When we think of ancient philosophers, generally three names come to our minds: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Indeed, they could be regarded as having had the biggest impact on philosophy not only in their times but also in later periods in the history of thought. Nevertheless this does not mean that there weren’t other great minds that gradually changed our approach to life. Let us not forget that Socrates, Plato and Aristotle were the result of several years in which different philosophers put forth various theories in their attempts to explain the world surrounding them.
I for one never cease to be dazzled by some of the early thinkers, such as Thales or Heraclitus. It is considerably easier to develop a theory when someone proceeded you, and that is exactly why some of the presocratic ideas are so bewildering. Not having whose works to accept or reject, they had to break from the world of myth and develop whole new systems by the power of their own minds. Breaking from the world of myth is in my opinion one of the biggest steps we took towards the development of science as we know it.
As Bertrand Russel affirmed in his History of Western Philosophy, it all started with Thales. Now what the majority of people know about him is merely his widely used geometrical theorem. But his theorem is not all we have to thank him for. In a way he opened the door towards both philosophy and science, disciplines that could have not emerged in a world dominated by myth.
Now the most interesting question that has been buzzing me is what provoked that spark of doubt which led him to search for other explanations as regards to the origin and nature of the world. Imagine for a second that everything you know, everything you’ve been told ever since you were a child is that when it rains, Zeus must have probably cheated on Hera again and they’re consequently fighting; when we win a war, it’s only because of the sacrifices we have given to Ares; when you stumble over something, a god must be upset with you and so on. For the sake of the exercise, try to forget everything you know, take it from zero. Envisage yourself growing up in such a world, and earnestly consider whether you would have been so steadfast in the denial of gods as you are today. The general temptation is to look at this matter superficially, and deny its crucial importance. But if we try really hard we might realize how amazing someone who broke from all of this must be.
Now we can only speculate about the reasons, but I would say that several things added up and consequently led to the change. First of all, he was the right person: witty, curious and eager to learn. Secondly, he traveled. Generally speaking, travelling broadens your perspectives, allows you to discover new cultures and to adapt to sometimes completely different mentalities. Imagine how it must have been when globalization hadn’t set in yet. Going to Babylon and Egypt, he saw they didn’t have the same gods as he did, that they didn’t believe in the same things and possibly his mind started to consider that if everybody explains the same events differently, maybe they all got it wrong and the true reasons lay deeper. Nevertheless Thales was not the first to travel. But his momentous action when it comes to his travels it that he learned Babylonian and Egyptian maths, and brought it back to Greece (actually Miletus).
Now maths was an incredibly special sort of occupation. Not in the sense that people did not practice it, but in the sense that it was crucial for the development of thought, for it is entirely based on human reasoning. Maths was the only place where gods could not intervene, and where one could get answers solely aided by his own mental powers.
And on top of it all, it is worth mentioning that at the time the existence of the Greek gods was getting more and more questionable due to their likeness to mortals. Unlike say Christianity, where God and saints are considered to be pure and sinless, the Greek gods were vicious, reckless and vengeful. This resemblance to human nature assuredly led to them being progressively rejected in the ensuing years.
So I’m not saying that Thales should get all the credit for everything we have today, but that his influence was in a way vital. Starting from his conceptions, no matter how wrong, human reasoning was able to evolve and grant us with more and more accurate science. Even if their importance is concealed by later thinkers with greater ideas (you can’t get it right from the beginning, so later ideas are more correct and hence more praised, regardless of the fact that they would have been impossible were it not for somebody’s previous mistakes), we firstly have to thank the first mathematicians for having given us a proper starting point. Indeed, Newton, Einstein and Kant have made incredibly innovative discoveries, but who knows if they would have gotten there if it weren’t for Thales, Anaxagoras, Anaximenes and what we generally call the ‘presocratics‘.
“Biographies, such as are taught in schools, are largely a history of wooden heads: silly kings and queens, paranoiac political leaders, ignorant generals. The ones that have decisively changed the course of history, the great scientists, are seldom, if ever, mentioned.”- Marin Gardner