Early Greek Philosophy by John Burnet, with Burnet's notes
7. Thales as a Politician 9. The Cosmology of Thales

From Chapter I., The Milesian School

8. Uncertain Character of the Tradition
So far as we know, Thales wrote nothing, and no writer earlier than Aristotle knows anything of him as a scientific man and a philosopher; in the older tradition he is simply an engineer and an inventor.30 It is obvious, however, that the requirements of Milesian enterprise and commerce would necessarily turn his attention to problems which we should call astronomical. He was said, we saw, to have introduced the practice of steering a ship's course by Ursa minor;31 and there is a remarkable persistence in the tradition that he tried to do something for the calendar, though the details are not sufficiently well attested to find a place here.32 No doubt he constructed a παράπηγμα like those of much later date which have been discovered at Miletos.33 The παράπηγμα was the oldest form of almanac, and gave, for a series of years, the equinoxes and solstices, the phases of the moon, the heliacal risings and settings of certain stars, and also weather predictions. Even Aristotle does not pretend to know how Thales arrived at the views he ascribes to him or by what arguments they were supported. This very reserve, however, makes it hard to doubt that he was correctly informed with regard to the few points about them he mentions, so we may venture on a conjectural restoration of his cosmology. This, of course, must be taken for just what it is worth.

Burnet's Notes


30. Cf. Aristophanes, Clouds 180 (after a burlesque description of how Sokrates provided himself with a cloak) τί δῆτ' ἐκεῖνον τὸν Θαλῆν θαυμάζομεν; Birds 1009 (of Meton's town-planning, ἅνθρωπος Θαλῆς). Plato's way of speaking is remarkable. Cf. Rep. 600a ἀλλ' οἷα δὴ εἰς τὰ ἔργα σοφοῦ ἀνδρὸς πολλαὶ ἐπίνοιαι καὶ εὐμήχανοι εἰς τέχνας ἤ τινας ἄλλας πράξεις λέγονται, ὥσπερ αὖ Θάλεώ τε πέρι τοῦ Μιλησίου καὶ Ἀναχάρσιος τοῦ Σκύθου.

31. See p. 41, n. 2.

32. If he tried to introduce the year of 360 days and the month of 30 days, he may have learnt that in Egypt.

33. For the Milesian παραπήγματα see Rehm, Berl. Sitzungsber., 1893, p. 101 sqq., 752 sqq.

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