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"The principle of all things is water; all comes from water, and to water all


For Thales, the principle of things is water, or moisture, which should not be
considered exclusively in a materialistic and empirical sense. Indeed it is considered
that which has neither beginning nor end - an active, living, divine force. It seems that
Thales was induced to proffer water as the first principle by the observation that all
living things are sustained by moisture and perish without it.

Thales affirms that the world is "full of gods." It it not easy to see how this second
affirmation agrees with the first. It may be that he was induced by the popular belief
in polytheism to admit the multiplicity of gods.

Thales is considered the founder of Greek philosophy. He is said to have used his
knowledge of science to predict a solar eclipse and other natural phenomena. He
believed that the Earth was a flat disc that floated on water, and that the principle of
all things is water (i.e., everything comes from water, and everything eventually
returns to water). Thus he believed that everything in the universe was just a
modification of water.

He is thought to have introduced the concept of geometry, although this cannot be

proven. He was also probably the first Greek philosopher who looked for a physical
origin of the world instead of attributing everything to mythology.

None. Thales never wrote anything, and therefore there are no quotes of him in

Thales of Miletus is regarded as the father of philosophy, as he was the first Greek, of
whom we have knowledge, to break with existing Greek systems of thinking to
conjecture about the fundamental nature of matter and its transformation into myriad
things. We hear from Aristotle in his Metaphysics that Thales thought this primary
substance, and most fundamental "stuff" which composes the Earth and all life is
water. We hear about Thales' thesis secondhand because none of Thales' writings exist
today. Thus, the only knowledge we have of what Thales actually thought comes from
ideas attributed to him by other thinkers. Based on these sources it is evident that
Thales was a pioneer both in astronomy and geometry in addition to philosophy for
which he is primarily recognized.

From Aristotle we hear that Thales supposed the Earth to be a disc that floats in a sea
of water. Based on this supposition, Thales supposed the cause of earthquakes to be
the sea tossing the Earth. This belief is attributed to Thales by Antius, who also
named Democritus as an advocate of this explanation.

From Aristotle we also hear another idea often associated with Thales, that "all things
are full of the gods." Aristotle's De Anima reads: "Some think that the soul pervades
the whole universe, whence perhaps came Thales's view that everything is full of
gods." (411 a7-8). It is speculated that Aristotle was given this idea by Plato. The
pantheist idea that "all things are full of the gods" does seem suspect considering
Thales' apparent materialism, for Thales had named water as the primary source, and
not a divine being.

Another feat attributed to Thales is the foretelling of a solar eclipse which occurred on
May 28th, 585 BCE. We hear about this from Herodotus, in his recount of a battle
between the Medes and the Lydians. Thales is also said to have brought geometry to
Greece from Egypt.

Thales' younger associate Anaximander of Miletus (c.611-c.547 BCE) is known to

have rejected his teacher's idea of water as the primary substance and origin of all
things. Anaximander instead said that from which all things are born and eventually
return is infinite and boundless.

Thales is the earliest known1 Hellenic Philosopher, grouped along with Anaximander
and Anaximenes as the earliest of the pre-socratics2, referred to as the Milesians. This
is an altogether fitting name for the three, as they lived in the ancient Hellenic3 city of
Miletus. They used to hang out a lot and figure out how the Universe worked,
inventing things like reason and logic along the way4. We credit Thales with being the
first "natural philosopher" because Aristotle5 does, and who are you to question it,


Yeah, sure, Aristotle says that Thales described the origin of all things as water. Do
me the brief favor of looking at the area settled by the ancient Ionian6 Greeks. You
will notice that Miletus is actually a city in Turkey, and that everywhere is water!
From a certain perspective, the "we all came from the water" perspective of Thales is
actually a fairly simple and relatively common creation myth -- most primitive
peoples have similar quasi-metaphorical tales that actually impart a great deal of
knowledge about their origins.

But this would be an incorrect reading of Thales, because the Greeks already have a
creation myth. It is very long, fairly complex, and prominently features castration.
Thales's creation theory (for it is presented as a philosophical theory, instead of
mythological fact) attempts to create a materialistic account of the origin of earth,
devoid of the ancient gods. It is unclear (well, even more unclear) whether or not
Thales is describing life, earth, or the universe in this origin account; but it makes
sense given other Milesian theories (in particular, the distinction between things
which operate according to scientific laws, and the things which create and sustain
them) that water here is used as a metaphor for creation. Remember, if you're creating
philosophy from scratch you don't have neat words like ontology or epistemology,
you have to invent them.

This understanding of Thales is bolstered by another Aristotle7 quote "all things are
full of gods" which sounds really stupid if taken literally. It also sounds stupid if
understood in light of some sort of modern pantheism. But it makes perfect sense if
read backwards. Saying that all things are equally full of gods means that all things
are also empty of gods. Again, read with what we know of the two guys he hung out
with all the time, it appears that Thales is very close to being the first Atheist, in
addition to being the first Philosopher.


We have no idea who Thales was, if he even existed. The only direct evidence of his
mere existence comes from a few footnotes in Aristotle, who admitted that his
knowledge was not firsthand, and a couple of random references in antiquity. We
can't even prove that Thales existed beyond a reasonable doubt, much less have any
idea what he wrote, and even less of an idea what he meant by it.

But there may be a chance, dear reader, that you will find yourself in a college
classroom with a professor enamored of the pre-socratics. And this professor may
insist upon making factual statements about things that no one knows a damn bit
about. I encourage you to throw your own feces at him/her.

Hey, it's better than what the Spartans would've done.


1. Perhaps it would be better to say "discussed" rather than known. How can we really
claim to know anything about Thales or even this so-called "time" by placing him
earliest. It is more precise to merely describe our actions in discussing his supposed

2. If you buy into the whole "time" concept, we discuss them as PRE-Socratics
because they came before Socrates, a thoroughly annoying (and ugly) Athenian Proto-
Fascist elevated to fame by the lies of his disciple Plato.

3. This is how you say "Greek" when you wish to sound like a pretentious snob.

4. We seriously know nothing about the dude firsthand. Most of our ideas about what
he thought come from the two Anas, because they both wrote stuff down. About
Thales in particular, we rely upon Aristotle's writings.

5. I should mention here that Aristotle's writings are actually just lecture notes of his
that he used to teach classes. Ever looked at your professor's lecture notes? Think you
could figure out not only what he's trying to say, but also everything that happened in
his general geographic location for the previous three hundred years? So sure,
Aristotle had some really good notes, but let's read critically, shall we?

6. This word means "Not Doric." It could also be used to mean the eastern tribe of
seafaring Greeks who established colonies all over the eastern Mediterranean. Also, a
type of column used in ancient architecture.

7. Reading Aristotle is almost as bad as reading Kant. And reading Kant is almost as
bad as reading Heidegger. And reading Heidegger almost made me commit suicide.
Thales is the hero of any modern-day philosophy student. These poor souls are
constantly derided by their counterparts in the Engineering and Business departments,
who are wont to inform aspiring philosophers that thinking about metaphysics and
epistemology and other polysyllabics doesn't pay the bills.

Our man Thales was one of the first, if not the first, in Western culture to be so
derided. Everyone in Miletus, especially the many money-minded merchants, loved to
laugh at Thales, who was constantly carrying on about constellations, and the
universe, and all sorts of other things that don't bring home the bacon. Or so everyone

According to Aristotle1, Thales eventually got pretty sick of being a laughingstock.

He had figured out something important about the positions of the stars and the olive
crops, and after looking at the sky for a while he was pretty darn sure that there was
going to be a bumper crop of olives that year. So he got it into his head that he'd
corner the market on olive presses.

Sure enough, the olives that year were quite bountiful. And when those jokers came
with their olives to use the presses, Thales jacked up the price. He made a killing!
Who says philosophy doesn't pay?
Anaximander and the beginnings of Greek
History has recorded Anaximander as one of the first of the Ancient Greek
philosophers, preceded only by his teacher Thales. Anaximander lived around 2600
years ago, in the large Ionian city of Miletus, which can be found on the West coast of
modern day Turkey. Anaximander is famous, together with his teacher Thales and his
own student Anaximenes for being the first Greeks to begin a tradition of philosophy.

Philosophy as explanation

Although this idea of a philosophical tradition is vital for appreciating those first
philosophers, it is far from clear what exactly it entails. To put it another way: why do
we call Thales, Anaximander and Anaximenes "the first philosophers"? And what
exactly did they invent and discover? The knee-jerk response is to say that they
obviously were the first people to discuss those ideas which eventually became known
as philosophy. It follows that those things they began to discuss would later become
subsumed under the heading of philosophy as understood by philosophy giants like
Plato and Aristotle. What sorts of things did they discuss? Thales introduced the
problem of matter - at the most basic level, what is everything made of? - which he
answered by saying that everything is water. Anaximander in a similar vein said that
everything is made out of an undifferentiated substance called apeiron (Greek for
boundless), and later Anaximenes would say that everything is made of air.

And if we stop there we end up with a nice simple story. But the quarrelsome among
us might then ask for some clarification. Didn't some of the Greeks before Thales and
Anaximander also explain what matter was? Weren't there myths that similarly aimed
to explain the world?

Philosophy as argument

One popular, and apparently successful explanation for the beginning of philosophy
has been to point out that Thales and colleagues were the first to offer rationalized
defenses for their explanations. So while myths had provided explanations for the
various phenomenon of the world, they did not explain their own rationale.
Mythology could certainly be rationalized - stories could be given natural
explanations or could be interpreted non-literally - but they did not themselves
provide any such arguments.

Generally what we mean by argument is some idea that is defended. So when

Anaximander said that the Earth is suspended in air, he appears to be making a
statement is that is both unintuitive and absurd. However what makes Anaximander's
statement about the Earth brilliant and genius is precisely his ability and willingness
to provide it with an argument: the Earth remains in the same place because of its
indifference, because it exists equidistant (at equal length) from everything else
(presumably because it is in the very center of the cosmos) and so has no more reason
to go fall in one direction than another.
Philosophy as criticism

So why call this "Anaximander and the beginnings of Greek philosophy"? Shouldn't it
be "Thales and the beginnings of Greek philosophy" instead, since it was Thales who
provided the first rational explanations? Yes and no.

If there was one particular characteristic which could be held responsible for the
amazing heterogeneity of philosophical opinions in ancient Greece it would have to
be their forming a tradition of criticism. So suggests the twentieth century philosopher
Karl Popper*. Although it is often mentioned that Anaximander's ideas on matter were
a response to the ideas put forward by his teacher Thales, it is never expressed with
any surprise.

It is because the idea of independent thinking is parroted so often by modern society

that we don't find this surprising. What happened is worth re-stating: Thales was the
first person to prominently offer an alternative to the traditional myths. Instead of
talking about titans and horny gods he talked about the material composition of the
world and considered how that in turn was responsible for the world as we know it.
He offered the first theory of matter, that everything is water at its most basic level,
and the different substances we see are actually different transformations of water.
This was all quite incredible. Thales was fortunate enough to have a neighbor who
found his theorizing interesting and whom he took on as a student. This was of course
Anaximander. Anaximander learned everything he could from his teacher, from the
very first great philosopher, and then instead of repeating Thales' ideas and trying to
spread them as far as possible he made up his own ideas! He analyzed Thales' ideas,
considered what phenomenon they were useful for explaining and which parts of the
theory were problematic and then went on to form his own theory of matter. That
Anaximander's theory of matter feels like it should have been written a couple of
centuries later is a testimony to his ability to draw on previous teachings without
dogmatizing them, and then redevelop them.

The greatest achievement of the Milesian philosophers was to develop a tradition of

criticism. Anaximander studied the ideas of the first philosopher and then improved
them in accord with their limitations. Anaximander had his own student who too used
his teacher's ideas only insofar as to improve upon them. We will never know
precisely who was responsible for this tradition. What we can and should say is that
Anaximander was the first philosopher to form an intellectual link built upon
criticism. This is his legacy.

For Anaximander, the first principle of all things is the "indeterminate" - apeiron.
There are no historical data to enlighten us as to what Anaximander may have meant
by the "indeterminate"; perhaps it was the Chaos or Space of which physicists speak
today. Whatever may be the answer to this question, it is necessary to keep in mind
that the problem consists in the search for a metaphysical principle which would give
an account of the entire empirical world, and hence the apeiron is not to be confused
with any empirical element.
All things originate from the Unlimited, because movement causes within that
mysterious element certain quakes or shocks which in turn bring about a separation of
the qualities contained in the Unlimited.

The first animals were fish, which sprang from the original humidity of the earth. Fish
came to shore, lost their scales, assumed another form and thus gave origin to the
various species of animals. Man thus traces his origin from the animals. Because of
this, Anaximander has come to be considered the first evolutionist philosopher.

Anaximander, a Greek philosopher (c.622 - c. 547 BC), thought it unnecessary to fix

upon air, water, or fire as the original and primary form of body. He preferred to
represent it as simply a boundless "something" from which all things arise and to
which they all return again. He believed that the world presents us with a series of
opposites: hot and cold, wet and dry, etc. If we look at things from this point of view,
it is more natural to speak of the opposites as being 'separated out' from a mass that is
as yet undifferentiated than it is to make any one of the opposites the primary

Anaximander argued that Thales made the wet too important at the expense of the
dry. His view of the world was a curious mixture of scientific intuition and primitive
theory. He believed that the Earth hung freely in space and was shaped like a short
cylinder. He also believed that all life came from the sea, and that the present forms of
animals were the result of adaptation to a fresh environment (evolution?). He also
attempted to prove that man had been descended from another species.

"Things give satisfaction and reparation to one another for their injustice, as is
appointed according to the ordering of time."

"The young of the human species require a prolonged period of nursing, while those
of other species soon find their food for themselves. If, then, man had always been as
he is now, he could never have survived."

Anaximander was born in Miletus around the year 611 BCE. The Milesian school of
philosophy had its roots in Anaximander's older associate: Thales. Anaximander was
surely influenced by Thales, but did not follow closely in his footsteps. In fact,
Anaximander's ideas seem a blatant contrast and a reaction to Thales' philosophy.

What we know about Anaximander is a more clear than what we know of Thales.
Fragments of a prose work written by Anaximander in the Ionian dialect still remain
today, whereas we having nothing but second-hand testimony from Thales. From the
fragments we still have from Anaximander, it is clear that Anaximander rejected
Thales' claim that the primary substance is Water, from which all thing rise.
Anaximander claimed that the original and primary substance from which all things
are born and pass into is Infinite and Boundless. Anaximander thought that the world
is composed of dynamic opposites, which are 'separated out' from the Formless and
Infinite primary mass of the Cosmos. Anaximander felt that Thales put too much
emphasis on the 'wet', as opposed to the 'dry.' Likewise, he would have likely said that
his pupil, Anaximenes, erred in putting too much emphasis on Air. This idea of the
natural ordering of dynamically opposed forces seems to pervade Anaximander's
philosophical activity. Anaximander's views of other problems, such as justice follow
this pattern, as well: 'Things give satisfaction and reparation to one another for their
injustice, as is appointed according to the ordering of time.'

As Thales had done before him, Anaximander constructed a 'scientific' view of the
Earth. He rejected Thales' model of the Earth as a disc that floated upon water.
Anaximander claimed the Earth came into its being by the 'separating out' of
opposites. He felt that there must not be anything to make the Earth fall in one
direction or the other, because he felt that there is neither an 'absolute' up nor down,
so instead he proposed the Earth to be a 'short cylinder,' swinging freely in space.

Anaximander's views on the origin of mankind seem to give some weight to Thales'
philosophy, for Anaximander claimed that living beings emerged from the sea and
adapted to the new environment, giving them new forms.

Why should we care about these ancient philosophers, and cosmologies that aren't
scientifically accurate? Well, if you want to take the opinion of a classical philologist,
try reading the essay "Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks," written by
Friedrich Nietzsche. It discusees the unrivalled greatness of these men and how they
serve as archetypes of philosophical thought until this very idea. Nietzsche's eternal
recurrence was not even totally his own, for already had its birth in Pre-socratic

Also, since people shared the same name alot in ancient Greece it is important to give
their full name like "Anaximander of Miletus" instead of just "Anaximander," when
you are talking about them formally, or else it would just be a big free-for-all then
wouldn't it? I decided to do this for clarity. Is clarity not vital when constructing an
information database. Its like when you refer to David Hume - you use the full name
and not just David or Hume, because there are many people who share those names.