Phil100 Fall 2014
September 28, 2014
“Thales' Influence on philosophy; how a solar eclipse managed to shed new light on philosophical thought”
Thales of Miletus was perhaps one of the most influential thinkers of his time and played an integral role in developing philosophy. Prior to Thales, people attributed natural phenomena to the actions of supernatural beings and viewed the natural world as impulsive. This is evident in the numerous poetic stories written by Homer which typically involve the protagonist disobeying the gods and subsequently experiencing their spiteful wrath. For instance, in the Odyssey, Odysseus experiences rough seas and deadly sea monsters for angering the god of the sea, Poseidon. However, in the year 585 B.C., Thales correctly predicted the occurrence of a solar eclipse and changed the way in which philosophers viewed the world. Thales' prediction showed that events such as a solar eclipse do not occur due to a god's will but instead occur for natural reasons. Thales' prediction symbolized a dramatic shift in thought as it proved that nature followed a predictable order and could be studied for answers to various questions. Further, this shift in thought allowed later philosophers such as Heraclitus, Pythagoras, Xenophanes, and Socrates to question the validity of Homeric poetry and focus their thinking on science and human nature.
Prior to Thales' prediction of the solar eclipse in 585 B.C., the world was thought to be ran by a multitude of emotion filled gods and goddesses. Nature was considered to be impulsive and spontaneous and events were a direct result of the god's reactions to various things. Homer wrote many stories detailing the nature of these gods, often describing how immoral and petty they could be. In the classic story, the Odyssey, the protagonist Odysseus continually angers different gods and experiences their resulting wrath while traveling on an extravagant journey. Furthermore, many of Homer's stories reflected the thinking of the time, as many people accepted supernatural explanations for phenomena. Pleasing the gods and staying in their good graces was a full-time job for citizens of Greece and limited the amount of thought put into answering questions like “why should a person be morale?” or “why are there droughts?”
Many pre-Socratic philosophers benefited from Thales' prediction as it gave them new things to think about and obtain knowledge on. Instead of being satisfied with mythological explanations, pre-Socratic philosophers after Thales' now sought answers to phenomena that they came across in the natural world. One philosopher that was influenced by Thales was Heraclitus, the “philosopher of change”. Heraclitus stated, “Especially at the present time, when all places are accessible either by land or by water, we should not accept poets and mythologists as witnesses of things that are unknown, since for the most part they furnish us with unreliable testimony about disputed things, according to Heraclitus.” (quote 14 on website). In other words, Heraclitus is saying that people should not simply rely on myths or stories to explain unknown things, especially when one can seek the answers themselves through observation and experimentation. This supports the idea that philosophers after Thales began to think about natural explanations for phenomena rather than supernatural ones. In addition to this, Heraclitus was also known for saying, “Homer deserved to be driven out of the lists and flogged, and Archilochus likewise” (quote 119 on website). Evidently, Heraclitus felt very passionately about the influence that Homer held over thought at the time and held him accountable for leading people to believe in fairy tale like myths that ultimately lead to a lack of logical perceptions of the natural world. This blatant condemnation of Homer by Heraclitus suggests that he wanted people to enlighten themselves through observations rather than...
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