Thales: The One as Water

Thales: The One as Water

Thales: The One as Water

           Thales (C.625–547 B.C.) of Miletus, a Greek seaport on the shore of Asia Minor (see Map 1), seems to have been one who was dissatisfied with the traditional stories. Aristotle,one of the most important philosophers in the Western tradition, calls Thales the founder of philosophy.* We know very little about Thales, and part of what we do know is arguably legendary. So, our consideration here is brief and somewhat speculative. He is said to have held (1) that the cause and element of all things is water and (2) that all things are filled with gods. What could these two rather obscure sayings mean?

Norman Melchert_ David R Morrow - The Great Conversation_ A Historical Introduction to Philosophy-Oxford University Press, USA

           Concerning the first, it is striking that Thales supposes there is some one thing that is both the origin and the underlying nature of all things. It is surely not obvious that wine and bread and stones and wind are really the same stuff despite all their differences. It is equally striking that Thales chooses one of the things that occur naturally in the world of our experience to play that role, rather than one of the gods. Here we are clearly in a different thought-world from that of Homer. Thales’ motto seems to be this: Account for what you can see and touch in terms of things you can see and touch. This idea is a radical departure from anything prior to it.

              Why would Thales choose water to play the  role of the primeval stuff? Aristotle speculates that Thales must have noticed that water is essential for the nourishment of all things and that without moisture, seeds will not develop into plants. We might add that Thales must have noticed that water is the only naturally occurring substance that can be seen to vary from solid to liquid to gas. The fact that the wet blue sea, the white crystalline snow, and the damp and muggy air seem to be the same thing despite their differences could well have suggested that water might take even more forms.

               At first glance, the saying that all things are full of gods seems to go in a quite different direction. If we think a moment, however, we can see that it is consistent with the saying about water. What is the essential characteristic of the gods, according to the Greeks? Their immortality. To say that all things are full of gods, then, is to say in effect that in each thing not outside it or in addition to it is a principle that is immortal. But this suggests that the things of experience do not need explanations from outside themselves as to why they exist. Moreover, tradition appeals to the gods as a principle of action.

         Why did lightning strike just there? Because Zeus  was angry with that man. But to say that all things are themselves full of gods may well mean that we do not have to appeal beyond them to explain why events happen. Things have the principles of their behavior within themselves.

             Both sayings, then, point thought in a direction quite different from the tradition of Homer and Hesiod. They suggest that if we want to understand this world, then we should look to this world, not to another. Thales seems to have been the first to have tried to answer the question, Why do things happen as they do? in terms that are not immediately personal. In framing his answer this way, Thales is not only the first philosopher in the Greek tradition, but also the first scientist. It is almost impossible to overestimate the significance of this shift for the story of Western culture.


This except is taken from  book "THEGREATCONVERSATION(A Historical Introduction to Philosophy)" By NORMAN MELCHERT & DAVID R. MORROW, Chapter 2, "Philosophy before Socrates"Page.No:10.

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