In Aristotle’s Metaphysics (Book I, 983b18) he reminds us that the first philosophers were primarily natural philosophers, or what we moderns might call “scientists” or “physicists.” Thales is often referred to as the first philosopher. Bertrand Russell lists Thales at the beginning of his revisionist text, the History of Western Philosophy.
At any rate, Thales comes to us from Miletus in Ionian Asia Minor (or modern day Western Turkey) where he established a school of Milesians, or Ionians, as Aristotle calls it (much of what we know about Thales and his teaching comes to us from Thales). Thales is sometimes listed at the top of the list of the “seven sages of ancient Greece” – a moniker he shares with the likes of Solon, the lawgiver of Athens, and others. This list of seven comes down to us from Plato’s Protagoras, in which Socrates lists seven ancient sages who were defenders of the Spartan way of life. They were defenders of brevity, and for this reason the Greeks had written on the wall of the temple to Apollo: “Know Thyself” and “All Things in Moderation.”
There are many rumors that abound regarding the life of Thales (Socrates famously reiterates one such rumor in Plato’s Theaetetus) but perhaps the most famous claim to fame of Thales is in his quest for the ‘permanent things’ – which was the objective of the early natural philosophers. In a world of changing things, what stays consistent? Thales suggested the permanent essential substance is water. At the root of all things is water (including the earth). Heat requires moisture, and moisture implied water. And perhaps in a sense he is correct – water composes the majority of the earth as well as the majority substance of the human body. It exists all around us on land and in water, and deprived of water we will not survive.
Plato recounts a story to Theaetetus, when examining the relevance or irrelevance of the philosophers, when Thales was mocked by the crowd of people because he was so focused on the heavens that he wasn’t aware of what was right in front of him – he fell down a well. People thought he was silly and irrelevant. This fable was incorporated into Aesop’s works. Aristotle recounts a story of Thales predicting a bountiful olive harvest that made him very rich, which served to prove philosophers could become rich if they so desired but it is not their primary mission. In Herodotus, Thales is briefly described as something of a capable tactician in Croesus’s conflict with the Persians (and even though they fall to Persia, Cyrus praises Croesus’s ingenuity).
Thales is also mentioned in Herodotus as predicting a solar eclipse. Diogenes Laërtius, the great ancient biographer of the philosophers, suggests that Thales died while watching the Olympiad of heat stroke.