Thales of Miletus


Thales of Miletus (c. 624 BCE – c. 546 BCE) was an ancient (pre-Soctratic) Greek philosopher who is often considered the first philosopher and the father of Western philosophy. His approach to philosophical questions of course cannot compare to modern or even later Greek philosophers, however, he is the first known person to use natural explanations for natural phenomena rather than turning to supernatural world and his example was followed by other Greek thinkers who would give rise to philosophy both as a discipline and science. In addition to being viewed as the beginner of Western philosophy, Thales of Miletus is also the first to define general principles and develop hypotheses. He is therefore sometimes also referred to as the “father of science” although this epithet is usually used in reference to Democritus, another prominent ancient Greek philosopher who formulated the atomic theory that states that all matter is composed of particles called atoms.

Personal Life

Not much is known about the philosopher’s early life, not even his exact dates of birth and death. He is believed to be born in the city of Miletus, an ancient Greek Ionian city on the western coast of Asia Minor in today’s Turkey. The time of his life was calculated on the basis of events related to him in the later sources, most notably in the work “Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers” by Diogenes Laertius (c. 3rd century BCE) who wrote biographies of ancient Greek philosophers and one of the most important sources for ancient Greek philosophy. Laertius tells us that according to the chronicle by Apollodorus of Athens, Thales of Miletus died in the 58th Olympiad aged 78. Since the 58th Olympiad was the period between 548 and 545 BCE, Thales of Miletus was born sometime between 626 and 623 BCE.

According to Laertius who quotes Herodotus, Douris and Democritus, Thales’ parents were Examyes and Cleobuline who are thought to had been of Phoenician origin and well financially situated. As much as his later life is concerned, there are a lot of conflicting information. According to some sources, Thales was married and had a son named Cybisthus but according to other, he never married and adopted his nephew Cybisthus.

Thales’ Philosophical Works

Thales of Miletus is said to had written “On the Solstice” and “On the Equinox”, however, none of the two works survived and some doubt that he left any written works. Even in antiquity, there were some doubts about Thales’ written works although some authors also connect him with “The Nautical Star Guide”. The latter, however, is highly unlikely to had been written by Thales of Miletus considering that Laertius tells us that the very same work is attributed to a lesser known Phokos of Samos. But despite the scarcity of reliable evidence about Thales of Miletus, there is little doubt about his – at the time – revolutionary approach to philosophical questions. In his “Metaphysics”, Aristotle tells us that Thales believed that everything comes out of water and that the earth floats on water. And according to Seneca, the philosopher used the floating earth theory to explain earthquakes. This means that Thales of Miletus rejected the supernatural and mystical theories that were used to explain various phenomena by his predecessors which justifies his fame as the first philosopher. He is the first known thinker to abandon the supernatural agenda but he is also the first known thinker to try to explain the world by a unifying hypothesis.

Thales’ as Astronomer and Mathematician

Although Thales of Miletus is best known as the first Western philosopher, he actually became famous for predicting a solar eclipse. According to Herodotus, the philosopher correctly predicted the year of the solar eclipse which impressed his contemporaries and later ancient Greek thinkers because in his time, no one knew how to predict solar eclipses in Greece. The modern methods confirmed that a solar eclipse indeed took place during Thales’ lifetime, however, the story about Thales predicting the eclipse is surrounded with controversy because if he did correctly predict the eclipse, it apparently worked only once because whichever method he used, it was not used again. Although some sources claim he could have used the Babylonian lunar cycle known as the Sages and that he could have gained the knowledge about predicting solar eclipses from the Egyptians (he is known to have visited Egypt), most modern scholars think both explanations are highly unlikely. They attribute the story of Thales predicting the solar eclipse to a lucky guess, while some think that it never happened at all and that it was assigned to him because he was a highly respected philosopher who happened to live in the time of the eclipse and therefore, he must have known that it is coming.

In addition to being hailed as the first philosopher, Thales of Miletus is sometimes also hailed as the first mathematician. According to ancient sources, it was Thales who brought the discipline to Greece from Egypt and made many important mathematical discoveries himself, most notably that the circle is bisected by its diameter and that a triangle inscribed in a semi-circle is always a right triangle (Thales’ theorem). However, just like Thales’ astronomical discoveries, his mathematical achievements are doubted by some modern scholars.