Beyond Naturalism: Demythologizing Thales

Beyond Naturalism: Demythologizing Thales

The history of Western philosophy is often portrayed as beginning with the work of Thales and the so called “Milesian school” he inaugurated.1 Because he stands, on such accounts, as the fountainhead of our philosophical tradition, his thought has come to be imbued with a mythological significance. In a sense, this should not be surprising, since, as Heidegger observed, the beginning of a tradition does not merely lie behind it at a given point in time, but also stands ahead of it, calling forth its future by manifesting its as yet untapped essence. For, “people still hold the view that what is handed down to us by tradition is what in reality lies behind us—while in fact it comes toward us because we are its captives and destined to it” (Heidegger, What is called Thinking?, 76). So, in being associated with the beginning of philosophy, the figure of Thales has come to take on the originary significance of that beginning, and, as result, each era tends to read the work of Thales through its incipient sense of what philosophy is called to be.

In this respect, the construct of the “historical Thales” is not unlike that of the “historical Jesus”, and Albert Schweitzer’s observations about the latter hold true for the former as well:

“Thus each successive epoch of theology found its own thoughts in Jesus; that was, indeed, the only way in which it could make Him live. But it was not only each epoch that found its reflection in Jesus; each individual created Him in accordance with his own character. There is no historical task which so reveals a man’s true self as the writing of a Life of Jesus” (Schweitzer, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, 10).

And just as epochs and individuals project their values back onto the historical Jesus, so too do they project their philosophical commitments back onto the historical Thales. When attempting to descry the originary source of philosophy in the visage of Thales, philosophers often discern only their own reflections staring back at them. In this manner, Thales has taken on many guises through history. He has been represented as a wise political counselor who taught through laconic proverbs2 (R2), as an inventor and engineer (P6), as the first to make an attempt towards articulating Aristotle’s fourfold causal explanation (Aristotle, Metaphysics 983b), as a metaphysician who held that God is an intelligence guiding the world (R35, R38), and as a theologian anticipating the creator God of Christianity (R42, R43).3 And, in our own scientistic era, Thales has been portrayed as the first to adopt a commitment to reductive naturalism. So, for example, the popular Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Presocratic Philosophy asserts that:

“The questions that the early Greek philosophers asked, the sorts of answers that they gave, and the views that they had of their own inquiries were the foundation for the development of philosophy as it came to be defined in the work of Plato and Aristotle and their successors. Perhaps the fundamental characteristic is the commitment to explain the world naturalistically, in terms of its own inherent principles” (SEP, Presocratic Philosophy).4

And, regarding Thales in particular, it maintains,

“The reports about Thales show him employing a certain kind of explanation: ultimately the explanation of why things are as they are is grounded in water as the basic stuff of the universe and the changes that it undergoes through its own inherent nature. In this, Thales marks a radical change from all other previous sorts of accounts of the world (both Greek and non-Greek). Like the other Presocratics, Thales sees nature as a complete and self-ordering system, and sees no reason to call on divine intervention from outside the natural world to supplement his account—water itself may be divine, but it is not something that intervenes in the natural world from outside” (SEP, Presocratic Philosophy).

According to this contemporary account, Thales initiates the Western philosophical tradition by rejecting prior mythological worldviews in which gods and other intelligent agents can intervene in the natural world, and accepting instead a so-called “rational” worldview in which nature is governed by causal laws that are closed, complete, and self-explanatory. In this essay, I will challenge the current scientistic myth of Thales by showing how it substantially outstrips our available historical evidence.

1. Aristotelian Biases

The primary evidence for the naturalistic interpretation of Thales is derived from Aristotle, since he articulates an apparently similar interpretation in Book 1 of the Metaphysics, declaring Thales to be the first to attempt to explain the whole of reality in terms of matter. Yet the argumentative context of these assertions does not support their historical veracity. For Aristotle, in this section of the Metaphysics, attempts to explicate the precursors to his own fourfold causal analysis of being,5 and is thus more interested in presenting a progressive history of philosophy culminating in his own view than in articulating a historically accurate account of previous philosophers.6

Aristotle sets forth his own fourfold causal theory in Book 1 as follows:

“Evidently we have to acquire knowledge of the original causes (for we say we know each thing only when we think we recognize its first cause), and causes are spoken of in four senses. In one of these we mean the substance, i.e. the essence [οὐσία] (for the ‘why’ is referred finally to the logos, and the ultimate ‘why’ is a cause and principle [ἀρχή] ); in another the matter [ὕλη] or substratum, in a third the source of the change, and in a fourth the cause opposed to this, that for the sake of which and the good [ἀγαθός] (for this is the end of all generation and change)” (Metaphysics 983a).

The first of these is commonly called the formal cause and refers to the form or essence of a thing. So, for example, if one wanted to explain why a candle was burning steadily by identifyng its formal cause, one could point to the internal composition of the candle, viz., that of a wick surrounded by wax. If a different kind of essence were at play, and the wax and the candle wick were not connected to each other, then the candle would not burn steadily. The second cause Aristotle mentions here is the material cause. It refers to the material composition of the thing. So, we could identify the material cause of the burning candle by pointing out that it is made of wax. If it were, for example, made of steel, it would not burn. The third cause listed here is the efficient cause and refers to what causes something to move or change its state. Thus, my striking a match and applying it to the candle wick is the efficient cause of the candle’s burning. And lastly, the fourth cause listed by Aristotle is the final or teleological cause and refers to the purpose for which something is done. In the case of the burning candle, its final cause is my desire to light my room, since lighting the room is the purpose for which I lit the candle.

It is only after setting forth his own account of metaphysical explanation that Aristotle turns to examine previous accounts to clarify his own view and demonstrate its superiority over its rivals. He announces the project as follows:

“We have studied these causes sufficiently in our work on nature, but yet let us call to our aid those who have attacked the investigation of being and philosophized about reality before us. For obviously they too speak of certain principles and causes; to go over their views, then, will be of profit to the present inquiry, for we shall either find another kind of cause, or be more convinced of the correctness of those which we now maintain” (983b).

This is the context in which Aristotle recounts the work of Thales. He is not concerned with giving an objective account of the history of Western philosophy, but with demonstrating the completeness and power of his own metaphysical system. In short, Aristotle is here presenting a whigish history wherein the history of philosophy culminates in his own work. This is an important point to remember, since, while Aristotle’s rational reconstructions of previous theories may be useful or even accurate from a metaphysical point of view, they make no attempt to explain the work of previous thinkers on their own terms. And, as a result, if one wants to present a historically accurate account of beginnings of philosophy, one cannot simply take Aristotle’s assertions at face value. For, it is at precisely this point in the Metaphysics that Aristotle subsumes Thales’ philosophy under a general school of thought which seeks to explain reality in terms of material causation alone. He asserts:

“Of the first philosophers, most thought the principles which were of the nature of matter were the only principles of all things; that of which all things that are consist, and from which they first come to be, and into which they are finally resolved (the substance remaining, but changing in its modifications), this they say is the element and the principle of things, and therefore they think nothing either is generated or destroyed, since this sort of entity is always conserved, as we say Socrates neither comes to be absolutely when he comes to be beautiful or musical, nor ceases to be when he loses these characteristics, because the substratum, Socrates himself, remains. So they say nothing else comes to be or ceases to be; for there must be some entity—either one or more than one—from which all other things come to be, it being conserved” (983b).

Aristotle here claims that the earliest philosophers identified the first principles of all things with material principles. They sought to find the material substratum that undergirds reality and remains constant through all the changes that unfold in the world. Just as Socrates remains Socrates amid the acquisition and loss of various accidental properties (such as being beautiful or being musical), so too does the substrate undergirding the cosmos remain self identical despite the apparent changes we see in it. And this substrate is, according to Aristotle’s depiction of the accounts of the earliest philosophers, material.

Aristotle then points to the work of Thales as an instance of this explanatory schema, describing his philosophy as follows:

“Yet they do not all agree as to number and the nature of these principles (ἀρχαί). Thales, the founder of this school of philosophy, says the principle is water (for which reason he declared that the earth rests on water), getting the notion perhaps from seeing that the nutriment of all things is moist, and that heat itself is generated from the moist and kept alive by it (and that from which they come to be is a principle of all things). He got his notion from this fact, and from the fact that the seeds of all things have a moist nature, and that water is the origin of the nature of moist things” (983b).

Here, then, we can see how the contemporary reductionistic interpretation of Thales could find support in Aristotle’s account. For, according to Aristotle, Thales’ philosophy represents the first attempt to explain reality by identifying its underlying material substrate. Likewise, the kind of reasoning that Aristotle attributes to Thales in support of his identification of water with this underlying substrate is not theological or mythical, but thoroughly empirical. According to Aristotle, Thales could have turned to the empirical observation of nature to see that living things depend on moisture (e.g. plants and animals need water to survive), that hot things depend on moist things in order to sustain themselves (e.g. bodies grow cold and dry out when they die), and that semen is moist. From these observable features of the world, Thales could then conclude that water is the underlying substrate of all things. So, on Aristotle’s construal, Thales appears to look to nature alone to support his argument.

Yet, there is reason to doubt the historical accuracy of Aristotle’s rational reconstruction of Thales’ position. For, as noted previously, Aristotle is not here attempting to set forth an objective historical account of Thales’ worldview, but to provide a whigish history to clarify and support his own metaphysical system. Aristotle may still provide us with historically accurate information, but it is necessary to sift through his claims to separate the actual historical data from his interpretation of that data. And the need for historical circumspection becomes even more pressing when we note that several sources testify that Thales left behind no written record from which Aristotle could have drawn. Diogenes Laertius, for example, reports that “according to some, he did not leave behind a written treatise” (D1). And Galen testifies that “we are not able to demonstrate on the basis of a treastise by Thales that he declared that water was the only element, even if this is what everyone believes” (Galen, Commentary on Hippocrates’ on the Nature of Man, D2)]

The main historical information that we can glean from Aristotle is his assertion that “Thales says the principle (ἀρχή) is water (for which reason he declared that the earth rests on water)”. So, we can take this as evidence that Thales identified water with the ἀρχή. Yet, Aristotle does not provide any evidence to support his further assertion that Thales understood the ἀρχή to be a material substrate. The distinction between Aristotle’s four causes did not yet exist in Thales’ day, and there is reason to believe that ἀρχή functioned as a broader explanatory principle at that time.7 Thales may, for example, have posited water as a first creative principle, the ultimate source from which the rest of the cosmos sprung, without making the stronger and more specific claim that water is the material substrate of all reality. On the former supposition, one can posit some kind of primordial ocean from which other entities emerge, without being committed to the claim that everything is made of water, a claim entailed by the material substrate view. For the material substrate view stipulates that all reality is, at its core, water and that all further modifications of this reality are merely modes of this unchanging underlying substrate.

Furthermore, it is important to note that Aristotle’s reconstructions of the inferences supporting Thales’ position are just that, reconstructions, speculations on Aristotle’s part. Aristotle is explicit about this when he notes that “perhaps” Thales got his idea from the nutriment of all things being moist and from heat being fed by the moist.8 These empirical inferences are rational reconstructions on Aristotle’s part, rather than a historical record of what Thales actually said. There is thus little evidence in this passage to support the claim that Thales attempted to support his theory through empirical observation rather than theological or mythological speculation. The dogma that he did so is simply a matter of faith.9 Therefore, Aristotle’s case for a reductive reading of Thales is not as strong as contemporary philosophers would like us to believe. And, since the evidence for the contemporary naturalistic interpretation of Thales is derived primarily from Aristotle’s testimony, it too is rendered historically dubious.10

2. Mythological Sources

And the above mentioned passage from Aristotle generates even more problems for the naturalistic reading, since Aristotle provides mythological parallels to Thales’ account in the very next section. After speculating on the possible empirical motivations for Thales’ identification of water with the ἀρχή, Aristotle reports that:

“Some think that the ancients who lived long before the present generation, and first framed accounts of the gods, had a similar view of nature; for they made Ocean and Tethys the parents of creation, and described the oath of the gods as being by water, which they themselves call Styx; for what is oldest is most honorable, and the most honorable thing is that by which one swears. It may perhaps be uncertain whether this opinion about nature is primitive and ancient, but Thales at any rate is said to have declared himself thus about the first cause” (983b-984a).

Here Aristotle observes that some have drawn a parallel between Thales’ account and previous Greek mythological theories of the origin of the cosmos. Homer, for example, in recounting a conversation between Hera and Aphrodite in the Iliad, describes Ocean, or Okeanos, as the source from “whence the gods have risen”, and he has Hera, queen of the Olympians, refer to Tethys, Ocean’s wife, as “our mother” (XIV:201, trans. Lattimore). And Homer later depicts Sleep as describing Ocean as the stream from “whence is arisen the seed of all the immortals” (XIV:246). So, it seems that for Homer the gods ultimately come from the Ocean. And, as a result, Thales would not be departing from the mythological tradition when he asserts that water is the first principle of all things.

And, as Aristotle notes, a similar parallel can be found in Hesiod’s Theogony when Hesiod declares that the gods swear by the river Styx, thereby holding her in honor (775-806). Aristotle argues that if the gods are to swear by the Styx, she must have some kind of priority over them. And so, one might conclude that, within the mythological world of Hesiod, water has primacy over the other gods. Thus Thales’ claim that water is the first principle, is once again consistent with, and possibly even derived from the Greek mythology of Homer and Hesiod. Instead of rejecting Greece’s mythological past, as the contemporary interpretation proclaims, Thales’ account may have actually been derived from it.

And the mythological connections may even transcend the Greek tradition, since there is a tradition claiming that Thales traveled to Egypt and studied with the priests there. Diogenes Laertius, for instance, claims that “no one showed him [Thales] the way, except that he went to Egypt and spent time with the priests.” (P3). And Iamblichus claims that “He [Thales] exhorted him [ Pythagoras] to sail to Egypt and to spend time above all with the priests of Memphis and of Diospolis [Thebes]. For it was from them that he [Thales] himself obtained what made most people regard him as a sage” (Life of Pythagoras, P5). Now, Egypt was a river culture whose life and agriculture depended upon the flooding of the Nile, and Egypt’s resulting mythology and religion reflected this fact. Historian of philosophy W.K.C. Gutherie summarizes these teachings as follows:

“Each year the Nile submerged the narrow cultivable strip beside its banks, and receded leaving it covered with mud of an incredible fertility, in which the growth of new life was extraordinarily rapid. For those who crowded along this strip to get their livelihood it was easy to believe that all life arose in the first place from Water. The earth itself had arisen out of Nun, the primordial waters, which are still everywhere beneath it—as Thales said—and also surrounding it like the Homeric Oceanus. At first the waters covered everything, but gradually sank until a small hillock appeared, to become the seat of primeval life. On this hillock the creator-god made his first appearance” (Gutherie, A History of Greek Philosophy Vol 1, 59).

So, in Egyptian mythology, water is the primordial source of life, the earth both coming from and resting upon it. And, once again, there are clear parallels to Thales’ teaching. And these parallels are not even limited to the Egyptian worldview, but can be found throughout other ancient near eastern cultures, with water playing a primary cosmological role in the Babylonian mythology of the Enuma Elish, and the creation stories in the Old Testament (Gutherie, 59-60).

3. Animism

The contemporary naturalistic interpretation of Thales also conflicts with one of the most famous sayings attributed to him, namely, that “Thales thought that all things are full of gods (θεοί)” (Aristotle, On the Soul 411a, D10). This statement presents a prima facie problem for the naturalistic interpretation, since Thales appears to be doing precisely the opposite of what one would expect from a demythologizing philosopher. Instead of denying the reality of the gods, he asserts that they are to be found in everything. Far from expunging the Olympian gods, Thales appears to be adopting a full blown animistic worldview in which the universe is conscious and spirits are everywhere, even in the rocks, trees, and wind. Edward Burnett Tylor provides an early, and dismissive, anthropological definition of animism as follows:

“Conformably with that early childlike philosophy in which human life seems the direct key to the understanding of nature at large, the savage theory of the universe refers its phenomena in general to the willful action of pervading personal spirits. It was no spontaneous fancy, but the reasonable inference that effects are due to causes, which led the rude men of old days to people with such ethereal phantoms their own homes and haunts, and the vast earth and sky beyond. Spirits are simply personified causes. As men’s ordinary life and actions were held to be caused by souls, so the happy or disastrous events which affect mankind, as well as the manifold physical operations of the outer-world, were accounted for as caused by soul like beings, spirits whose essential similarity of origin is evident through all their wondrous variety of power and function” (Tylor, Primitive Culture, Vol 1, 108-109).

Animism, then, as it has been observed in various cultures, is the view that personal spirits intervene in the world. Just as humans have consciousness and make choices to perform actions in the world, so too do spirits, and these spirits exist and operate within nature. Hence, it seems that in asserting that that “all things are full of gods” Thales is adopting precisely the kind of “savage theory of the universe” from which Tyler thinks modern man has escaped.

The standard response from the naturalistic interpretation is to claim that Thales was not asserting that all things were permeated by gods in the standard Greek meaning of the term, i.e. by conscious beings capable of thought and action in the world, but that nature was divine in some different and more abstract sense. Contemporary interpreters take Thales to be advocating some form of Spinozism avant la lettre and claiming that substance, and nature, and god all refer the same thing.11 So, even if some form of divinity were to permeate nature, it would not intervene in the world like conscious agents do, but would instead unfold according to fixed natural laws. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article on Presocratic Philosophy, for example, advances such a view when it asserts that:

“Aristotle surmises that Thales identified soul (that which makes things alive and thus capable of motion) with something in the whole universe, and so supposed that everything was full of gods—water, or soul, being a divine natural principle” (SEP, Presocratic Philosophy).

And Andrew Gregory makes a similar assertion in his book Presocratics and the Supernatural when he stipulates that “the idea that there is some form of cosmic steering or intelligence behind either motion or intelligent design is not problematic. Thales believed in nothing that was beyond nature and nothing that had variable behavior.”

One might attempt to support such a Spinozistic reading of Thales by interpreting his doctrine that all things are full of gods through Aristotle’s conjectures about Thales’ understanding of the soul. For Aristotle uses Thales’ doctrine as an illustration of the claim that the universe is ensouled, observing that “certain thinkers say that soul is intermingled in the whole universe, and it is perhaps for that reason that Thales came to the opinion that all things are full of gods.” (De Anima Book 1, trans. Smith). And Aristotle speculates that Thales identified the soul with motive force. He asserts, “Thales too seems, from what is reported, to have thought that the soul is something that moves, for he says that the stone [i.e. the magnet] has a soul, given that it moves iron” (De Anima, D11a).12 Such speculations allow one to make the following argument for a Spinozistic reading of Thales:

(1) Thales’ assertion that “all things are full of gods” is equivalent to the claim that everything in “the universe is ensouled”. (From Aristotle’s conjecture regarding the meaning behind Thales’ assertion).

(2) For Thales, the soul is a principle of motion. (From Aristotle’s interpretation of Thales’ claim that stones have souls on the basis of their displaying magnetism).

So (3), Thales’ claim that “all things are full of gods” is equivalent to the claim that “everything in the universe has a principle of motion”. (From (1) and (2)).

(4) Thales adopts an explanation of motive force that does not make recourse to conscious agency. (From the intuition that a magnetized rock can move iron filings without intending to do so or even being conscious).

Thus, (5) the claim that “everything in the universe has a principle of motion” is compatible with a naturalistic view of reality (since it need not make recourse to the actions of conscious agents). (From (3) and (4)).13

Contemporary historians of philosophy appear to have taken this argument (or something like it) to have settled the case for a Spinozistic interpretation of Thales. Yet it suffers from major problems. First, premise (1) is objectionable in that the concept of a god (θεός) is prima facie distinct from the concept of a soul (ψυχή). A god, for example, might have a soul, but there are plenty of souls which are not gods. And, even if we were to grant that the concept of a soul could be reduced to some abstract principle of motion, Homeric and Hesiodic gods are not subject to such abstractions, but are instead depicted as conscious personal agents who take action in the world. And this personal view of the gods is further bolstered by later testimonies concerning Thales’ claim which replace the word gods (θεοί) with daimons (δαίμονες). And daimons, like gods, were taken to be conscious personal agents who operated in the world. Socrates, for example, identified them with “gods or children of gods” (Apology 27d) and reported that his daimon who would tell him when he should refrain from undertaking a given action (Apology 31d), and Hesiod identified them with the souls of those who died during the golden age whom Zeus then appointed to be the guardian spirits of men (Works and Days 120-126). Indeed, even later testimonies which interpreted Thales’ theology through a monotheistic lens retained the idea of a personal god.14 So, given that the concepts of god and the soul appear to be distinct from each other, we need some argument to motivate the claim that Thales nonetheless identified them. But Aristotle does not offer such an argument; he merely speculates that “perhaps” the two concepts are connected for Thales.

The second problem for the Spinozistic argument concerns premise (4), the assertion that Thales adopts a non-agental account of the soul as a principle of motion. The evidence for this claim comes from testimony which alleges that Thales appealed to magnetic phenomena to support his assertion that stones have souls. The idea seems to be that since we can explain magnetism without recourse to conscious agency, Thales must have done so as well. But this is a dubious inference. Just because we in the contemporary world adopt a naturalistic explanation of magnetic phenomena, does not entail that people in previous eras would have done so. Consider, for example, someone in an animistic culture who encountered the phenomenon of magnetism. If he used it as evidence to support his animistic worldview that stones have souls, we would not thereby take this as proof that he had somehow renounced animism and adopted some form of reductive materialism.15 But if this is precisely what the Spinozistic argument requires us to do in the case of Thales. The Spinozistic reading of Thales is thus not supported by the historical evidence, and, as a result, the naturalistic interpretation has difficulty accounting for Thales’ claim that “all things are full of gods.”

4. Personal Anecdotes

Even the anecdotes concerning Thales’ life prove to be ambiguous. For example, consider the tale in which Thales is said to have used his wisdom to predict a bumper crop of olives and make a profit. Aristotle recounts the story as follows:

“There is the anecdote of Thales the Milesian and his financial scheme, which […] is attributed to him on account of his reputation for wisdom. He was reproached for his poverty, which was supposed to show that philosophy was of no use. According to the story, he knew by his skill in the stars while it was yet winter that there would be a great harvest of olives in the coming year; so, having a little money, he gave deposits for the use of all the olive-presses in Chios and Miletus, which he hired at a low price because no one bid against him. When the harvest-time came, and many were wanted all at once and of a sudden, he let them out at any rate which he pleased, and made a quantity of money. Thus he showed the world that philosophers can easily be rich if they like, but that their ambition is of another sort” (Aristotle, Politics, 1259a).

According to the naturalistic interpretation, Thales is here said to use his knowledge of natural science to predict a bountiful olive crop in the coming year, and to leverage that knowledge to secure a monopoly on olive presses and amass a fortune. Yet, if we do not treat this anecdote merely as a fanciful tale, it is not obvious how a scientific knowledge of the stars in a given winter could allow one to predict that there would be a fruitful harvest in the upcoming year. The story only begins to make sense once we recall that the ancient world did not draw a firm distinction between astronomy and astrology. If Thales was practicing astrology and divining information about the future harvest from the positions of the stars, then it would be intelligible how he could be said to predict a fruitful olive crop from “his skill in the stars”.16 For this is precisely the sort of thing that astrologers were said to be able to do. Egyptian astrologers, for example, were described as making just such predictions. Diodorus describes their art as follows:

“The positions and arrangements of the stars, as well as their motion, have always been the subject of careful observation among the Egyptians, if anywhere in the world… they have observed with the utmost keenness the motions, orbits and stoppings of each planet, as well as the influence of each of them on the generations of all living things—the good and the evil things, namely, of which they are the cause. And while they often succeed in predicting to men the events that will befall them in the course of their lives, not infrequently they foretell destruction of crops, or, on the other hand, abundant yields, and pestilences… they have prior knowledge of earthquakes and floods, of the rising of comets, and of all things which the ordinary man regards as quite beyond finding out” (Diodorus of Sicily, World History, 1.81, trans., C.H. Oldfather).

Here, Egyptian astrologers are said to be able to predict abundant yields of crops, precisely what Thales is said to have done. And, in this context, it is worth remembering that Thales is said to have trained in Egypt (P3, P5), and so may have learned Egyptian astrology while there. What we have, then, in this anecdote about Thales’ life, is not the picture of a burgeoning natural scientist, but of a powerful astrologer. And, as a result, it does little to demonstrate his rejection of a traditional mythological worldview in favor of reductive naturalism.

5. Conclusion: Reviving a Goethean Thales.

Thus the standard picture of Thales is more of a projection of our own naturalistic self-image, than it is an accurate depiction of the historical Thales. We therefore need to find a better myth of Thales that both speaks to our current mode of life and does justice to the historical evidence. I believe that such a myth can be found in Goethe’s account of Thales in the Classical Walpurgis Night scene in Faust Part II and will conclude this essay by adumbrating its basic features. Goethe was perhaps the last Western thinker to grasp the unity of poetry and truth, and, as a result, he was able to provide a nuanced picture of what Thales can offer to the contemporary world. According Goethe, Thales is a spokesman for Nature, but Nature considered as a living whole, not a lifeless set of mechanical laws, and Goethe consequently places him at the end, rather than the beginning, of our scientistic age. In short, Thales, for Goethe, recommends a way out of, rather than into, our contemporary worldview.

The figure most resembling contemporary man in Classical Walpurgis Night is Homunculus. Homunculus is a little artificial human created in a test tube by Faust’s obtusely pedantic student Wagner with the help of Mephistopheles.17 In the Laboratory scene, Mephistopheles enters the chamber and interrupts Wagner’s alchemical work. He asks him what he’s doing, and Wagner responds that “a man is being made” (Faust Part II, Laboratory, trans. Arndt). To this, Mephistopheles responds in his usual ribald manner, “and what young pair of passion did you imprison in the flue?” (Laboratory). Wagner retorts in disgust that this man is not made according to the natural fashion. He declares:

“Oh, God forbid! Begetting in the former fashion /we laugh to scorn beside the new. /The tender point from which new life should surge, /the potent grace that from within would urge, /and taking, giving, was to limn itself,/ absorb first kindred, then remote for self,/ has now been ousted from its age old sway;/ if brutes delight still in the former way, / then man with his superior resource/ must henceforth have a higher, higher source./ [turning to the furnace]/ It shines! Now one may properly start hoping/ that if, ‘mid hundreds of ingredients groping,/ by mixing—for on mixture things depend–/ the stuff of humankind we keep composing,/ in a retort enclosing/ and cohobating well the blend,/ the quiet toil will prosper in the end. [turning to the furnace]. It’s coming now! The swirl is clearing duly,/ conviction, too, more truly, truly: / What we extolled as Nature’s deep conundrum,/ We venture now to penetrate by reason, / and what she did organically at random, / we crystallize in proper season” (Laboratory).

Here we have a creature born of science alone, a science that sets itself in opposition to nature. What to nature was a mystery, reason will grasp with clarity, and what was born at random through the passion of lovers, can now be fabricated with regularity like a crystal. Note the similarity here between Wagner’s rhetoric and the rhetoric behind the contemporary interpretation of Thales. The contemporary view would present Thales as a forerunner to Wagner, but, as we shall see, this is not what Goethe does. Instead, he will present him as the antidote to Wagner’s lifeless and constricted worldview.

Wagner’s experiment is successful and the Homonculus is created. Yet he, as a synthetic creature, has not fully come to be. He remains pure intellect trapped within a glass jar and has not yet managed to truly incarnate into the world.18 To remedy this problem (and also to help Faust awaken from his slumber and resurrect Hellen of Troy), Homonculus suggests that he, Faust, and Mephistopheles travel to the Pharsalian Fields on Walpurgis Night.

Once there, Homonculus seeks out teachers to instruct him about how to truly come to be. He explains:

“I float like this from place to place,/ keen on the finest manner of becoming; I cannot wait to smash my glass and flare; /but judging by this morning’s slumming/ to venture into this I hardly dare./ In confidence, I’m tracking down a pair/ of sages whom I want to question next;/ I listened: Nature! Nature! Went the text. /These I should like to fasten on as teachers;/ They’re bound to know the way of earthly creatures;/ I think I see a chance at last to learn/ which is the wisest way for me to turn” (On the Upper Peneios, as before).

What Homunculus is looking for, then, is instruction regarding Nature. He wants to learn how to become a natural being and escape his merely artificial existence. The two sages that he finds are Anaxagoras and Thales, but, after Anaxagoras offers him bad advice telling him to set himself up as king over a group of pygmies on a mountain subsequently destroyed by a meteor, Homunculus decides to follow Thales, who then takes him to a sea feast to meet the wondrous guests to be honored there.19

At the feast, Thales introduces Homunculus to Nereus, the prophetic sea god and father of the Dorids,20 and asks him for advice on how he can best come to be (Rocky Inlets).21 Though Nereus is cynical (since many people have failed to follow his advice in the past), he directs Thales and Homunculus to the shape shifting Proteus, another prophetic sea god, and then departs to prepare to watch the ocean festival in honor of his daughters.22

They find Proteus, but he initially eludes them. Thales then instructs Homunculus to glow brightly in his glass jar, since Proteus loves novelty.23 The plan is successful and Thales is able to introduce the two of them. Proteus first assumes the shape of a giant turtle, but then, upon Thales’ request, takes on a human form, and Thales tells him of Homunculus’s predicament:

“He begs advice, would gladly come to be. / He has, so I have heard him say,/ Been born but half in some prodigious way [Gar wundersam nur halb zur Welt gekommen]./ Of intellectual traits he has no dearth,/ but sorely lacks the solid clay of earth [Doch gar zu sehr am greiflich Tüchtighaften]. / So far the glass is all that keeps him weighted,/ but he would gladly soon be corporated” (Rocky Inlets).

To this, Proteus remarks that Homunculus is “a genuine spinster’s progeny, / you are before you ought to be!” (Rocky Inlets). He then advises him to throw himself into the ocean at once to incarnate himself therein, declairing:

“The more assuredly then it thrives, / he’ll suit, whichever form arrives./ No need to ponder this a minute,/ in the broad sea you must begin it!/ There the first tiny way you try,/ the tiniest life contently chewing,/ Thus you grow larger by and by/ and shape yourself for higher doing [und bildet sich zu höherem Vollbringen]” (Rocky Inlets).

According to Proteus, it does not matter what form Homunculus takes at first, since he will be able to adopt increasingly more complex forms as he evolves. Proteus then transforms himself into a Dolphin and carries Homunculus out into the water proclaiming:

“Terrestrial life, whatever sort,/ is and remains an irksome sport;/ To ocean, life is better married;/ To timeless floods you shall be carried/ by Proteus-Dolphin/ [he transforms himself]/ Done, you see! / And there most prosperously fare you,/ Upon this arching back I bear you/ and wed you to the ocean sea [Vermähle dich dem Ozean]” (Rocky Inlets).

And Thales sends him off with the following benediction:

“Espouse the recommended part,/ Begin creation from the start./ For swift enactment gird your will!/ You move there by eternal norms,/ through thousand, countless thousand forms,/ there’s time enough for manship still” (Rocky Inlets).

Out on the water, Homunculus then comes upon Galatea in procession, symbolically standing in for Venus, the goddess of love and desire who was herself born of the ocean. He is so filled with yearning for her that he crashes into the ocean at her feet, shattering his glass, and merging his fiery essence with the ocean waters to take on a fully incarnate life. In this manner, Thales is instrumental in helping Homunculus to unite with the natural world from which he was previously cut off. As a synthetic being, he was not formed from natural love or desire as other creatures are; he was instead crystallized in a test tube through purely instrumental rationality. In losing himself in the beatific vision of Galatea and emptying himself into the ocean’s primal waters, Homunculus comes into true incarnation as a natural being. Thus, according to Goethe’s vision, Thales does not stand as the father of our modern scientistic worldview, but as a sage who can guide us, the untimely born, out from it and back into nature. May we take his guidance to heart, and, like Homunculus, plunge into the waters of eternity to be reborn.

“Thales: Hail! Hail again, glad sight!/ New burgeons my delight, / with truth and beauty I feel rife…/ from the water has sprung all life!/ All is sustained by its endeavor!/ Vouchsafe us, Ocean, your rule forever./ But for you, rain-clouds sending,/ freshlets richly spending,/ streams now here now yonder bending,/ noble rivers ending,/ where would the earth be, where lowland and mountain?/ Of life’s renewal, you are the fountain.

[Heil! Heil! aufs neue!/ Wie ich mich blühend freue,/ Vom Schönen, Wahren durchdrungen…/ Alles ist aus dem Wasser entsprungen!!/ Alles wird durch das Wasser erhalten!/ Ozean, gönn uns dein ewiges Walten./ Wenn du nicht Wolken sendetest,/ Nicht reiche Bäche spendetest,/ Hin und her nicht Flüsse wendetest,/ Die Ströme nicht vollendetest,/ Was wären Gebirge, was Ebnen und Welt?/ Du bist’s der das frischeste Leben erhält.]


Sirens: What lights us the billows, what fiery wonder/ Sets blazing their clashes and sparkling asunder?/ It lightens and wavers and brightens the height:/ The bodies, they glow on the courses of night,/ And ringed is the whole by the luminous wall;/ May Eros then reign who engenered it all! / Hail the sea, the ocean swelling!/ Wreathed in sacred fiery torrents./ Hail the fire, the waters welling!/ Hail the singular occurrence!

All in Unison: Hail the gentle airs benignant! / Hail the deeps with secrets pregnant! Solemnly here be ye sung, / all four elements as one!” (Rocky Inlets).

[SIRENEN: Welch feuriges Wunder verklärt uns die Wellen,/ Die gegeneinander sich funkelnd zerschellen?/ So leuchtet’s und schwanket und hellet hinan:/ Die Körper, sie glühen auf nächtlicher Bahn,/ Und ringsum ist alles vom Feuer umronnen;/ So herrsche denn Eros, der alles begonnen!/ Heil dem Meere! Heil den Wogen,/ Von dem heilgen Feuer umzogen!/ Heil dem Wasser! Heil dem Feuer!/ Heil dem seltnen Abenteuer!

ALL-ALLE: Heil den mildgewogenen Lüften!/ Heil geheimnisreichen Grüften!/ Hochgefeiert seid allhier,/ Element’ ihr alle vier! (Felsbuchten des Aegäischen Meers. Mond im Zent verharrend).]

Peter Yong, Ph.D.

[The image used in the thumbnail of this essay is Caspar David Friedrich’s Der Mönch am Meer. It is in the public domain and can be found here: ]

1 Consisting of himself, Anaximander and Anaximenes. Some doxographers claim that Thales literally taught Anaximander, but this is contested.

2 Some of which would likely distasteful to contemporary audiences. For example, “he used to say that he was grateful to fortune for three things: first, that he was born a human being and not an animal; second, that he was born a man and not a woman; and third, that he was born a Greek and not a barbarian” (P17b).

3 All fragment numbers and translations will come from Laks and Most, Early Greek Philosophy Vol. II: Beginnings and Early Ionian Thinkers Part 1 unless otherwise noted.

4 And the article explains this naturalistic project more fully as follows. “Hesiod’s world, like Homer’s, is one that is god-saturated, where the gods may intervene in all aspects of the world, from the weather to mundane particulars of human life, acting on the ordinary world order, in a way that humans, limited as they are by time, location, and narrow powers of perception, must accept but cannot ultimately understand. The Presocratics reject this account, instead seeing the world as a kosmos, an ordered natural arrangement that is inherently intelligible and not subject to supra-natural intervention.” While Curd correctly notes that the Homeric and Hesiodic worlds are god saturated, she unfairly characterizes their view when she maintains that the cosmos is, as a result, ultimately unintelligible. The universe is intelligible for Homer and Hesiod, but its intelligibility is personal rather than impersonal. You might, for example, anticipate an argument with a family member at Thanksgiving dinner if certain political issues are mentioned. But this knowledge depends on your knowledge of the character, beliefs, and prior actions of that family member rather than on understanding some kind of impersonal physical law. Indeed, Homer and Hesiod explicitly ascribe such intelligibility to the gods and their actions. That is why, for example, the Achaeans learn that the plague that has been inflicted on their camp was the result of Apollo’s anger at Agamammon’s having kidnapped one of his priest’s daughters and why Hesiod claims that we should devote ourselves to a life of labor and justice (since Zeus will reward these actions).

5 i.e. the famous four Aristotelian causes.

6 i.e. one which would explicate their philosophies on their own terms.

7 See my essay

8 Tredennick translates the passage similarly: “Presumably he derived this assumption from seeing that the nutriment of everything is moist, and that heat itself is generated from moisture and depends upon it for its existence (and that from which a thing is generated is always its first principle).”

9 Historian of philosophy W.K.C Gutherie summarizes this more cautious view as follows: “Aristotle makes it clear that he is relying on secondary authorities, and knows nothing further about the reasoning on which the statement was based, nor any details about his cosmological notions save that he believed the earth to rest on Water” (Gutherie, A History of Greek Philosophy Vol 1, 45).

10 One might also question the way Aristotle is interpreted by the contemporary naturalistic reading. For there is a long tradition of theological speculation that incorporates the work of Aristotle yet leaves room for supernatural causation. See, for example, the work of Thomas Aquinas and the Thomistic interpretation of Catholic theology.

11 Spinoza would refer to “Substantia sive Deus sive Natura” (Substance or God or Nature).

12 Diogenes Laertius, drawing on Aristotle, makes a similar claim. “Aristotle and Hippias say that he attributed a soul to inanimate beings too, judging from the evidence of the magnet and of amber” (D11b).

13 Gutherie makes a similar argument as follows: “So far, then as we can recover the mind of Thales from our meager authorities, he asserted in the first place that the world was of one substance. To be the arche of the world, this substance must contain within itself the cause of motion and change (this, admittedly, would not be argued; it would be an assumption), and to a Greek this meant that it must be of the nature of psyche, life-or soul-stuff. This condition he thought best satisfied by water, or more generally the element of moisture…This then was the arche, and as such was both alive and everlasting.

At this point the Greek mind goes a step further. Ask any Greek what, if anything, in his experience is ever-living (in his own word athanaton), and he would have only one answer: theos, or to theion. Everlasting life is the mark of the divine and nothing else. Hence Thales though rejecting the anthropomorphic deities of popular religion, could retain its language to the extent of saying that, in a special sense, the whole world is filled with gods” (Gutherie, 67-68).

14 Some examples are as follows: “The oldest of beings is god; for he is unborn. The most beautiful thing is the world; for it was made by God.” (Diogenes Laertius P17c). “Thales: god (θεός) is the intelligence (νοός) of the world, the universe is animated and at the same time full of divinites (δαίμονες); and the divine power passes through the elementary moisture and moves it” (Aetius, R35). “For Thales of Miletus, who was the fist to investigate these matters, said that water is the beginning of things, but that god is the intelligence capable of making all things out of water.” (Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods, R38).

15 And further counterexamples can be found in the post-Englightenment era in the theory of “animal magnetism” which was taken to be compatible with and even support mediumship and spiritualism.

16 Thales’ alleged prediction of a solar eclipse also fits with the astrological hypothesis, perhaps working with Babylonian tables. “After they [i.e. Alyattes and Cyaxares] had been waging war inconclusively, it came to pass at an encounter in the sixth year that just when they had engaged a battle, the day was suddenly transformed into night. Thales of Miletus had predicted to the Ionians that this transformation of the day would take place, and he had determined beforehand as the exact time the very year in which the change actually took place” (Herodotus, Histories, P9).

17 Mephistopheles’ role in the creation of Homunculus is not recognized by Wagner, but is attested to by Mephisophales at the end of the Laboratory scene. “[ad spectatores] at last we after all depend, upon dependents we created.”

18 “Well, there, Papa! How now? It was no jest!/ Clutch me affectionately to your breast,/ But not too roughly, or the glass might shatter,/ such is, you see, a property of matter:/ Things natural find all the world scant space,/ while things synthetic want a sheltered place” (Laboratory).

19 Thales had advised him not to do so since “with little men go little acts” (On the Upper Peneios, as before).

20 One of whom is the nymph Galatea.

21 “No less a thing than this one is our plea: This boy would know how best to come to be” (Rocky Inlets).

22 “No, chase me not this rarest mood away! / Quite other things await me yet today./ For I have summoned hither all my daughters,/ the comely Dorids, Graces of the waters./ Not your earth’s soil and not Olympus bears/ A lovely being of such graceful airs./ They fling themselves, most captivating motion, / From sea-dragons to Neptune’s steeds of ocean,/ Most gently wedded to the brine their will, /so that the very spume would raise them still./ In opal flush of Venus’ shell-coach gliding,/ now comes the fairest, Galatea, riding,/ Who, since the Cyprian’s face was turned elsewhere,/ Won Paphos’ awe and reigns as goddess there,/ Thus ever after she has owned, the fairest,/ both temple-town and chariot-throne as heiress./ Be off! In father’s hour of joy depart/ Harsh words from lips, and hatred from the heart./ Be off to Proteus now! Ask how one can/ take shape and vary, of that wonder-man. [departs toward the sea].” (Rocky Inlets).”

23 “He is quite near. Now flash your flare,/ He is as nosy as a bear;/ However shaped, wherever moored,/ By flames of fire he will be lured” (Rocky Inlets).

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