|Thales: Note the noble brow
Oddly enough, the birth of philosophy can be accurately dated to 585 BC. Twas in this year that the Greek philosopher, Thales, predicted an eclipse using mathematics and astronomy. No mean feat for the 6th century BC.
What had been happening in the world and particularly Greece, prior to this event? Surely Thales did not emerge from an intellectual void. Sadly, much has been lost to time and conjecture is our only comfort. Other civilisations existed, many with an ancient pedigree, however, their speculations never veered beyond explanations ascribed to gods. Although the Egyptians had developed ‘rule of thumb’ geometric techniques for their monumental building projects they never seemed to be able to shift from the practical to the abstract. Thus, we turn to the Ancient Greeks for the development of abstract concepts and true mathematics. And indeed, the well-travelled Thales is considered to have brought geometry to the Greeks by way of Egypt.
Thales hailed from Miletus in Asia Minor and therefore was part of the Hellenic diaspora. All philosophy is said to have begun with this man. If his antecedents thought in the abstract as he did, we will never know as history has left us no record. I’m inclined to think that Thales was an innovator in thought because his faltering beginnings seem to us moderns as banal and rather silly. I’ll need to qualify this remark later in this post.
It can seem rather worrying to the new student of philosophy that the founder of Greek philosophy and hence Western thought, considered that all was composed of water. Actually, as a hypothesis, this is a reasonable start. There is nothing wrong in stating a ridiculous hypothesis, especially if we don’t recognise it as such; from a thousand ideas, only one is destined to be great.
We are apt to forget that we are the product of 2,500 years of intellectual endeavour, admittedly subject to fits and starts which attend all progress. If we are diligent in our studies and not thick, there is the potential, if we so desire, to progress in intellectual thought and drench thoroughly in the wisdom of those great men who preceded us. The shortcut to true knowledge is the legacy of our ancestors, if only if we can be bothered to take heed. Inquisitive Thales had no store of great knowledge or wisdom to guide his intellect. His originality was to seek non-miraculous causal mechanisms to describe nature. Ultimately this was Thales’s insight and fundamental genius. His predecessors and contemporaries could not make this intellectual leap and divorce themselves from explanations based on supernatural agencies.
Let us track back to Thales’s original notion that ‘all is water’ and examine it for intrinsic merit. This is not to be judged by modern epistemological standards. Instead, to be fair, we must erase our current knowledge base and knowledge accretion and imagine that we are at the dawn of rational enquiry. Thales observed that life is dependant upon water and Aristotle thought that Thales came up with this revolutionary idea ‘from seeing that the nutrient of all things is moist’. We have no clue as to why he thought this way. What’s important, I think, is that Thales’s idea was not arbitrary and required effort and contemplation. His attempt to understand and unify the complex with a simple construct is sound. However, parsimony in thought is not necessarily the root of all wisdom and clearly, in this regard, Thales was completely and irrevocably wrong. However, for a first attempt to rationalise the natural world, it was a bold and imaginative effort.
Are you convinced of Thales’s wisdom? Of course not. It is virtually impossible to free our minds of the ‘modern scientific paradigm’ unless you are a fundamentalist Christian from the Deep South of the US or a Catholic theologian.
Finally, I will finish with an anecdote ascribed to Thales. Whether it is true or not, I have no idea. It is said that Thales attended a dinner party. After a while, and probably after imbibing much wine, Thales decided to wander into the garden to stargaze whereupon he promptly fell into a ditch. An elderly woman present was heard to comment: “how could someone who cannot see what is under his own feet presume to understand and see the heavens’’. Quite so.