Baptized in the water of Thales

Cosmologists, in their quest to discover the origin of the universe, ran the positions of the galaxies backwards and discovered that everything came from a single point a long time ago. That was the Big Bang, the beginning of things and thingness.

If we were to do the same with Western civilization and Western imagethought, viz., roll everything backwards, we would end up in the Aegean seaport of the Ionian city of Miletus, and thence somewhere in the brain of a fellow named Thales, a.k.a Thales of Miletus, about twenty six hundred years ago.

Miletus was a seaport on the southwest coast of Asia Minor, what we call Turkey. It was rich, it had colonies in Thrace and Italy, it was a sea power. And thus it had leisure time for non-slave, non-working class Milesians. All of which led Thales to his questions.

Thales was no slouch. He knew math; he knew geometry, which he may have introduced to Greece; he knew astronomy; he knew meteorology. In fact, or in legend, one can’t be sure because so little is actually known about his life, Thales made a fortune off his knowledge of weather. He predicted a bumper olive crop one year and bought up all the oil presses, then rented them back to the olive farmers. Who said there’s no money in philosophy? (That only makes sense if you realize that science and philosophy were largely the same thing back in the day.)

Anyway, a couple of hundred years later, Aristotle, the main man of it all, called Thales the father of philosophy and/or science. He also got listed as one of Seven Sages of Ancient Greece, an obviously rather select little group. Impressive credentials for a guy who didn’t leave any works behind. No books, no writings, just a couple of sentences. But he did start the ball rolling for our journeys into space and our probing the depths of subatomic matter.

imageAnd he did it with water.

No, none of this turning water into wine nonsense. Thales looked around at the world, wondering to himself, “What the hell is the world made of?” He said it in Greek, of course. The answer up to then had been that the world was made of whatever the gods made things of – call it godstuff. It was out there, it was run by gods, and that was that.

That wasn’t good enough for Thales. Nope. Thales decided that to discover the true nature of the world he had to look at the world as it was, not as it was imagined to be. His attitude was somewhat zennish, as in, “The wise man looks at a mountain and sees a mountain.”

So Thales looked and he thought and he looked. Back in the day he had no instruments. No microscopes. No telescopes. No linear accelerators. He had his eyes and his brain. So, looking, he noticed that life was pretty much wet. Plants were full of wet. People were full of wet. Seeds needed wet to germinate. Thus wet went into the equation.

Then there was other stuff that wasn’t wet. Rocks. Stone. Dried up formerly wet stuff. Dirt. Sand. Metal. Thus solids went into the equation.

And there was stuff that was neither wet, or wet some of the time, nor was it solid. Air. Vapors. Gasses venting from the ground. Thus airy stuff went into the equation.

Add it all up and Thales comes up with water. Water is the cause and content of everything. Obviously. What other single thing in his world could be a solid, as in ice; a gas, as in steam; or a liquid, as in water water. Thus he determined water was the root of everything, was in fact everything.

Okay, he was wrong. Not the point. The point is that Thales looked at the real world to find the cause of the real world. He looked and he reasoned what the world was. He reasoned reality. He is the first person in Western civilization of whom we have record who eschewed the supernatural and sought the cause of things in the world he could see and touch.

He amplified imagehis thought by concluding that things behaved as they did because the principles of how they acted were within themselves. Water flowed because of what it was, not because some god deemed it should flow from here to there. A rock fractured a certain way because it was a certain type of rock, not because something mystical was done to it. Supposedly Thales said, “All things are full of gods,” to explain this principle. Cryptic, even when explained, but the consensus is that he meant stuff acted the way it did because of what it was. A rock’s principles were contained within the rock, not forced on it by supernatural agencies.

And therein, in water and in the idea of the internal principles of things, lies the Big Bang of Western Civilization. Thales started the ball rolling. He messed with the old order of a gods-centered universe, and he put it out there in public for all to see and question. He looked at the world and saw the world as it was and tried to make sense of it on the world’s terms. The modern world was born and baptized twenty six hundred years ago in the water of Thales.

And apparently the old devil opened up a successful T-shirt business that’s still going today.

Of course there’s always some young gun out there challenging the old master. Some things never change.


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