role of evidence and of speculation, and even about how you engage in debate. At this stage it appears that the main mode of debate is for the opponent to posit a rival theory that closes all gaps (or tries to) while offering a good fit with observed phenomena, and then see if anyone else can come up with a better one. Inference to the best explanation seems to be a good way of thinking about this, and the best way to approach the theories of Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes is to try to work out what it was that each of them thought was good, plausible, or superior about their proposal. By looking for their insight (the key thought that solves some remaining mystery, or eliminates some arbitrary stopgap) we can sometimes correct mistakes in modern interpretations or in the ancient transmission — all of which is second hand — by realising what the proposal must really have been for.
Take Anaximenes’ suggestion that the earth sits on a column of air, and the moon and sun etc are discs thrown up and over by the wind. A long tradition of modern Anglo-Saxon scholarship has mistranslated the description given by Aristotle in the De caelo (294b13) where he explains how flat discs made of even quite earthy stuff could easily (if counter-intuitively) be carried up into the sky by a blast of air, “This is what wide flat bodies plainly do,” says Aristotle, “For they are resistant to moving against the wind, due to the resistance.” In other words, if you have a large sail or kite or a large piece of cardboard, you will really struggle to move upwind with it. Its natural inclination is to be carried down wind, no matter how heavy the stuff is relative to air. So now imagine that there is a strong wind blowing up from below the earth (the earth being a flat disc, quite heavy but very broad with no holes). The earth can’t fall down, because it is held aloft unable to move down against the wind. The wind pours up round the edges of the earth, causing a powerful up-draft, and on this updraft even earthy bodies (meteorites etc?) and bright ones such as the moon and sun get thrown up by the wind for a period before managing to fall down to the horizon again. This provides a fairly comprehensive and neat one-thing-explains-all account of a range of physical phenomena, but it only works if you understand that the air is not stationary but dynamic (a wind with the kind of pressure that a wind exerts) and if you don’t follow the mistake commonly made of supposing that Aristotle said that large flat things are hard to move, even by the wind — which is (a) false, and (b) misses the point. The earth and other bodies struggle to fall against, and are easily raised by, a powerful flow of air.
To return to Thales, was he the kind of philosopher Socrates boasts of being, too aloof from the world to defend himself in the law courts with the kind of superficial defence that the public demands? Some of his mathematical work seems to have immediate practical application, such as the use of shadows, together with geometrical deductions about the angles of triangles to calculate the height of the pyramids (or, of course, any other inaccessible tall object), and the distance of ships at sea. His mapping of the Little Bear constellation seems to have been a contribution to night-time navigation for shipping.
And then there is the olive crop. Aristotle tells the story in Politics 1259a9 as an answer to those who teased Thales on the basis that all his philosophical or theoretical wisdom was useless when it comes to success in the ordinary business of life (the same charge as Socrates was addressing in the story of the well). Thales teaches the sceptics the hard way: one winter, when he is in a position to predict a bumper harvest of olives in the following season, he puts a deposit on all the olive presses in Chios and Miletus, to secure a monopoly. Then in due course, when indeed the olive trees deliver their abundant crop, all the small farmers of the area need to access the olive presses to process the oil. Thales, having the monopoly, is able to charge them a high price for access to the presses, and thereby makes a fortune. It’s unclear what exactly Thales might have observed to foresee that it would be a mast year for olives. It could be induction from detecting patterns over time — such as alternate year cropping — which is what we suppose he may have used for the rough prediction of the eclipse of 585BC, or possibly he detected some tell-tale signs connected to the weather and other conditions. In any case, Thales’ action was intended as a lesson to show that pure sciences such as astronomy and philosophy can indeed deliver practical applications that can contribute to monetary success, but that the fact that philosophers do not direct their efforts to money-making is not because they can’t but because they choose not to. As Aristotle notes, it also illustrates a certain truth in economics, about monopolies, prices and the way markets work. Which suggests that a good grasp of market economics was included among Thales’ many talents, if the story has any historical truth. For our purposes we can find many useful lessons in it, not least the thought that philosophy has to engage from the very beginning with the question of why knowledge matters, and whether it is only subservient to the goal of making a living, or whether the point of earning money is to have the leisure and opportunity to pursue more important things, including understanding the natural world and evaluating what is worth doing with one’s life.
There is no evidence that Thales ever wrote anything, though Diogenes Laertius reports that some people attribute a couple of works to him, one on the solstice and one on equinoxes. These could, of course, have been solar tables or calendars. Also widely attributed to him is a work called Nautical Astrology — a guide for navigation by the stars. A hint in the Suda suggests that this work was in hexameter verse, which is plausible for guidebook intended to be learned for practical use on ships. But it is worth noting that it may have been composed and published orally too, and does not necessarily conflict with the thought that Thales did not produce written works, at a time when society was largely focused round oral exchanges of ideas rather than reading. For his younger compatriot Anaximander, by contrast, Simplicius (writing in late antiquity) gives what purports to be a genuine quotation from the words that Anaximander used, and comments on the rather poetical expression, and there is also fairly wide agreement that the third Milesian too, Anaximenes, wrote — or at least dictated — a book, in plain Ionic Greek.
Nevertheless, we need not suppose that in order to be a leading and influential philosopher one must put one’s thoughts into writing and get them read. Pythagoras, one of our best loved ancient sages, probably did not write things down. And Heraclitus, if he wrote, did not write to be read, and made sure to deposit the written text into a secure place in the temple to ensure it was not made available to a public that would be far from able to understand or value it properly. Nevertheless, that need not mean that philosophy can’t be communicated to a broader public. I guess it’s important that we should not equate good philosophy with the kind of thing that gets written down and published in esoteric journals.