Chapter 1. THALES (floruit circa 585 B.C.,
the date of the eclipse)
Herodotus, Duris, and Democritus are agreed
that Thales was the son of Examyas and Cleobulina,
and belonged to the Thelidae1
who are Phoenicians,
and among the noblest of the descendants of Cadmus
and Agenor. As Plato testifies, he was one of the
Seven Sages. He was the first to receive the name
of Sage, in the archonship of Damasias2
when the term was applied to all the Seven Sages,
as Demetrius of Phalerum mentions in his
He was admitted to citizenship at Miletus
when he came to that town along with Nileos, who
had been expelled from Phoenicia. Most writers,
however, represent him as a genuine Milesian and
of a distinguished family.
After engaging in politics he became a student
of nature. According to some he left nothing in
writing; for the
him is said to be by Phocus of Samos. Callimachus
knows him as the discoverer of the Ursa Minor;
for he says in his
Who first of men the course made plain
Of those small stars we call the Wain,
Whereby Phoenicians sail the main.4
But according to others he wrote nothing but two
On the Solstice
On the Equinox,
regarding all other matters as incognizable. He
seems by some accounts to have been the first to
, the first to
predict eclipses of the
sun and to fix the solstices; so Eudemus in his
History of Astronomy.
It was this which gained for
him the admiration of Xenophanes and Herodotus
and the notice of Heraclitus and Democritus.
And some, including Choerilus the poet, declare
that he was the first to maintain the immortality
of the soul. He was the first to determine the sun's
course from solstice to solstice, and according to
some the first to declare the size of the sun to be
one seven hundred and twentieth part of the solar
circle, and the size of the moon to be the same
fraction of the lunar circle. He was the first to give
the last day of the month the name of Thirtieth, and
the first, some say, to discuss physical problems.
and Hippias affirm that, arguing from
the magnet and from amber, he attributed a soul or
life even to inanimate objects. Pamphila states that,
having learnt geometry from the Egyptians, he was
the first to inscribe a right-angled triangle in a circle,
whereupon he sacrificed an ox.
Others tell this tale
of Pythagoras, amongst them Apollodorus the arithmetician. (It was Pythagoras who developed to
their furthest extent the discoveries attributed by
Callimachus in his
to Euphorbus the
Phrygian, I mean "scalene triangles" and whatever
else has to do with theoretical geometry.7
Thales is also credited with having given excellent
advice on political matters. For instance, when
Croesus sent to Miletus offering terms of alliance,
he frustrated the plan; and this proved the salvation
of the city when Cyrus obtained the victory. Heraclides makes Thales himself8
say that he had always
lived in solitude as a private individual and kept
aloof from State affairs.
Some authorities say that
he married and had a son Cybisthus; others that
he remained unmarried and adopted his sister's son,
and that when he was asked why he had no children
of his own he replied "because he loved children."
The story is told that, when his mother tried to
force him to marry, he replied it was too soon, and
when she pressed him again later in life, he replied
that it was too late. Hieronymus of Rhodes in the
second book of his
order to show how easy it is to grow rich, Thales,
foreseeing that it would be a good season for olives,
rented all the oil-mills and thus amassed a fortune.9
His doctrine was that water is the universal
primary substance, and that the world is animate
and full of divinities. He is said to have discovered
the seasons of the year and divided it into 365
He had no instructor, except that he went to
Egypt and spent some time with the priests there.
Hieronymus informs us that he measured the height
of the pyramids by the shadow they cast, taking the
observation at the hour when our shadow is of the
same length as ourselves. He lived, as Minyas
relates, with Thrasybulus, the tyrant of Miletus.
The well-known story of the tripod found by the
fishermen and sent by the people of Miletus to all
the Wise Men in succession runs as follows.
Ionian youths having purchased of the Milesian
fishermen their catch of fish, a dispute arose over
the tripod which had formed part of the catch.
Finally the Milesians referred the question to
Delphi, and the god gave an oracle in this form10
Who shall possess the tripod? Thus replies
Apollo: "Whosoever is most wise."11
Accordingly they give it to Thales, and he to
another, and so on till it comes to Solon, who, with
the remark that the god was the most wise, sent it
off to Delphi. Callimachus in his
different version of the story, which he took from
Maeandrius of Miletus.12
It is that Bathycles, an
Arcadian, left at his death a bowl with the solemn
injunction that it "should be given to him who
had done most good by his wisdom." So it was
given to Thales, went the round of all the sages,
and came back to Thales again.
And he sent it
to Apollo at Didyma, with this dedication, according
Lord of the folk of Neleus' line,
Thales, of Greeks adjudged most wise,
Brings to thy Didymaean shrine
His offering, a twice-won prize.
But the prose inscription is:
Thales the Milesian, son of Examyas [dedicates this]
to Delphinian Apollo after twice winning the prize from
all the Greeks.
The bowl was carried from place to place by the
son of Bathycles, whose name was Thyrion, so it is
stated by Eleusis in his work
the Myndian in the ninth book of his
But Eudoxus of Cnidos and Euanthes of Miletus
agree that a certain man who was a friend of Croesus
received from the king a golden goblet in order to
bestow it upon the wisest of the Greeks; this man
gave it to Thales, and from him it passed to others
and so to Chilon.
Chilon laid the question "Who is a wiser man
than I?" before the Pythian Apollo, and the god
replied "Myson." Of him we shall have more to
say presently. (In the list of the Seven Sages
given by Eudoxus, Myson takes the place of Cleobulus; Plato also includes him by omitting Periander.) The answer of the oracle respecting him
was as follows13
Myson of Chen in Oeta; this is he
Who for wiseheartedness surpasseth thee;
and it was given in reply to a question put by
Anacharsis. Daimachus the Platonist and Clearchus
allege that a bowl was sent by Croesus to Pittacus
and began the round of the Wise Men from him.
The story told by Andron14
in his work
is that the Argives offered a tripod as
of virtue to the wisest of the Greeks; Aristodemus
of Sparta was adjudged the winner but retired in
favour of Chilon.
Aristodemus is mentioned by
Surely no witless word was this of the Spartan, I deem,
"Wealth is the worth of a man; and poverty void of
Some relate that a vessel with its freight was sent
by Periander to Thrasybulus, tyrant of Miletus,
and that, when it was wrecked in Coan waters, the
tripod was afterwards found by certain fishermen.
However, Phanodicus declares it to have been found
in Athenian waters and thence brought to Athens.
An assembly was held and it was sent to Bias;
what reason shall be explained in the life of Bias.
There is yet another version, that it was the work
of Hephaestus presented by the god to Pelops on
his marriage. Thence it passed to Menelaus and
was carried off by Paris along with Helen and was
thrown by her into the Coan sea, for she said it
would be a cause of strife. In process of time
certain people of Lebedus, having purchased a catch
of fish thereabouts, obtained possession of the tripod,
and, quarrelling with the fishermen about it, put in
to Cos, and, when they could not settle the dispute,
reported the fact to Miletus, their mother-city.
The Milesians, when their embassies were disregarded, made war upon Cos; many fell on both
sides, and an oracle pronounced that the tripod
should be given to the wisest; both parties to the
dispute agreed upon Thales. After it had gone the
round of the sages, Thales dedicated it to Apollo
The oracle which the Coans received
was on this wise:
Hephaestus cast the tripod in the sea;
Until it quit the city there will be
No end to strife, until it reach the seer
Whose wisdom makes past, present, future clear.
That of the Milesians beginning "Who shall possess
the tripod?" has been quoted above. So much for
this version of the story.
Hermippus in his
refers to Thales the
which is told by some of Socrates, namely, that he
used to say there were three blessings for which
he was grateful to Fortune: "first, that I was
born a human being and not one of the brutes;
next, that I was born a man and not a woman;
thirdly, a Greek and not a barbarian."
It is said
that once, when he was taken out of doors by an old
woman in order that he might observe the stars, he
fell into a ditch, and his cry for help drew from the
old woman the retort, "How can you expect to
know all about the heavens, Thales, when you cannot
even see what is just before your feet?" Timon too
knows him as an astronomer, and praises him in the
where he says16
Thales among the Seven the sage astronomer.
His writings are said by Lobon of Argos to have
run to some two hundred lines. His statue is said
to bear this inscription17
Pride of Miletus and Ionian lands,
Wisest astronomer, here Thales stands.
Of songs still sung these verses belong to him:
Many words do not declare an understanding heart.
Seek one sole wisdom.
Choose one sole good.
For thou wilt check the tongues of chatterers prating
Here too are certain current apophthegms assigned
Of all things that are, the most ancient is God, for he is
The most beautiful is the universe, for it is God's workmanship.
The greatest is space, for it holds all things.
The swiftest is mind, for it speeds everywhere.
The strongest, necessity, for it masters all.
The wisest, time, for it brings everything to light.
He held there was no difference between life and
death. "Why then," said one, "do you not die?"
"Because," said he, "there is no difference."
To the question which is older, day or night, he
replied: "Night is the older by one day." Some
one asked him whether a man could hide an evil
deed from the gods: "No," he replied, "nor yet
an evil thought." To the adulterer who inquired if
he should deny the charge upon oath he replied that
perjury was no worse than adultery. Being asked
what is difficult, he replied, "To know oneself."
"What is easy?" "To give advice to another."
"What is most pleasant?" "Success." "What
is the divine?" "That which has neither beginning
nor end." To the question what was the strangest
thing he had ever seen, his answer was, "An aged
tyrant." "How can one best bear adversity?"
"If he should see his enemies in worse plight."
"How shall we lead the best and most righteous
life?" "By refraining from doing what we blame
"What man is happy?" "He who
has a healthy body, a resourceful mind and a docile
nature." He tells us to remember friends, whether
present or absent; not to pride ourselves upon
outward appearance, but to study to be beautiful
in character. "Shun ill-gotten gains," he says.
"Let not idle words prejudice thee against those
who have shared thy confidence." "Whatever
provision thou hast made for thy parents, the same
must thou expect from thy children." He explained
the overflow of the Nile as due to the etesian winds
which, blowing in the contrary direction, drove the
Apollodorus in his
places his birth
the first year of the 35th Olympiad [640 b.c.].
He died at the age of 78 (or, according to Sosicrates, of
90 years); for he died in the 58th Olympiad, being
contemporary with Croesus, whom he undertook to
take across the Halys without building a bridge, by
diverting the river.
There have lived five other men who bore the
name of Thales, as enumerated by Demetrius of
Magnesia in his
Dictionary of Men of the Same
1. A rhetorician of Callatia, with an affected style.
2. A painter of Sicyon, of great gifts.
3. A contemporary of Hesiod, Homer and Lycurgus, in very early times.
4. A person mentioned by Duris in his work
5. An obscure person in more recent times who
is mentioned by Dionysius in his
Thales the Sage died as he was watching an athletic
contest from heat, thirst, and the weakness incident
to advanced age. And the inscription on his tomb
Here in a narrow tomb great Thales lies;
Yet his renown for wisdom reached the skies.
I may also cite one of my own, from my first book,
Epigrams in Various Metres19
As Thales watched the games one festal day
The fierce sun smote him, and he passed away;
Zeus, thou didst well to raise him; his dim eyes
Could not from earth behold the starry skies.20
To him belongs the proverb "Know thyself,"
which Antisthenes in his
attributes to Phemonoë, though admitting that it
was appropriated by Chilon.
This seems the proper place for a general notice of
the Seven Sages, of whom we have such accounts
as the following. Damon of Cyrene in his
of the Philosophers
carps at all sages, but especially
the Seven. Anaximenes remarks that they all
applied themselves to poetry; Dicaearchus that
they were neither sages nor philosophers, but merely
shrewd men with a turn for legislation.21
of Syracuse describes their meeting at the court of
Cypselus, on which occasion he himself happened to
be present; for which Ephorus substitutes a meeting
without Thales at the court of Croesus. Some make
them meet at the Pan-Ionian festival, at Corinth,
and at Delphi.
Their utterances are variously reported, and are attributed now to one now to the
other, for instance the following22
Chilon of Lacedaemon's words are true:
Nothing too much; good comes from measure due.
Nor is there any agreement how the number is made
up; for Maeandrius, in place of Cleobulus and Myson,
includes Leophantus, son of Gorgiadas, of Lebedus
or Ephesus, and Epimenides the Cretan in the list;
Plato in his
admits Myson and leaves
out Periander; Ephorus substitutes Anacharsis
for Myson; others add Pythagoras to the Seven.
Dicaearchus hands down four names fully recognized:
Thales, Bias, Pittacus and Solon; and appends the
names of six others, from whom he selects three:
Aristodemus, Pamphylus, Chilon the Lacedaemonian,
Cleobulus, Anacharsis, Periander. Others add Acusilaus, son of Cabas or Scabras, of Argos.
in his work
On the Sages
reckons seventeen, from
which number different people make different selections of seven. They are: Solon, Thales, Pittacus,
Bias, Chilon, Myson, Cleobulus, Periander, Ana-
charsis, Acusilaus, Epimenides, Leophantus, Pherecydes, Aristodemus, Pythagoras, Lasos, son of
Charmantides or Sisymbrinus, or, according to
Aristoxenus, of Chabrinus, born at Hermione, Anaxagoras. Hippobotus in his
List of Philosophers
enumerates: Orpheus, Linus, Solon, Periander,
Anacharsis, Cleobulus, Myson, Thales, Bias, Pittacus,
Here follow the extant letters of Thales.
Thales to Pherecydes
"I hear that you intend to be the first Ionian to
expound theology to the Greeks. And perhaps it
was a wise decision to make the book common property without taking advice, instead of entrusting it
to any particular persons whatsoever, a course which
has no advantages. However, if it would give you
any pleasure, I am quite willing to discuss the subject of your book with you; and if you bid me
come to Syros I will do so. For surely Solon of
Athens and I would scarcely be sane if, after having
sailed to Crete to pursue our inquiries there, and
to Egypt to confer with the priests and astronomers,
we hesitated to come to you. For Solon too will
come, with your permission.
You, however, are so
fond of home that you seldom visit Ionia and have
no longing to see strangers, but, as I hope, apply
yourself to one thing, namely writing, while we,
who never write anything, travel all over Hellas
Thales to Solon
"If you leave Athens, it seems to me that you could
most conveniently set up your abode at Miletus,
which is an Athenian colony; for there you incur
no risk. If you are vexed at the thought that we
are governed by a tyrant, hating as you do all
absolute rulers, you would at least enjoy the society
of your friends. Bias wrote inviting you to Priene;
and if you prefer the town of Priene for a residence,
I myself will come and live with you."