History of Philosophy – Lesson 2: Thales and the Birth of Philosophy

…they are a monument not to life, but to death, and the thing in Egypt was not how good a life you could live, but how good a death you could die.
— Leonard Peikoff, “History of Philosophy” course, ARI, Lesson 2.
(Contrast that pro-death attitude with the Greek’s pro-life one: “I’d rather slave on earth for another man than rule down here over all the breathless dead”, said Achilles’s ghost to Odysseus. The former produced giant tombs for tourists; the latter created philosophy.)

Philosophy is asking the big questions. But if they are already answered by the State or by the nearest priest, why the effort? From the great dynasties of Sumer and Egypt, the explanation of the world had been given by the king-gods. Life was inexorably hard and painful, and man should rather turn his attention to the other world, to the afterlife. This greatest of all evasions of man was not an invention of Christianity – just remember the pyramids, those gigantic tombs. Better to bow, pray and beg than to try to understand and explain the world. It was in 6th century B.C. Greece that it all changed, and that began with Thales.

Greece had not developed in a typical way. The strong monarchy of bygone days had given way to much freer cities in politics and tolerant in religion. In addition, Greece and its colonies in Asia Minor (now Turkey), were at the intersection between Europe, Asia, and Africa, a strategic position for the development of trade. And in trade, what matters is if you pay well, not if you and I believe in the same god.

The Greek gods were also different, almost as human as you and me, full of virtues, but also vices. They were more like older brothers than omnipotent and omniscient masters. It wouldn’t be a sin to think a little about the world, and in case of any offense, it would suffice to kill a pig and offer it to Bacchus with enough wine.

With such freedom, Greece became rich, and some citizens obtained that gift so important for free thought: time.

But what did they think about? Two things intrigued them: change and multiplicity. Change encompassed almost everything from birth to aging, from falling leaves to furious storms. Multiplicity was another facet of change: Why were there so many different things?

They came to reason that there should be one “stuff” underlying everything — after all, we live in one single universe. To this day we don’t know what that stuff is, but we have gone very far. And it was Thales who started the process.

Born in Miletus, a Greek colony-city that swarmed with trade in Ionia, Asia Minor, he was the first to seek the one in the many. That meant looking for similarities among different things — the foundation for rational explanations. Noting that water turned into ice and steam, and also into earth (Miletus stood in a river delta, and deltas are nothing but deposited sediments, that is, “water that turns into earth”), and seeing its importance for life, he proposed that water would be the “primeval matter”, that which integrated everything and provided a natural explanation for change and multiplicity.

His answer is obviously wrong, but that doesn’t matter. What matters is that he asked the right questions and searched for the correct category of answers. This is how science works: seeking principles and laws that govern phenomena by observing the natural world.

And that also came with Thales.

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