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An Introduction to the Philosophy of Thales

 The Philosophy of Thales  ( 624 - 546) BCE

Explore the philosophical roots of ancient Greece with an in-depth look at the life and works of Thales, one of the earliest and most famous Greek philosophers. Learn about his groundbreaking theories on cosmology, mathematics, ethics, metaphysics, and more that have shaped our culture today.

Thales was part of the Early Pre-socratics, which was a group of thinkers that formed the beginnings of Western philosophy and science. Heavily influenced by mythology, Thales believed in a single fundamental source for all things and argued that water was the basis for every living organism. His views ushered in a period of inquiry and exploration into divine ontology and enabled philosophical thought to flourish in Ancient Greece.

thales ancient greek philosopher and  who was Thales
Thales the philosopher

Who was Thales and what did he do

The history of western philosophy begins with Thales of Miletus in 585 BC. Thales of Miletus was born 624  and died 546 BCE. In every history of philosophy for students, the first thing mentioned is that philosophy began with Thales, who said that everything is made of water.  Thales of Miletus contributions in science, math, astronomy, philosophy. 

He is included in all the accounts of the Seven Sages. The story of the Seven Sages is unhistorical, but the fact that the lists of their names differ considerably as given by different writers, whereas the name of Thales appears in all, shows with what veneration he was anciently regarded. An eclipse of the sun occurred in 585 B.C., and Thales is alleged to have predicted it, which was a feat for the astronomy of those times. And he must have been a great engineer, for he caused a diversion of the river Halys, when Croesus and his army were unable to cross it. Nothing else is known of his life, though there were many apocryphal stories.

This is discouraging to the beginner, who is struggling perhaps not very hard to feel that respect for philosophy which the curriculum seems to expect. 

There is, however, ample reason to feel respect for Thales, though perhaps rather as a man of science than as a philosopher in the modern sense of the word.

Thales of Miletus life- Thales was a native of Miletus, in Asia Minor, 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. "At Miletus the people were at first victorious and murdered the wives and children of the aristocrats; then the aristocrats prevailed and burned their opponents alive, lighting up the open spaces of the city with live torches." Similar conditions prevailed in most of the Greek cities of Asia Minor at the time of Thales. 

Miletus, was home to Thales, regarded by the Greeks themselves, and by all historians of philosophy since, as ‘the Father of Philosophy’. He was famous in antiquity for his mathematical and astronomical learning, and also for his practical sagacity and wisdom. 

Thales of Miletus contribution to philosophy

Thales of Miletus was an influential pre-Socratic philosopher, who laid the groundwork for Western philosophy with his theories on mathematics, morality and the concept of a single divine force. Explore his writings and learn more about his contribution to ancient Greek thought.

The philosophy of Thales of Miletus is that the universe is more than its physical parts - it is a divine reality. He argued that human beings should strive to understand and merge with this divine reality by living an ethical life, honoring the gods, and recognizing natural phenomena for what it really is. He also emphasized that knowledge should be pursued even outside of practical applications, as its ultimate aim should be to help us better understand our place in the world.

Thales’ predictions quickly earned him the admiration of his peers in ancient Greece. He predicted the solar eclipse that had occurred in 610 BC, demonstrating that he was ahead of his time and paving the way for astrological studies in Ancient Greece. His philosophical and scientific contributions also resulted in improved ships' navigational tools, an early form of vector calculus, and theories on electricity.

Theory of Thales He thought that water is the original substance, out of which all others are formed and he maintained that the earth rests on water. Thales of Miletus explained earthquakes as the result of Tsunami or a long high sea wave caused by an earthquake.

Why Thales said everything is water  as the most fundamental substance of the universe? 

why Thales said everything is water ? One might reconstruct his thinking as follows. Water is ubiquitous  it is in the sea, it falls from the sky, it runs in your veins, if you cut a plant you see that it has liquid inside, if you rub a clod of earth in your hands it is damp, we and all animals and plants die without it and therefore it is essential for life.

 Moreover water could be said to produce the earth itself, for you need only look at the vast quantities of soil produced by the Nile as it floods every year . And moreover again, as a kind of clincher, water is the only substance .

Thales knew that can occupy all three material states: solid (when it freezes), liquid (in its basic state) and gas (when it boils away into steam). You might indeed say that water ubiquitous, essential, productive, metamorphic  is a rather brilliant choice of arche, if you lived in sixth century BCE Ionia.

But it is not so much what Thales chose to identify as the arche as how and why he did so. He did not rely on legends, myths, ancient scriptures, teachings or traditions. He relied instead on observation and reason. That is why he is the first philosopher.

''All things are full of gods means things have a life''. - Thales

Thales of Miletus had a cosmological vision of the world that was rooted in his observations and beliefs. He proposed that water is the foundational element from which all being comes. Thales taught that one could observe the natural world and find out its metaphysical nature, or what he called “the logos”. He believed in a type of pantheism, an all-inclusive naturalism in which every force in nature works together to bring about universal harmony.

Thales of Miletus on souls -Thales as having held that ‘soul’ (anima) is what causes motion, for he is reported to have said that a magnet has a soul because it moves iron; and further, that ‘soul is mixed in with the whole universe, and perhaps this is why Thales supposed that all things are full of gods.

Thales said that "Everything is full of life". Modern way is correct. 

Thales of Miletus astronomy 

Thales of Miletus discoveries - Thales was famous for predicting an eclipse. Babylonian astronomers had discovered that eclipses recur in a cycle of about nineteen years. They could predict eclipses of the moon with pretty complete success, but as regards solar eclipses they were hampered by the fact that an eclipse may be visible in one place and not in another. 

Consequently they could only know that at such and such a date it was worth while to look out for an eclipse, and this is probably all that Thales knew.

Thales of Miletus theorem gif

Thales of Miletus theorem

Thales of Miletus contribution to science

Thales is said to have travelled in Egypt, and to have thence brought to the Greeks the science of geometry. What the Egyptians knew of geometry was mainly rules of thumb, and there is no reason to believe that Thales arrived at deductive proofs, such as later Greeks discovered .

how did Thales measure the pyramid

Thales of Miletus inventions - He seems to have discovered how to calculate the distance of a ship at sea from observations taken at two points on land, and how to estimate the height of a pyramid from the length of its shadow. Many other geometrical theorems are attributed to him, but probably wrongly.

how did Thales of Miletus die

He is said to have died when old ‘of heat and thirst’ while watching a gymnastic contest on a hot day  in short, from dehydration. For one who held that water is the arche of the cosmos, this is an ironic end. records a different account of his death. 

Here the story is that Thales went out one night with his serving woman to look at the stars, ‘and, forgetting where he was, stepped over the edge of a steep slope and fell’. Anaximenes then adds, in testament to Thales’ position at the fountainhead of philosophy.

Thales of Miletus summary

The statement that everything is made of water is to be regarded as a scientific hypothesis, and by no means a foolish one. Twenty years ago, the received view was that everything is made of hydrogen, which is two thirds of water. The Greeks were rash in their hypotheses, but the Milesian school, at least, was prepared to test them empirically. 

Too little is known of Thales to make it possible to reconstruct him at all satisfactorily, but of his successors in Miletus much more is known, and it is reasonable to suppose that something of their outlook came from him. His science and his philosophy were both crude, but they were such as to stimulate both thought and observation. 

External link 

Xenophanes philosophy

Anaximenes philosophy


A History of Western Philosophy Book by Bertrand Russell
Graham, D. W. (ed.), The Texts of Early Greek Philosophy: The Complete Fragments and Selected Testimonies of the Major Presocratics, 2 vols., Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010

Barnes, J., The Presocratic Philosophers, 2nd edn, London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1982
Hussey, E., The Presocratics, London: Duckworth, 1995 Kirk, G. S., J. E. Raven and M. Schofield, The Presocratic Philosophers,
2nd edn, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984 Osborne, C., Presocratic Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004

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