Thales of Miletus (640-545 BC)

Thales (625-545 BC)
Thales (625-545 BC)

Thales is said to have been born in the first year of the 35th Olympiad, which would have been approximately 640 BC. He was a Phoenician by descent, and he was the first man to whom the name of “Wise” was given, when the famous seven wise men of Greece had that title given to them. He was enrolled as a citizen at Miletus; but a more common statement is that he was a native Milesian, of noble blood.

After having been immersed in Politics, he applied himself to speculations in Natural Philosophy. He studied Geometry and Astronomy with priests in Egypt.

Callimachus was aware that he was the discoverer of the “Lesser Bear” constellation; for in his Iambics he speaks of him thus:

And, he, ’tis said, did first compute the stars
Which beam in Charles’s wain, and guide the bark
Of the Phœnician sailor o’er the sea.

According to others he wrote two books, and no more, about the solstice and the equinox; thinking that everything else was easily to be comprehended. According to other statements, Thales is said to have been the first Greek who studied Astronomy, and who foretold the eclipses and motions of the sun.

Some again say that he was the first Greek philosopher who affirmed that the souls of men were immortal; and he was the first, too, who discovered the path of the sun from one end of the ecliptic to the other: and who, as one account tells us, defined the magnitude of the sun as being seven hundred and twenty times as great as that of the moon. He was the first Greek to converse about Natural Philosophy, as some say. But Aristotle and Hippias say that he attributed souls also to lifeless things, forming his conjecture from the nature of the magnet, and of amber.

Thales asserted water to be the principle of all things, and that the world had life, and was full of dæmons: they say, too, that he was the original definer of the seasons of the year, and that it was he who divided the year into three hundred and sixty-five days. And he never had any teacher except during the time that he went to Egypt, and associated with the priests. Hieronymus also says that he measured the Pyramids: watching their shadow, and calculating when they were of the same size as that was.

He seems to have been a man of the greatest wisdom in Political matters. For when Crœsus sent to the Milesians to invite them to an alliance, he prevented them from agreeing to it, which step of his, as Cyrus got the victory, proved the salvation of the city.

It does not appear that Thales ever married and is not known to have had any children. He was attached to a solitary and recluse life–the life of a Philosopher.

Famous Sayings

The following wise sayings are attributed to Thales:

  1. “It is not many words that real wisdom proves; breathe rather one wise thought, select one worthy object. So shall you best the endless prate of silly men reprove.”
  2. “God is the most ancient of all things, for he had no birth: the world is the most beautiful of things, for it is the work of God: Place is the greatest of things, for it contains all things: Intellect is the swiftest of things, for it runs through everything: Necessity is the strongest of things, for it rules everything:Time is the wisest of things, for it finds out everything.”
  3. He said that there was no difference between life and death. “Why, then,” said some one to him, “do not you die?” “Because,” said he, “it does make no difference.”
  4. A man asked him which was made first, night or day, and he replied, “Night was made first by one day.”
  5. Another man asked him whether a man who did wrong, could escape the notice of the Gods. “No, not even if he thinks wrong,” said he.
  6. An adulterer inquired of him whether he should swear that he had not committed adultery. “Perjury,” said he, “is no worse than adultery.”
  7. When he was asked what was very difficult, he said, “To know one’s self.” And what was easy, “To advise another.” What was most pleasant? “To be successful.”
  8. To the question, “What is the divinity?” Thales replied, “That which has neither beginning nor end.”
  9. When asked what hard thing he had seen, he said, “An old man a tyrant.”
  10. When the question was put to him how a man might most easily endure misfortune, he said, “If he saw his enemies more unfortunate still.”
  11. When asked how men might live most virtuously and most justly, Thales said, “If we never do ourselves what we blame in others.”
  12. To the question, “Who was happy?” he made answer. “He who is healthy in his body, easy in his circumstances, and well-instructed as to his mind.”
  13. He said that men ought to remember those friends who were absent as well as those who were present.
  14. He taught men not to care about adorning their faces, but to be beautified by their studies.
  15. “Do not,” said he, “get rich by evil actions, and let not any one ever be able to reproach you with speaking against those who partake of your friendship.”
  16. “All the assistance that you give to your parents, the same you have a right to expect from your children.”

The Death of Thales

Thales is said to have died in the fifty-eighth Olympiad, which ended in 545 BC, which would have made him around 85 years old.

But this wise Thales died while present as a spectator at a gymnastic contest, being worn out with heat and thirst and weakness, for he was very old, and the following inscription was placed on his tomb:

You see this tomb is small—but recollect,
The fame of Thales reaches to the skies.

Enjoy learning about Thales? Maybe you should take up the study of classical Philosophy and imitate the ancient wise men in your own life.

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Source: Adapted by William C. Michael from Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers. (Google Books)

Study Aristotle's Physics in the Classical Liberal Arts Academy Classical Physics course.
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