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THE LIVES AND OPINIONS OF EMINENT PHILOSOPHERS

BY DIOGENES LAERTIUS, TRANSLATED BY C.D. YONGE

LIFE OF THALES



I. THALES, then, as Herodotus and Duris and Democritus say, was the son of Examyes and Cleobulina; of the family of the Thelidae, who are Phoenicians by descent, among the most noble of all the descendants of Cadmus and Agenor, as Plato testifies. And he was the first man to whom the name of Wise was given, when Damasias was Archon at Athens, in whose time also the seven wise men had that title given to them, as Demetrius Phalereus records in his Catalogue of the Archons. He was enrolled as a citizen at Miletus when he came thither with Neleus, who had been banished from Phoenicia; but a more common statement is that he was a native Milesian, of noble extraction.

II. After having been immersed in state affairs he applied himself to speculations in natural philosophy; though, as some people state, he left no writings behind him. For the book on Naval Astronomy, which is attributed to him is said in reality to be the work of Phocus the Samian. But Callimachus was aware that he was the discoverer of the Lesser Bear; for in his Iambics he speaks of him thus:

And, he, 'tis said, did first compute the stars
Which beam in Charles's wain, and guide the bark
Of the Phoenician sailor o'er the sea.

According to others he wrote two books, and no more, about the solstice and the equinox; thinking that everything else was easily to be comprehended. According to other statements, he is said to have been the first who studied astronomy, and who foretold the eclipses and motions of the sun, as Eudemus relates in his history of the discoveries made in astronomy; on which account Xenophanes and Herodotus praise him greatly; and Heraclitus and Democritus confirm this statement.

III.   Some again (one of whom is Choerilus the poet) say that he was the first person who affirmed that the souls of men were immortal; and he was the first person, too, who discovered the path of the sun from one end of the ecliptic to the other; and who, as one account tells us, defined the magnitude of the sun as being seven hundred and twenty times as great as that of the moon. He was also the first person who called the last day of the month the thirtieth. And likewise the first to converse about natural philosophy, as some say. But Aristotle and Hippias say that he attributed souls also to lifeless things, forming his conjecture from the nature of the magnet, and of amber. And Pamphila relates that he, having learnt geometry from the Egyptians, was the first person to describe a right-angled triangle in a circle, and that he sacrificed an ox in honour of his discovery. But others, among whom is Apollodorus the calculator, say that it was Pythagoras who made this discovery. It was Thales also who carried to their greatest point of advancement the discoveries which Callimachus in his iambics says were first made by Euphorbus the Phrygian, such as those of the scalene angle, and of the triangle, and of other things which relate to investigations about lines. He seems also to have been a man of the greatest wisdom in political matters. For when Croesus sent to the Milesians to invite them to an alliance, he prevented them from agreeing to it, which step of his, as Cyrus got the victory, proved the salvation of the city. But Clytus relates, as Heraclides assures us, that he was attached to a solitary and recluse life.

IV.    Some assert that he was married, and that he had a son named Cybisthus; others, on the contrary, say that he never had a wife, but that he adopted the son of his sister; and that once being asked why he did not himself become a father, he answered, that it was because he was fond of children. They say, too, that when his mother exhorted him to marry, he said, "No, by Jove, it is not yet time." And afterwards, when he was past his youth, and she was again pressing him earnestly, he said, "It is no longer time."

V.   Hieronymus, of Rhodes, also tells us, in the second book of his Miscellaneous Memoranda, that when he was desirous to show that it was easy to get rich, he, foreseeing that there would be a great crop of olives, took some large plantations of olive trees, and so made a great deal of money.

VI.   He asserted water to be the principle of all things, and that the world had life, and was full of daemons: they say, too, that he was the original definer of the seasons of the year, and that it was he who divided the year into three hundred and sixty-five days. And he never had any teacher except during the time that he went to Egypt, and associated with the priests. Hieronymus also says that he measured the Pyramids: watching their shadow, and calculating when they were of the same size as that was. He lived with Thrasybulus the tyrant of Miletus, as we are informed by Minyas.

VII.   Now it is known to every one what happened with respect to the tripod that was found by the fishermen and sent to the wise men by the people of the Milesians, For they say that some Ionian youths bought a cast of their nets from some Milesian fishermen. And when the tripod was drawn up in the net there was a dispute about it; until the Milesians sent to Delphi: and the God gave them the following answer:

You ask about the tripod, to whom you shall present it;
'Tis for the wisest, I reply, that fortune surely meant it.

Accordingly they gave it to Thales, and he gave it to someone, who again handed it over to another, till it came to Solon. But he said that it was the God himself who was the first in wisdom; and so he sent it to Delphi. But Callimachus gives a different account of this in his Iambic taking the tradition which he mentions from Leander the Milesian; for he says that a certain Arcadian of the name of Bathycles, when dying, left a goblet behind him with an injunction that it should be given to the first of the wise men. And it was given to Thales, and went the whole circle till it came back to Thales, on which he sent it to Apollo Didymaeus, adding (according to Callimachus,) the following distich:

Thales, who's twice received me as a prize,
Gives me to him who rules the race of Neleus.

And the prose inscription runs thus:

Thales the son of Examyas, a Milesian, offers this to Apollo Didymaeus, having twice received it from the Greeks as the reward for virtue.

And the name of the son of Bathycles who carved the goblet about from one to the other, was Thyrion, as Eleusis tells us in his History of Achilles. And Alexander the Myndian agrees with him in the ninth book of his Traditions. But Eudoxus of Cnidos, and Euanthes of Miletus, say that one of the friends of Croesus received from the king a golden goblet, for the purpose of giving it to the wisest of the Greeks; and that he gave it to Thales, and that it came round to Chilon, and that he inquired of the God at Delphi who was wiser than himself; and that the God replied, Myson, whom we shall mention hereafter. (He is the man whom Eudoxus places among the seven wise men instead of Cleobulus ; but Plato inserts his name instead of Periander.) The God accordingly made this reply concerning him:

I say that Myson the Aetoean sage,
The citizen of Chen, is wiser far
In his deep mind than you.

The person who went to the temple to ask the question was Anacharsis ; but again Daimachus the Platonic philosopher, and Clearchus, state that the goblet was sent by Croesus to Pittacus, and so was carried round to the different men. But Andron, in his book called The Tripod, says that the Argives offered the tripod as a prize for excellence to the wisest of the Greeks; and that Aristodemus, a Spartan, was judged to deserve it, but that he yielded the palm to Chilon; and Alcaeus mentions Aristodemus in these lines:

And so they say Aristodemus once
Uttered a truthful speech in noble Sparta:
'Tis money makes the man; and he who's none,
Is counted neither good nor honourable.

But some say that a vessel fully loaded was sent by Periander to Thrasybulus the tyrant of the Milesians; and that as the ship was wrecked in the sea, near the island of Cos, this tripod was afterwards found by some fishermen. Phanodicus says that it was found in the sea near Athens, and so brought into the city; and then, after an assembly had been held to decide on the disposal, it was sent to Bias—and the reason why we will mention in our account of Bias. Others say that this goblet had been made by Vulcan and presented by the Gods to Pelops, on his marriage; and that subsequently it came into the possession of Menelaus, and was taken away by Paris when he carried off Helen, and was thrown into the sea near Cos by her, as she said that it would become a cause of battle. And after some time, some of the citizens of Lebedos having bought a net, this tripod was brought up in it; and as they quarrelled with the fishermen about it, they went to Cos; and not being able to get the matter settled there, they laid it before the Milesians, as Miletus was their metropolis; and they sent ambassadors, who were treated with neglect, on which account they made war on the Coans; and after each side had met with many revolutions of fortune, an oracle directed that the tripod should be given to the wisest; and then both parties agreed that it belonged to Thales: and he, after it had gone the circuit of all the wise men, presented it to the Didymaean Apollo. Now, the assignation of the oracle was given to the Coans in the following words:

The war between the brave Ionian race
And the proud Meropes will never cease,
Till the rich golden tripod which the God,
Its maker, cast beneath the briny waves,
Is from your city sent, and justly given
To that wise being who knows all present things,
And all that's past, and all that is to come.

And the reply given to the Milesians was

You ask about the tripod

and so on, as I have related it before. And now we have said enough on this subject.

But Hermippus, in his Lives, refers to Thales what has been by some people reported of Socrates; for he recites that he used to say that he thanked fortune for three things: first of all, that he had been born a man and not a beast; secondly, that he was a man and not a woman; and thirdly, that he was a Greek and not a barbarian.

VIII.   It is said that once he was led out of his house by an old woman for the purpose of observing the stars, and he fell into a ditch and bewailed himself, on which the old woman said to him—"Do you, O Thales, who cannot see what is under your feet, think that you shall understand what is in heaven?" Timon also knew that he was an astronomer, and in his Silli he praises him, saying:

Like Thales, wisest of the seven sages,
That great astronomer.

And Lobon, of Argos, says, that which was written by him extends to about two hundred verses; and that the following inscription is engraved upon his statue:

Miletus, fairest of Ionian cities,
Gave birth to Thales, great astronomer,
Wisest of mortals in all kinds of knowledge.

IX.   And these are quoted as some of his lines :

It is not many words that real wisdom proves;
Breathe rather one wise thought,
Select one worthy object,
So shall you best the endless prate of silly men reprove.—

And the following are quoted as sayings of his: "God is the most ancient of all things, for he had no birth: the world is the most beautiful of things, for it is the work of God: place is the greatest of things, for it contains all things: intellect is the swiftest of things, for it runs through everything: necessity is the strongest of things, for it rules everything: time is the wisest of things, for it finds out everything."

He said also that there was no difference between life and death. "Why, then," said some one to him, "do not you die?" "Because," said he, "it does make no difference." A man asked him which was made first, night or day, and he replied "Night was made first by one day." Another man asked him whether a man who did wrong, could escape the notice of the Gods. "No, not even if he thinks wrong," said he. An adulterer inquired of him whether he should swear that he had not committed adultery. "Perjury," said he, "is no worse than adultery." When he was asked what was very difficult, he said, "To know one's self." And what was easy, "To advise another." What was most pleasant? "To be successful." To the question, "What is the divinity?" he replied "That which has neither beginning nor end." When asked what hard thing he had seen, he said, "An old man a tyrant." When the question was put to him how a man might most easily endure misfortune, he said, "If he saw his enemies more unfortunate still." When asked how men might live most virtuously and most justly, he said, "If we never do ourselves what we blame in others." To the question, "Who was happy?" he made answer. "He who is healthy in his body, easy in his circumstances, and well-instructed as to his mind." He said that men ought to remember those friends who were absent as well as those who were present, and not to care about adorning their faces, but to be beautified by their studies. "Do not," said he, "get rich by evil actions, and let not any one ever be able to reproach you with speaking against those who partake of your friendship. All the assistance that you give to your parents, the same you have a right to expect from your children." He said that the reason of the Nile overflowing, was, that its streams were beaten back by the Etesian winds blowing in a contrary direction.

X.   Apollodorus, in his Chronicles, says, that Thales was born in the first year of the thirty-fifth Olympiad; and he died at the age of seventy-eight years, or according to the statement of Sosicrates, at the age of ninety; for he died in the fifty-eighth Olympiad, having lived in the time of Croesus, to whom he promised that he would enable him to pass the Halys without a bridge, by turning the course of the river.

XI.   There have also been other men of the name of Thales, as Demetrius of Magnesia says, in his Treatise on People and Things of the Same Name; of whom five are particularly mentioned, an orator of Calatia of a very affected style of eloquence; a painter of Sicyon, a great man; the third was one who lived in very ancient times, in the age of Homer and Hesiod and Lycurgus ; the fourth is a man who is mentioned by Duris in his work On Painting; the fifth is a more modern person, of no great reputation, who is mentioned by Dionysius in his Criticisms.

XII.   But this wise Thales died while present as a spectator at a gymnastic contest, being worn out with heat and thirst and weakness, for he was very old, and the following inscription was placed on his tomb:

You see this tomb is small—but recollect,
The fame of Thales reaches to the skies.

I have also myself composed this epigram on him in the first book of my epigrams or poems in various metres:

O mighty sun our wisest Thales sat
      Spectator of the games, when you did seize upon him;
But you were right to take him near yourself,
      Now that his aged sight could scarcely reach to heaven.

XIII.   The apophthegm, "know yourself," is his; though Antisthenes in his Successions, says that it belongs to Phemonoe, but that Chilon appropriated it as his own.

XIV.   Now concerning the seven, (for it is well here to speak of them all together,) the following traditions are handed down. Damon the Cyrenaean, who wrote about the philosophers, reproaches them all, but most especially the seven. And Anaximenes says, that they all applied themselves to poetry. But Dicaearchus says, that they were neither wise men nor philosophers, but merely shrewd men, who had studied legislation. And Archetimus, the Syracusian, wrote an account of their having a meeting at the palace of Cypselus, at which he says that he himself was present. Ephorus says that they all except Thales met at the court of Croesus. And some say that they also met at the Pandionium,(1) and at Corinth, and at Delphi. There is a good deal of disagreement between different writers with respect to their apophthegms, as the same one is attributed by them to various authors. For instance there is the epigram:

Chilon, the Spartan sage, this sentence said:
Seek no excess—all timely things are good

There is also a difference of opinion with respect to their number. Leander inserts in the number instead of Cleobulus and Myson, Leophantus Gorsias, a native of either Lebedos or Ephesus; and Epimenides, the Cretan; Plato, in his Protagoras, reckons Myson among them instead of Periander. And Ephorus mentions Anacharsis in the place of Myson; some also add Pythagoras to the number. Dicaearchus speaks of four, as universally agreed upon, Thales, Bias, Pittacus, and Solon; and then enumerates six more, of whom we are to select three, namely, Aristodemus, Pamphilus, Chilon the Lacedaemonian, Cleobulus, Anacharsis, and Periander. Some add Acusilaus of Argos, the son of Cabas, or Scabras. But Hermippus, in his Treatise on the Wise Men says that there were altogether seventeen, out of whom different authors selected different individuals to make up the seven. These seventeen were Solon, Thales, Pittacus, Bias, Chilon, Myson, Cleobulus, Periander, Anacharsis, Acusilaus, Epimenides, Leophantus, Pherecydes, Aristodemus, Pythagoras, Lasus the son of Charmantides, or Sisymbrinus, or as Aristoxenus calls him the son of Chabrinus, a citizen of Hermione, and Anaxagoras. But Hippobotus in his Description of the Philosophers enumerates among them Orpheus, Linus, Solon, Periander, Anacharsis, Cleobulus, Myson, Thales, Bias, Pittacus, Epicharmus, and Pythagoras.

XV.   The following letters are preserved as having been written by Thales:

THALES TO PHERECYDES.

I hear that you are disposed, as no other Ionian has been, to discourse to the Greeks about divine things, and perhaps it will be wiser of you to reserve for your own friends what you write rather than to entrust it to any chance people, without any advantage. If therefore it is agreeable to you, I should be glad to become a pupil of yours as to the matters about which you write; and if you invite me I will come to you to Syros; for Solon the Athenian and I must be out of our senses if we sailed to Crete to investigate the history of that country, and to Egypt for the purpose of conferring with the priests and astronomers who are to be found there, and yet are unwilling to make a voyage to you; for Solon will come too, if you will give him leave, for as you are fond of your present habitation you are not likely to come to Ionia, nor are you desirous of seeing strangers; but you rather, as I hope, devote yourself wholly to the occupation of writing. We, on the other hand, who write nothing, travel over all Greece and Asia

THALES TO SOLON.

XVI.   If you should leave Athens it appears to me that you would find a home at Miletus among the colonists of Athens more suitably than anywhere else, for here there are no annoyances of any kind. And if you are indignant because we Milesians are governed by a tyrant, (for you yourself hate all despotic rulers), still at all events you will find it pleasant to live with us for your companions. Bias has also written to invite you to Priene, and if you prefer taking up your abode in the city of the Prieneans, then we ourselves will come thither and settle near you.




1. This was the temple of the national diety of the Ionians, Neptune Heliconius, on Mount Mycale."-Vide Smith, Dict. Gr. and Rom. Antiq.

The Bohn original has "Euxamius and Cleobule".










Scanned and edited for Peithô's Web from The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, by Diogenes Laertius, Literally translated by C.D. Yonge. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1853. Footnotes have been converted to endnotes. Some, but not all, of Yonge's spellings of ancient names have been updated.

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