Thales, the Father of Philosophy

Thales of Miletus,  c. 624 – c. 546 BC was a Greek philosopher, mathematician, and astronomer who influenced much of later classical Greek and western thought

He was one of the pre-Socratic philosophers, who were concerned with “the essence of things. They were named physiologoi (φυσιολόγοι), physical or natural philosophers or physikoi (physicists) because they sought natural explanations for phenomena, as opposed to the earlier theologoi (theologians), whose explanations looked to the supernatural.

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The pre-Socratic philosophers were asking:

  • From where does everything come?
  • From what is everything created?
  • How do we explain the plurality of things found in nature?
  • How might we describe nature mathematically?

Thales’ hypothesised that the originating principle of nature and matter was a single substance: water. Moreover, rather than assuming that earthquakes were the result of the whims of divine beings, Thales explained them by theorising that the Earth was a large disc which floated on water and that earthquakes occurred when the Earth was rocked by waves.

Thales used geometry to calculate the heights of pyramids and the distance of ships from the shore.

Placing your stick at the end of the shadow of the pyramid, you made by the sun’s rays two triangles, and so proved that the pyramid[height] was to the stick [height] as the shadow of the pyramid to the shadow of the stick.

W. W. Rouse Ball, A Short Account of the History of Mathematics (1893, 1925)

He is the first known individual to use deductive reasoning applied to geometry, by deriving the Thales’ theorem which observed that any triangle which sits along the diameter of a circle will by nature be a right angled triangle.

180px-Animated_illustration_of_thales_theorem                                      360px-Thales'_Theorem.svg

Thales was one of the seven sages of Greece, ho heptoi sophoi, (οἱ ἑπτὰ σοφοί) alongside Solon of Athens, and Periander of Corinth. These sages were known for pithy sayings including the inscription [attributed to Thales] at the Oracle of Delphi

Know thyself!

The Seven Sages of Greece were not only philosophers, scientists and teachers but also involved in political life. Thales political involvement had mainly to do with the involvement of his region, Ionia in the defense of Anatolia [Asia Minor] against the growing power of the Persians. The neighbouring king of Lydia, king Croesus, had conquered many of the coastal cities of the Ionians and he engaged Thales support in his war against the Medes. The war endured for five years, but in the sixth an eclipse of the Sun spontaneously halted a battle in progress (the Battle of Halys). It seems that Thales had predicted this solar eclipse and based on it the Lydians and Medes made peace immediately, swearing a blood oath.

Croesus

The Medes were vassals of the Persians under Cyrus. Croesus now sided with the Medes against the Persians and marched in the direction of Persia, stopping by the river Halys, then unbridged.  The king gave the problem to Thales who got the army across by digging a diversion upstream so as to reduce the flow, making it possible to ford the river.  When Croesus was unsuccessful against the Persian armies in Cappadocia, he marched home, and summoned his dependents and allies to send fresh troops to Sardis. The Persian army surrounded the armies of Croesus, trapping them within the walls of Sardis. This time, Thales fame as a counselor was to advise the Milesians not to engage in “fighting together”, with the Lydians against the Persians.

Croesus was defeated before the city of Sardis by Cyrus, and Miletus was subsequently spared because it had taken no action. Cyrus was so impressed by Croesus’ wisdom and his connection with the sages that he spared him and took his advice on various matters. The Ionians were now free and Miletus, received favorable terms from Cyrus including amnesty.

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It was Thales wisdom in science, philosophy and politics which led to the rise of the Milesian school of philosophy which was influenced by both Egyptian and Babylonian mathematics and astronomy. It was Anaxagoras  [c. 510 – c. 428 BC] of the Milesian school of philosophy who later brought its teaching to Athens, influencing Socrates and Pericles under the Golden Age of Greece.

Although Socrates born two centuries later [c. 470 – 399 BC], is more famously remembered to be the ‘father of western philosophy’, it is Thales earlier wisdom and scientific endeavours that have led to him being credited with fathering western philosophy.

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The Death of Socrates

The Death of Socrates is recounted in several ancient works including  Plato’s dialogue “Phaedo” and  “The Apology” and in Xenophon’s “The Apology of Socrates to the Jury“.

Socrates death by execution in 399 BC is credited to be a point from which western philosphy can find its origins.  The classical Greek philosopher and teacher was put on trial and executed for “corrupting” the youth of Athens. His crimes – to introduce strange gods and for  “impiety“, disbelieving in the gods of the state.

In fact, Socrates disagreed with the powerholders of Athens and refused to be silenced. Instead of accepting what he perceived as immorality within his region,  he questioned their notion of “might makes right“. His attempts to improve the Athenians’ sense of justice led to his trial and death.

 

 

Le Mort de Socrates [The Death of Socrates] , by Jacques-Louis David (1787)

 

Socrates defended his role as a “gadfly” – a small creature that stings but spurs a beast into action.

At his trial, when Socrates was asked to propose his own punishment, he suggested a wage paid by the government and free dinners for the rest of his life instead, to finance the time he spent as Athens’ benefactor. 

He was, however, found guilty of both corrupting the minds of the youth of Athens and of impiety and subsequently sentenced to death by drinking a mixture containing poison hemlock.

Bust of Socrates in the Vatican Museum

 

Shortly before his death, Socrates spoke his last words to Crito:

Crito, we owe a rooster to Aesclepius. Please, don’t forget to pay the debt.

Aesclepius was the Greek god for health and healing, and it is likely Socrates’ last words meant that death is the cure—and freedom, of the soul from the body.

Additionally, in Why Socrates Died: Dispelling the Myths, Robin Waterfield proposes that Socrates was a voluntary scapegoat; his death was the purifying remedy for Athens’ misfortunes.

Interestingly, the Rod of Aesclepius, and the symbol of places of healing throughout the Greek world, was a snake curled around a stick. The symbol to this day is associated with health and health care.

aesclepion          rod_of_asclepius

Some commentators have linked the symbol to the serpent wrapped around a pole mentioned in the Bible in the Book of Numbers (Numbers 21:5–9).

9 And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he looked upon the serpent of brass, he lived.

King Hezekiah, 700 years later destroyed the copper serpent because it was being worshiped (2 Kings 18:4).

The motif appears again as a symbol of healing in the New Testament, this time a messianic symbol found in John 3:14–15.

14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: 15 That whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.

Fascinating parallels emerge. Socrates, perished, a voluntary scapegoat. His death was to him, and to generations subsequent,  a cure, a freedom from the tyranny of odious traditions and false wisdom. Western philosophy has forever been indebted to the iconoclast for his steadfast dedication to inquiry, justice, and the rights of the common man.

At another turning point in history, Christ died, a voluntary scapegoat for the ills of his people. His death too has been for generations subsequent, a cure, freedom from the tyranny of odious traditions, false wisdom and well …….eternal death.

Sophie’s World and the power of Questions

“The most subversive people are those who ask questions.”
Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World

The novel “Sophie’s World” follows the events around Norwegian school girl,  Sophie Amundsen’s 15th birthday. She mysteriously receives letters addressed to a girl called Hilde Moller Knag and typed pages containing a short course in western philosophy.  When Sophie befriends an elderly professor Alberto Knox she learns that it is he who is instructing her in the course on philsophy. Their journey takes stranger turns however, as they both seek to identify the elusive Hilde Moller Knag and the author of the post cards, Albert Knag.

philosophers

Alberto delivers to Sophie, a course in  western philosophy spanning from pre-socratic philosophy, to modernist Jean-Paul Sartre. She journeys with Alberto through Hellenistic philsophy, Christian thought, the middle ages, renaissance, baroque, enlightenment and romantic periods of western thinking. The Norwegian author Gaarder, addresses an important lack in modern western education- instruction on thought. Sophie’s journey to learn “wisdom” [sophism] becomes our journey.

“So now you must choose… Are you a child who has not yet become world-weary? Or are you a philosopher who will vow never to become so? To children, the world and everything in it is new, something that gives rise to astonishment. It is not like that for adults. Most adults accept the world as a matter of course. This is precisely where philosophers are a notable exception. A philosopher never gets quite used to the world. To him or her, the world continues to seem a bit unreasonable – bewildering, even enigmatic. Philosophers and small children thus have an important faculty in common. The only thing we require to be good philosophers is the faculty of wonder…”
Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World

When Sophie has dreams which are fulfilled, she and Alberto begin to suspect some greater mischief is afoot. Gradually they begin to learn that they are part of a story themselves, written by Albert Knag to his daugher Hilde for her 15th birthday. Confused and perplexed at this thought, that the world they inhabit is but the imagining of a superior author, they seek to rebel and run away from he story itself.  Sophie had believed that she was an independent, free being and even then, despite the knowledge that they she is imaginary, Sophie and Alberto deterime to find a way to escape.

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“A lot of people experience the world with the same incredulity as when a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat.…We know that the world is not all sleight of hand and deception because we are in it, we are part of it. Actually we are the white rabbit being pulled out of the hat. The only difference beween us and the white rabbit is that the rabbit does not realize it is taking part in a magic trick.”
Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World

Sophie’s World is a book within a book. Alberto lectures Sophie about philosophy but then we learn that the lectures are really not for Sophie but for Hilde. Yet as readers we realize that the lessons are not in fact for Gaarder’s imaginary characters but for US. The very medium of the book is used to help illustrate philosophical points.  Gaarder presents Philosophy as an ongoing, lifelong pursuit. We alone of all the creatures on earth can engage in philosophical reflection. Although it may not make our lives simpler or give us any easy answers …………………………

“… the only thing we require to be good philosophers is the faculty of wonder…”
Jostein Gaarder, Sophie’s World