Early Greek Philosophy by John Burnet, with Burnet's notes
10. Water 12. The Life of Anaximander

From Chapter I., The Milesian School

11. Theology
The third of the statements mentioned above is supposed by Aristotle to imply that Thales believed in a "soul of the world," though he is careful to mark this as no more than an inference.40 The doctrine of the world-soul is then attributed quite positively to Thales by Aetios, who gives it in the Stoic phraseology which he found in his immediate source, and identifies the world-intellect with God.41 Cicero found a similar statement in the Epicurean manual which he followed, but he goes a step further. Eliminating the Stoic pantheism, he turns the world-intellect into a Platonic demiourgos, and says that Thales held there was a divine mind which formed all things out of water.42 All this is derived from Aristotle's cautious statement, and can have no greater authority than its source. We need not enter, then, on the old controversy whether Thales was an atheist or not. If we may judge from his successors, he may very possibly have called water a "god"; but that would not imply any definite religious belief.43

Nor must we make too much of the saying that "all things are full of gods." It is not safe to regard an apophthegm as evidence, and the chances are that it belongs to Thales as one of the Seven Wise Men, rather than as founder of the Milesian school. Further, such sayings are, as a rule, anonymous to begin with, and are attributed now to one sage and now to another.44 On the other hand, it is probable that Thales did say the magnet and amber had souls. That is no apophthegm, but more on the level of the statement that the earth floats on the water. It is just the sort of thing we should expect Hekataios to record about Thales. It would be wrong, however, to draw any inference from it as to his view of the world; for to say the magnet and amber are alive is to imply, if anything, that other things are not.

Burnet's Notes


40. Arist. De an. A, 5. 411 a 7 (R. P. 13).

41. Aet. i. 7, 11=Stob. i. 56 (R. P. 14). On the sources here referred to, see Note on Sources, §§ 11, 12.

42. Cicero, De nat. d. 1. 25 (R. P. 13 b). On Cicero's source, see Dox. pp. 125, 128. The Herculanean papyrus of Philodemos is defective at this point, but it is not likely that he anticipated Cicero's mistake.

43. See Introd. § IX.

44. Plato refers to the saying πάντα πλήρη θεῶν in Laws, 899 b 9 (R. P. 14 b), without mentioning Thales. That ascribed to Herakleitos in the De part. an. A, 5. 645 a 7 seems to be a mere variation on it. In any case it means only that nothing is more divine than anything else.

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