Substance, beginning with Thales | Anaximander, many Substances and Harmonious Conflict | Pythagoras, the First Theologian | Xenophanes of Colophon | Heraclitus, Change and more anti-Homer | Anaxagoras and Science | Atoms, Science, Medicine and Journalism | Zeno of Elea and False Profundity
A poet, Tyrtaeus of Sparta, proclaimed that the only legitimate ultimate concern for man is the common good of his polis – his community. (Myth, Sacred History, and Philosophy, by Conelius Loew, p. 204.) Tyrtaeus lived around 650 BCE, a little more than a generation before a Greek from the city of Miletus (in Asia Minor), took philosophy in the direction of analysis of substance and spirit.
Philosophy, including the philosophy of Tyrtaeus, was preceded by people forming ideas based on their experience, limited as it was, mixed with assumptions from their parents and community in the form of stories – stories they assumed were and without need of analysis or verification.
People believed in will and spirit, and they didn't analyze it enough to differentiate between spirit and flesh. So they believed that when they ate flesh they were also ingesting spirit from the creature whose flesh they were eating. Failing to make another differentiation, they assumed that water cleansed their spirit as well as their body. And they believed that if they shaped an image in stone or wood a spirit would come to reside therein.
The philosopher Thales (pronounced ThAH-lez.) tried, instead, to categorize. He did so without complete success, but he started a debate that eventually led to the common way of looking at the world among people embracing modern thought.
Thales was born around 624 BCE into a family of wealth. He had the leisure and energy to pursue learning and travel, and he benefited from others who also analyzed. He had the advantage of living in a time of literacy, trade and cultural diffusion. He traveled to Egypt and saw the use of simple and practical geometry in land surveying that the Egyptians had created. He was interested in the nature of things and worked this geometry into a set of new mathematical principles. He became an engineer, and it is said that for king Croesus of Lydia he made the river Halyes passable by diverting its waters. Thales was also interested in heavenly bodies. In his travels he might have come into contact with the astronomical data that Babylonians had accumulated across the centuries, but he also made his own observations of the stars, and he predicted a solar eclipse.
Like others of his time, Thales was unconcerned with that ingredient of scientific proof called verification, and he believed in those spirits we call gods. But, as an engineer who manipulated material realities, he thought that the material world was understandable rather than just mystery and magic. Here was one assumption that he was rejected, and it led him to speculate about reality's basic nature.
What we know about the philosophy of Thales comes from the writings of Plato and Aristotle more than a century after Thales. Aristotle wrote that Thales assumed that matter contained the first principles of reality. Thales is said to have found water as primary. He believed with his contemporaries that the world was flat and rested on a great body of water. He saw that water was necessary to live and that it was everywhere. He theorized that the world is in essence water and that it had originally been in the form of water – as if without moisture everything would become dust and nothingness. Or, as Aristotle speculated about Thales' view: "the nourishment of all beings is moist."
Thales was not necessarily separating spirit from water. People had believed that spirit was within "the waters," which made the tides rise and fall. Thales was, it seems, describing everything as part of a unity of nature.
He deserves credit for applying reason to a world that nobody knew much about. There were no microscopes or telescopes. Physics can be said to have still been in its infancy – or perhaps not yet born. He could not have explained radiation or sunlight, for example, as scientists can today. And his idea of water as the first principle of reality would be challenged by his student.
Copyright © 2009-2013 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.