Politics, art, mathematics, science, philosophy, and culture flourished during the Golden Age of Greece, a significant period in their history lasting through the 5th and 4th centuries BC (510-323 BC) that would have a profound influence on the Roman Empire and the western world (1). This period was one of great achievement but also one of war. A succession of military conflicts occurred between the Greeks and the Persians (of whom the Greeks eventually defeated) and then between the rival city states of the Athenians and the Spartans (which led to Sparta gaining the ascendancy).
The city of Athens, under Pericles (495-429 BC) experienced a prosperous growth which marked the beginning of the city’s political, economic, and cultural dominance (2). At the time it developed gymnastics, drama, an alphabetical system, democracy in which Athenians above the age of 18 could join the governing body of Athens, and a legal system in which people in court could plead their cases. Numerous monuments and temples were constructed, and literacy increased significantly as a elementary schools were teaching young boys how to read and write. Athenian society in many respects became conducive to literary and philosophical development as evidenced in the fact that it produced far more written works than any of the other Ancient Greek states. Philosophy, in particular, spread across the Greek world as the city states grew. The flourishing of Athens in particular brought us the likes of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. The ideas and reasoning of these influential men were developed and taught by their students and followers. Plato, who was a student of Socrates, formed an Academy (from which we get the English word academics) where he passed on Socrates’ ideas to his students, one of whom was Aristotle (who is widely appreciated today in academia not only because of his philosophy but also due to his scientific work on physics, biology, and zoology). The ideas presented by these men would form the foundation of western philosophy up until the present day.
The Golden Age of Ancient Greece came to an end when Alexander the Great died in 323 BC (3). Having died the city states once again resorted to rivalry, and the states unified under Alexander the Great were divided among his generals. This moment also marked the beginning of the Hellenistic period which took Greek culture to new territories in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. The rivalry that resulted following the death of Alexander the Great’s resulted in the flourishing of different schools of philosophical thought such as the epicureans, skeptics, cynics, and stoics. However, at the close of the Hellenistic period (146 BC) Greek culture continued to decline as the Roman Empire grew in might. The Romans had little interest in most of Greek philosophy apart from stoicism although Greek philosophy continued to live on in the Arab world where it was being persevered on manuscripts and would also resurface during the medieval era in both Christian and Islamic circles.
The First Philosopher: Thales of Miletus
Although none of his own writings survived we know of Thales of Miletus (c. 624-546 BC) through numerous references. The earliest of these include the likes of Aristotle (384–322 BC), Xenophanes (c. 560–c. 478), Herodotus (484 BC – c. 425 BC), poet Callimachus (c. 305 – c. 240 BC), and playwright Plautus (254 – 184 BC). Numerous other later writers in the first millennium AD referred to Thales including Plutarch (c. 46 – 120 AD), philosopher Aetius (c. 1st – 2nd century AD), biographer Diogenes Laertius (c. 180-240 AD) Christian polemicist Eusebius (c. 260 – c. 339 AD), and others. Most of these sources, based on oral traditions passed down over time, are very late having been penned many years after Thales’ life and therefore present legendary information which proves challenging to historians attempting to determine which ideas are genuinely Thales own as opposed to those put in his mouth or those that are fictionalized to some extent (5). There is little doubt, however, that Thales had a huge reputation supported by the fact that he is mentioned by so many writers over a great length of time following his life. Aristotle, for example, described him as the founder of natural philosophy (see Metaphysics 983 b21-22).
Thales was born in Miletus on the coast of modern day Turkey and was active just prior to the Golden Age of Ancient Greece. Although we know him primarily due to his philosophical work and his cosmological thesis he was also a noted mathematician and businessman. He traveled widely around the eastern Mediterranean and even visited Egypt where he learned geometry that he brought back to Greece (6). He also held a good understanding of geometry and astronomy, which included him predicting an eclipse of the sun in 585 BC. It is further believed, as we learn from philosopher Proculus, that while in Egypt, Thales measured the height of the Great Pyramids via their shadows and could calculate the distance that ships were from shore while they were at sea. He also engaged topics relating to Earth concerning its shape, size, support (Aëtius; Plutarch). He theorized concerning the size of the sun and moon as well as the cause of earthquakes (Aëtius; Seneca). There is a story relating how because Thales was so fixated with studying the heavenly bodies that he actually fell into a well while studying them (Diogenes Laertius). Thales was the first thinker to propose the philosophy of material monism, the idea that everything in the universe could be reduced to a single substance. As we learn from Aristotle (our main source for Thales), Thales posited water as this fundamental property (7). He thought the Earth was a disk that floated on top of water.
Thales’ most well-known contribution to the beginning of western philosophy was him being the first thinker we know of who begun looking for natural explanations to explain phenomena and events in the world that were initially attributed to the gods and heroes. He believed that events in the world were not due to supernatural intervention but had natural causes that observation and experimentation would soon discover (8). He is also credited with the ushering in the beginning of Greek astronomy as he speculated concerning cosmological events which traditionally involved supernatural entities (9). It was Thales who solidified the foundations of future philosophical and scientific thought (10).
1. Ancient History. Classical Greece. Available.
2. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Classical Greek civilization. Available.
3. Roebuck, C. 1966. The World of Ancient Times. p. 362.
4. Dicks, D. 1959. Thales. The Classical Quarterly. 9 (2): 294-309.
5. Dicks, D. 1959. Ibid.
6. Fletcher, C. 1982. Thales – our founder?. The Mathematical Gazette. The Mathematical Association. 66 (438): 267.
7. Encyclopaedia Britannica. Thales of Miletus Greek philosopher. Available.
8. Fletcher, C. 1982. Ibid. p. 267.
9. Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Patricia O’Grady. Thales of Miletus (c. 620 B.C.E.—c. 546 B.C.E.). Available.
10. Lindberg, D. 2010. The Beginnings of Western Science. p. 28-29.