Origins of Philosophy: Founder of Western Philosophy, Thales of Miletus

Origins of Philosophy: Founder of Western Philosophy, Thales of Miletus

Origins of Philosophy trace back to different dates, but the most widely accepted notion is that the birth of philosophical thought began in 1st Millennium B.C.E. The dates about first philosophy is questionable. But as per available and verified records, Thales of Miletus, is considered as founder of Philosophy. Because he marks the first one to break free from myth and explain natural phenomena in a materialistic way.

The Aegean sea saw the most flourished civilisations and trades as it was around those islands and the shores that most trading happened. These islands were agriculturally rich and have set some trade among the crops and other materials they had. Among those flourishing lands, came myths and tales of god, beautifully written and extraordinary believed. But right in the heart of this civilisation, right in the eastern part of Ionian city, Miletus, there came a man named Thales, who fathered philosophy and its offspring, Science. 

Thales of Miletus is accredited for many things. None is actually recorded directly and no direct sources of his writings or any mentions of his time survive. The primary source is Aristotle, who is well known for his philosophical and scientific works. According to the firm assertion in Aristotle’s mention of Thales in his work, it can be said that he might be having direct works of Thales with him. Although Aristotle does write some things about Thales with a hypothetical tone, which even he wasn’t sure of as they belonged to Thales’s personal life. But as far as what Thales had contributed to philosophy, cosmology and science, Aristotle asserted them with certainty.

Thales’s life

Many things told about Thale’s life are purely debatable as there are no direct accounts or written proofs. But the most obvious or accepted, historically verified things about his life still account him for being a myth-breaker, and founder of a new way of creating hypotheses. Thales is accounted for founding philosophy because even though he had all the mythology available and all the gods of Olympus myths circling around at that age, never did he mention any Homerian god. 

Nowhere in Thales’s contributions did he use poetries and ambiguous sentences to define natural phenomena. He didn’t even use any supernatural explanations. He tried to explain the phenomenon as it appeared to human perception. And he observed natural objects, tried to understand without any supernatural implications and proposed naturalistic hypotheses. He is referred to as the first naturalist and materialist. It is because it was very modern and forward and too rebellious for someone of that period to be thinking of the material world and propose natural explanations.

Many who wrote about him believe that he travelled a lot and that too to Egypt and Babylonia. It is said that he tried to explain the flooding of the Nile. He is also said to have learnt a great deal of cosmology and mathematics from Egyptians and the Chaldean religion. And he spent his life philosophising and trying to put his hypothesis to use. He also contributed to astronomy, mathematics, trade, navigation and created a new method to discuss them.

Ionian enlightenment and the origins of philosophy

All the greece authors, like Homer who wrote Iliad (Trojan War), and many that followed used gods to explain natural phenomena. They considered Poseidon (ocean god) getting angry and shaking earth causing earthquakes and harsh tidal waves. Many other natural objects were explained using different gods. It is understandable for many to turn towards monotheism from a polythesitic origin. But Thales, never in his theories mentions any god at all.

Thales’s theories used a new method which later developed into a philosophical method. It is the method of logic. He used his observations to form some information and conclude hypotheses from all the information or premises. It is pure inference that Thales did. But it was the first time a new method took place mythos (mythology). Since then, it has been mythos vs logos (logic) in Greek philosophy. This enlightenment marks first ever use of logic. It marks as an important and relevant discussion for the origins of philosophy.

Anaximander and Anaximenes successful disciples and successors of Thales continued this approach of observations, hypotheses and testing them. They carried forward Thales’s philosophy and at times used it to criticise Thales’s own theories. This is the first ever philosopher group debating in the cities of Ionia. Thus marking the beginning; the origins of philosophy.

This change of thought from mythos to logos in Ionia, is marked as one of the greatest turns in the history of science and philosophy. And this sudden shift of paradigm is called Ionian enlightenment. And even though there is no such school of thought formed and taught, these three philosophers and their thoughts together revolve around similar terms. They discussed similar things in a similar way. And it only necessitates to call those three a school of thought. And thus, regardless of having no school literally, this group of first philosophers is addressed as the milesian school of philosophy.

Origins of Philosophy: Founder of Western Philosophy, Thales of Miletus
The ancient map of Miletus sitting at Asia Minor

The Arché: Primary principle, origin of everything

Well, heard about the grand unification theory? Not to exaggerate, but the intent to unify everything of cosmos to one single origin began with Thales. Thales was keen and quite absorbed in finding the origin, i.e, first principle (primary principle) of earth and it is referred to as arché. Aristotle strongly asserts in his writing that “Thales says water is nature of all matter”. The way he asserts with conviction only affirms that he had direct records or even Thales’s writings at his disposal. 

Aristotle proposes a few possibilities of how Thales might have arrived at that conclusion. Most obvious thing is that Miletus was a port city and Thales was known for travelling, helping the travelers navigate along the Ursa Minor (constellation). He also used to calculate and suggest modifications for ships. He was very familiar and around water bodies. And he saw floating islands and metals turning into liquid after heating. Aristotle suggests that Thales must have observed that everything can be turned into ‘moist’ and records that everything did originate from moist.

Thales might have thought that if everything can be turned into moist, then everything must definitely be having qualities of moist, i.e, water. But again, these are just some possibilities Aristotle suggests and he doesn’t use assertions now. He only uses conditional assertions as he himself is just brainstorming different possibilities of Thales coming up with arché by understanding Thales’s life and biography.

Thales’s god

There are notions that say Thales values water because of early religious tradition of Poseidon, but there is no such mention of theology in any of Thales theories and it is erroneous to suggest that Thales would be suddenly mentioning gods. Thales did say or at least many say Thales said “All things are full of gods”. From this we can say that Thales was a Hylozoist (one who thinks all matter is alive). But again, if Thales was suggesting divinity, it would have been some early conceptions of soul or force, but definitely not of god.

We can say that with confidence because not only Aristotle but any other accounts of Thales agree with the fact that he ignored the greek traditions. During Thales’s period, if he had been a traveller and an avid learner, it is obvious that he is familiar with Homer and the Trojan war. It was a period where no-one had the capability to think beyond the supernatural explanations. There was no necessity to explain in a materialistic way. 

He not only never mentioned gods, but he replaced all the godly theories with his hypothesis. This is where natural philosophy stood out from traditional theology. Aristotle attributes soul to Thales. Thales must have seen some attribution, some live in all beings by observing magnets moving towards metals. He must have thus thought as objects are related to each other in somehow, even inmate objects should have soul (or) can say life.

More Thales’s contributions

Astronomical contributions:

It is a recorded and verified claim that Thales predicted a total eclipse with accuracy. It is said that Thales learned this stuff from the Babylonians and Egyptians but they didn’t predict solar eclipses perfectly. Their solar and lunar cycles had some missing days and hours and were always a bit inaccurate. There is an astronomical and scientific finding that there indeed was a total lunar eclipse on 4th of May, 585 B.C.E.

As Thales lived near Mount Mycale, he had the privilege and interest to observe the sun throughout the day and for many days and weeks. It is said that Thales is so invested in looking at the sky and the stars that he once fell into a well looking at the sky while walking. So, it is understandable that Thales observed and recorded the duration of sun, movement and orbit throughout the year. He was the first one to observe and record solstices (tilt in earth’s axis of rotation while revolving around the sun).

As someone who is aware of solstices, it is obvious that Thales might have recorded seasons as he already was aware of earth’s rotation and revolution. It is most probable that he dived the seasons into 365 days as he was known to use mathematics and calculations. He is also said to measure the diameter of the sun and use the same formula to measure the diameter of the moon just by observing them. This measurement began with him measuring pyramids by the shadow cast on the land. He discovered the constellation of Ursa Minor and observed that it is best to navigate through the Ursa Minor to have safe and fast navigations. 

Mathematical contributions:

Thales measured circles and is accredited with two theorems of circles that are still relevant. Thales was recorded using this theorem to measure any circle, and this presents an understanding that Thales considered the sun to be a perfect circle; the moon and even the earth too. Thales notes that points A,B,C lie on a circle and if the AC are the diameter of a circle, then the angle of ABC must be a right angle and the ABC be a right angled triangle. 

The terminology is modern but the method and theorem that Thales used can be summed up as this in the modern mathematical terms. Thales is not only called the father of philosophy and science, but also the father of mathematics. His mathematical conjecture was later followed by Pythogoras (this is debatable but as per the evidence now, it can be most probable).  As said earlier, Thales also used his mathematical ideas and theories to suggest modifications to ships and make them flow.

Other contributions:

Observing floating islands, Thales proposed that Earth is actually floating on water. It is just an assumption that he must have observed the floating islands, because historically, it was most possible that he might have encountered them on his travels for trades. As discussed earlier, he broke the homerian belief that gods cause earthquakes. Perhaps no one else has ever tried to think of a logical explanation for earthquakes. His theory comes from floating earth theory. As the earth is floating on water, the tensions in water and heavy turbulence created earthquakes, he proposed.

It is said that Thales helped the army of Croseus to cross the river Halys. The river was strong and harsh and Thales suggested the army dig a canal behind the river, joining it  so that half of the stream gets diverted and the water gets less forceful. Well, this is still an unproved claim, but as the origin of bridges is still debatable for Thales’s time period, it is most likely that it is true as it was called battle of the eclipse and it was the eclipse that he predicted.

It is also said that Thales is good at trading and it is the earliest account of Monopoly that Thales has shown in his trading skills. Knowing about the upcoming olive oil need, Thales was said to take loans and buy all the olive presses available. When the time finally came, people had but nowhere to go for the olive oil. They had to rent and use Thales’s olive press. Aristotle notes that this is one of the earliest accounts of monopoly in business.

Wrapping up

Thales of Miletus, the myth-breaker, Ionian sage, has envisaged logical thinking and fathered many of the studies which now modern education took quite forward. All the scientific advancement began by this Ionian, who just looked at water, and kept on thinking in a natural and most material way. Most of the stories are put aside, as idolisation and fanaticism creates misleading accounts. Discussing origins of philosophy doesn’t go without the mention of calling Thales as one of the seven great sages, but that title is nowhere relevant to philosophy.

Many fans and idolisers of Thales have made him god-like, by saying he got the ideas by seeing though heavenly bodies, having powers, being a sage and many other supernatural things. But regardless of elevating Thales to god, Aristotle, Eudemus, Diogenes Laërtius, Ptolemy and several modern historians, mathematicians and philosophers have constantly been revising and keeping his successful achievements and life intact for the future generations to understand, get inspired and philosophise rationally, naturally and most materialistically.

Writer’s Note

‘Origins of Philosophy’ is a new philosophical treatise that I began as a personal quest of my own. If I could dig up the stuff from various sources, videos, blogs and encyclopedias, research articles and make note of them, write them in an understandable way, I achieve what i seek and at the same time, provide with the same. My personal quest has also been normalizing philosophy, which is either seen as non-understandable nonsense or a privileged person’s mental gratification. I see that learning the origins of philosophy can give us beautiful insights on how, what, why and when of Philosophy. Do not hesitate to comment if you have a feedback in your mind. Do follow the page if interested in keeping track with my personal quest of Origins of Philosophy.

*The series, Origins of philosophy will continue till the end of ancient philosophy, i.e, 700 B.C.E – 1000 C.E*

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