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date: 18 January 2020

Thales of Miletus

Thales of Miletus, the most scientific member of the Seven Sages, was credited in antiquity with the prediction of a solar eclipse (Hdt. 1. 74. 2) that modern scholars have dated in 585 bce. He was reported to have advised the Ionians to form a political union (Hdt. 1. 170. 3). Thales acquired legendary status as engineer, geometer, and astronomer; in Aristotle's view he was the first natural philosopher and cosmologist. Since Thales left no written work (with the dubious exception of a navigational handbook, a Nautical Astronomy in hexameter verse), it is impossible to know how much historical basis there is for the achievements attributed to him in the ancient tradition. These include various geometrical discoveries and feats of mensuration (e.g. calculating the height of the pyramids by the length of their shadow), the study of solstices and measurement of the astronomical seasons, and several physical theses: that the earth floats on water, that a magnetic stone has a psychē since it makes things move, that all things are full of gods, and that water is the archē, the beginning or first principle of all things (Arist.Metaph.Α‎‎ 3, 983b20 ff.). The primeval importance of water can be paralleled in Egyptian and Babylonian myths, as in the first verses of Genesis. The figure of Thales remained in popular memory as a marker of the moment when oriental science and myth were being transformed into the beginnings of Greek geometry, astronomy, and cosmology.


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J. Barnes, The Presocratic Philosophers 1 (1979), 5 ff.Find this resource:

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