The sage Thales, when once a spectator of the agon,
Thou, O Zeus-Helios, didst snatch him from the stadium.
That Thou didst take him nearer, it must be appreciated,
For in old age he could no longer see the stars from the earth
(Diogenes Laertios).

The history of European philosophy and mathematics can be traced back to either Thales or Pythagoras [2, 27, 14]. More important for readers of Water Matters will be Tales of Miletus (7th/VI century BC) as a thinker who sees water as a creative force and the pratfactor of the whole world.

First Naturalist. Sage or philosopher?

The theory of evolution says that all living organisms are descended from one common ancestor. This rule applies not only to nature, but also to naturalists themselves. Modern astronomers, physicists, meteorologists or biologists are the intellectual heirs of Thales, who was the only one to figure in lists of both sages and philosophers. For the ancient Greeks, the terms were not synonymous. Both used reason, but only the former effectively solved the problems of their communities. Sages were called skillful politicians or miracle-workers, such as. Solon and Pittakos. Philosophers, on the other hand, selflessly pursued the truth, maintaining an admirable indifference to worldly matters, even the death of their own or their native children [13, 16, 28].

From Thales to Voltaire

According to Farrington (1954), [5] Tales initiated the materialist and atheist currents. His successors were not only the following physiologists from Miletus, but also:

  • physicians of the Hippocratic school, who were the first to explain life and death by natural factors rather than by the intervention of spirits;
  • Tukidides, who was the first historian to reject the direct intervention of supernatural forces in history, was critical of sources and reconstructed the past based on its material remains;
  • Sophists teaching that states and laws are works of men, not gods, and are subject to criticism, and that breaking laws is not tarnishment.

Farrington saw Tales as a bourgeois philosopher, the ancient Greek equivalent of Voltaire and la Mettrie. The originality of the hypotheses was supposedly due to his experience as a merchant and traveler, well acquainted with the daily toil of sailors, artisans and farmers, and despised by Egyptian and Babylonian priests and the Greek landed aristocracy [5].

From Thales to Muhammad

Witwicki, in his preface to Plato’s Feast [22], noted Ionian’s criticism. He has undermined not only faith in tradition-honored ancestral myths and rituals, but also in the testimony of the senses and the common sense of the average person. Thanks to this, atheistic and pantheistic doctrines found fertile ground for development, but also religions of a new type, mystery cults of the kind of Orphism, early Christianity, then Islam.

Tales was a deeply religious thinker. Cicero (1960) [3] argued in his dialogue On the Nature of the Gods that Milesius asserts that water is the principle of all things and that God is the Mind that formed and created all things from water. According to 19th century commentators. the only original philosophical, rather than mythographic, contribution of Thales was to be his attempt to prove reasonably or empirically that water evaporates and solidifies, and without it everything languishes [5, 6, 7, 25].

Closer to our time, Molinari (2022) [19] claimed that Thales remained a worshipper of Achelojos, a deity of fresh, swift-flowing water, especially worshipped in Miletus. In myths and art, he was depicted as an immortal and shape-shifting being, able to become anything and anywhere. The rivers in the lands, worshipped as separate nymphs, were said to be the tendons of Achelojos. It is this omnipresence of supernatural forces that is reflected in Thales’ cry that everything is full of gods! [26].

Tales: forerunner of the open society

Popper (1999) [23] considered Tales’ most outstanding and groundbreaking achievement to be his creation of a new liberal school of thought, educating an open society. Thales was to be the first founder of a school raising independently thinking students, not blind followers like the priests of Babylon and Egypt. He was also to encourage them to critically dissect his theses, to find their own solutions, even if fundamentally contradictory to the master’s words. Most of the sages of the Middle East took pride in their fidelity to the doctrine, meanwhile, successive generations of Ionians held views different from the master’s on the primordium of being (arche).

Thales’ disciple Anaximander (610-546 BC) considered the arche to be the infinite (apeiron). His disciples, in turn, assigned this role to air (Anaximenes). Other Ionians pointed to fire (Heraclitus), earth (Xenophanes), all four elements combined (Empedocles) and, finally, infinite germs (homojomerie; Anaxagoras). From there, it’s only a step to the atomism of Leucippus and Democritus. Although Plato and Aristotle accepted the existence of five types of atoms (fire, air, water, earth and ether), for Plato the proper arche was the eternal, immaterial ideas, while for Stagyrates it was form and matter [9, 18, 23, 25].

Water as arche: creator and creature

The choice of water as the material of the world, rather than fire or earth, has been justified very differently. Most historians of philosophy today repeat the arguments of Aristotle and Theophrastus as those of Thales himself. In their opinion, he chose water because it brings life to everything. It also changes focus states easily. Some commentators are drawing lessons from their travels in Egypt. There Thales was able to observe the flooding of the Nile and the construction of the delta [6, 7, 13, 24].

Water played a key role in many Middle Eastern theogonies, which are also its cosmologies. According to the Babylonians and Hebrews, the earth emerged from water chaos, and the creators of mankind had to fight Tiamat, a female sea monster. References to this vision of creation can be found in the Psalms, the books of Job or Isaiah, not to mention the apocrypha of Rev. Henoch. The recognition of water deities as creators of the rest of the world is also found in ancient Hellenistic religion. Jaeger (2001) in Paideia [12] argued that there is no clear difference between the well-known myth of Okeanos from the Iliad and the teaching of Thales.

Nietzsche (1993) [20] in his Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks defended Ionian natural philosophy against charges of infantilism and absurdity. Thales’ idea was important for at least three reasons. First of all, he was the first to say something about the original origin of all things. Second, he did so in language devoid of fairy-tale imagery. And finally, it contained the germ of monistic thought: everything around us, including ourselves, is a unity.

Tales still unknown

Although we learn about Tales in elementary school, we actually know very little about it. We are not even sure which claims are due to him. In continental Europe, the theorem called by his name is: If the arms of a plane angle are intersected by two parallel lines, the segments determined by these lines on one arm of the angle are proportional to the corresponding segments on the other arm of the angle, while in Anglo-Saxon countries it refers to the circle and its diameter: the angle inscribed in the circle and based on its diameter is a right angle [8, 10].

Already the ancient Greeks had a strongly vague idea about the founder of one of the philosophies. They argued, for example, about his father’s nationality. Tales almost certainly did not write down his own teachings. Everything we know about him comes from commentators and biographers several generations later [25]. The short aphorisms of the Ionian physiologists were quoted by Aristotle in his Metaphysics and Physics [1], and later by his student Theophrastus in his History of Philosophy. Medieval Europe, on the other hand, learned about Thales from St. Augustine’s Rejection of All Heresies. Hippolyte [11].

Both Stagirite and the Church Fathers were critical of the Ionian physicists. They did not strictly refer to their positions, but justified their own, carefully selecting quotations. Earlier generations of Greeks valued him more highly. Later cultures were also proud of him. For example, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, he was seen as the first researcher of electricity, the lay patron of electricians and railroad workers.

A huge number of fragments of works attributed to the oldest thinkers, including the Ionian physicists, were collected by Diels and Kranz [4] in their Fragments of the Presocratics. However, these remnants of scattered puzzles do not give us a picture of the whole. Therefore, one can still argue to what extent the Ionians and later the Hippocratics and Sophists explained nature to the Greeks. Have the basic elements – earth, water, air, fire, cosmic ether – become dead material for them? Did they remain in some sense alive and conscious, as their common name, the elements, suggests? For how many generations were they still gods, self-aware and indestructible, but also incalculable? Only their struggle would create harmony, the ancestor of the Stoics’ cosmos and our ecological balance sung by Hesiod [15, 17].


In the article, I used, among others. From the works:

  1. Aristotle. 2003. The Complete Works. Volume 2. Physics. About heaven. On emergence and destruction. Meteorology. About the world. Metaphysics. Translations and comments: K. Lesniak, A. Paciorek, L. Regner and P. Siwek. Published. Naukowe PWN, Warsaw.
  2. Boyer C.B. 1989. A History of Mathematics (2nd ed.). Wiley, New York.
  3. Cicero. 1960. On the nature of the gods. s. 7-223. In Marcus Tullius Cicero. Philosophical Writings. Volume one. The translator. Victor Kornatovsky. PWN, Warsaw.
  4. Diels H., Kranz W. (hrsg.). 1952. Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker. Berlin.
  5. Farrington B. 1954. Greek Science. PWN, Warsaw.
  6. Feldman A. 1945. Thoughts on Thales. The Classical Journal. 41 (1): 4-6.
  7. O’Grady P.F. 2002. Thales of Miletus: The Beginnings of Western Science and Philosophy. Western Philosophy Series. Vol. 58. Ashgate.
  8. Grattan-Guinness I. 2003. Companion Encyclopedia of the History and Philosophy of the Mathematical Sciences. The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  9. Havelock E.A. 1983. The Linguistic Task of the Presocratics. Part Two: The Language of the Milesian “School”. ss. 42-82. w: Kevin Robb (ed.), Language and Thought in Early Greek Philosophy. Monist Library of Philosophy, La Salle.
  10. Heath T. 2013. A History of Greek Mathematics. Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge.
  11. Hippolytus. 2016. Refutation of All Heresies. Translated with an Introduction and notes by M. David Litwa. SBL Press, Atlanta.
  12. Jaeger W. 2001. Paideia. The formation of Greek man. Aletheia, Warsaw.
  13. Kirk G., Raven J., Schofield M. 2003. The Presocratic philosophers. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  14. Kordos M. 2006. Lectures on the history of mathematics. SCRIPT, Warsaw.
  15. Krokiewicz A. 1948. Tales and the birth of Greek philosophy. PZWS, Warsaw.
  16. Laërtius Diogenes. 1925. The Seven Sages: Thales. Lives of the Eminent Philosophers. Vol. 1:1. Translated by Hicks, Robert Drew (Two volume ed.). Loeb Classical Library.
  17. Lloyd G. 1998. Greek science from Thales to Aristotle. Proszynski i S-ka, Poznan.
  18. Malita-Król J. 2017. The four roots of reality. A comparative analysis of the perception of the elements in the Presocratic philosophers and in modern witchcraft traditions. Mask 33: 157-166.
  19. Molinari N. 2022. Acheloios, Thales, and the Origin of Philosophy: A Response to the Neo-Marxians. Archaeopress, Oxford.
  20. Nietzsche F. 1993. Philosophy in the tragic age of the Greeks. s. 101-180. w: Other Writings 1862-1875. The translator. Bogdan Baran. Published. Inter esse, Krakow.
  21. Plato. 1936. Teajtet. Translated by W. Witwicki. Free Reads https://wolnelektury.pl/katalog/lektura/platon-teajtet.html
  22. Plato. 2010. Feast. Politician. Sophist. Euthyphro. Translated by W. Witwicki. Published. Naukowe PWN, Gazeta Wyborcza, Warsaw.
  23. Popper R. 1999. Back to the Presocratics. Ss. 233-261. In Road to Knowledge. Conjectures and refutations. Published. Naukowe PWN, Warsaw.
  24. Priou A. 2016. The Origin and Foundations of Milesian Thought. The Review of Metaphysics 70: 3-31.
  25. Russel B. 1995. Wisdom of the West. Penta, Warsaw
  26. Shestov L. 2016. Great Vigils. The Foundation of August hr. Cieszkowskiego Street, Warsaw.
  27. Więslaw W. 1997. Mathematics and its history. Published. NOWIK, Opole.
  28. Wöhrle G. ed. (2014). The Milesians: Thales. Translation and additional material by Richard McKirahan. Traditio Praesocratica. Vol. 1. Walter de Gruyte.

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