Thales of Miletus



Humanities claim that each person should be comprehensively educated. One of the humanities is philosophy. And at the same time philosophy contributed to development of the humanities.

There’s a similar case with Thales of Miletus. He’s considered as one of the most outstanding philosophers before Christ. This involves also being a mathematician, an astronomer and so on. But wasn’t he also the oldest Greek philosopher? One shouldn’t forget about that.

Thales of Miletus (circa 627 - 546 BC) is described as an astronomer, a technician, a merchant, a mathematician, a meteorologist, a politician, a theologian and first of all as a philosopher. There’re some disagreements in terms of his origin. He could be Jew, Phoenician or Greek. It’s likely that his fame and achievements elicited jealousy among those nations and for this reason there are various historical notes about his lineage.

Thales founded Ionian School of Philosophy. He was active politically and economically especially in relations with Babylon, Egypt and Phoenicia. He often visited those countries. They were some of the most developed countries at that time, so he could use their scientific heritage, mainly of mathematics and astronomy.

The most famous event in his career and his travels was the forecast of Sun eclipse, described by Herodotus. This whole case is really unclear as predicting Sun eclipse without any knowledge of structure of the Universe is pretty impossible. And Thales couldn’t even know that the Earth is a sphere! So the story is explained as the luck of the scientist.

In Thales’ scientific career the most important were his mathematical discoveries. One of them was the proper introduction of geometry to Greece based on what he had learnt in Egypt.

Revolution in geometry by Thales was caused by the following theorems: About bisection of a circle by a diameter
About two vertical angles of equilateral triangle
About right angles made by two intersecting straight lines
An angle inscribed in a semicircle is a right angle
About a possibility to define a triangle by its base and angles next to it

The last theorem was often used in the times of the first philosopher to measure distance between ships on the sea and also to measure height of building, like pyramides.

The story of the fourth theorem above is connected with beliefs of the wise man as, according to Diogenes, Thales used to inscribe a right angle in a circle before offering sacrifices to gods.

Even if Thales’ discoveries were actaully plagiarism of Babylonian and Egyptian patents, it is true that he popularised geometry and interested Greeks in it by explaining and proving various theorems. He also provided ways to use them in practice. It took Thales lots of effort to satisfy the Greeks who constantly asked “why?”.

Looking from today’s rational perspective it seems strange to call a scientist a person who claims that the Earth floats on the water like a log, like did Aristotle in his work “On the Heavens”. Especially the one who can forecast a Sun eclipse. On the other hand, each man of science has his own specific things. Thales was one of those philosophers who wanted to find a theorem which explains everything and would give answers to all the questions.

He endeavored to a great generalisation. Such aspirations often reflect in folk sayings and philosophical proverbs. One of such theorems, although not so perfect for Thales’ expectations, was attributing water as a factor building everything what exists.

According to Thales each material thing consisted of water, no matter if it was a stone, an animal or a tree. Each thing and each being was only a manifestation of water form change. In addition he claimed that transformation of water form, like for example a dead animal into plants and other decomposers, doesn’t need any external energy like a soul. And so the matter (water) was also the soul. Or in other words, Thales didn’t introduce any divisions to body and soul, which were later discussed by his followers.

In addition, in his beliefs there was no place for gods, their hierarchies, interventions and whims as opposed to beliefs of the Greeks. Water was an omnipresent god and at the same time a material for all beings and things. Why would actually water be the beginning and the basis of everything? Other philosophers would choose other elements like water, fire, air, earth and soul or even a combination of those. There’s an assumption that Thales travelled a lot round Egypt and Babylon. The first civilisation was located by Nile and the second between Euphrates and Tigris. Both were dependent on annual overflows which left layers of fertile muds providing conditions for any cultivations. The crops were basis of nutrishement. In such conditions people would be willing to believe that water gives the beginning to everything. As thanks to the overflows the soil was usable. Historical research of notes from the times of splendor of both riverside civilisations shows that there are stories about creation of the world from water chaos. So perhaps Thales took over some of beliefs of the nations he had to deal with the most.

Translated from our Polish website by Maria Czekaj.

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