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This webpage reproduces one of the
Lives of the Eminent Philosophers

Diogenes Laërtius

published in the Loeb Classical Library, 1925

The text is in the public domain.

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and I believe it to be free of errors.
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(Vol. I) Diogenes Laërtius
Lives of the Eminent Philosophers

Book I

 p23  Chapter 5
Thales (floruit circa 585 B.C., the date of the eclipse)

[link to original Greek text] 22 Herodotus,​a1 Duris, and Democritus are agreed that Thales was the son of Examyas and Cleobulina, and belonged to the Thelidae​1 who are Phoenicians, and among the noblest of the descendants of Cadmus and Agenor. As Plato testifies, he was one of the Seven Sages. He was the first to receive the name of Sage, in the archon­ship of Damasias​2 at Athens, when the term was applied to all the Seven Sages, as Demetrius of Phalerum mentions in his List of Archons. He was admitted to citizen­ship at Miletus when he came to that town along with Nileos, who had been expelled from Phoenicia. Most writers, however, represent him as a genuine Milesian and of a distinguished family.

 p25  [link to original Greek text] 23 After engaging in politics he became a student of nature. According to some he left nothing in writing; for the Nautical Astronomy3 attributed to him is said to be by Phocus of Samos. Callimachus knows him as the discoverer of the Ursa Minor; for he says in his Iambics:

Who first of men the course made plain

Of those small stars we call the Wain,

Whereby Phoenicians sail the main.​4

But according to others he wrote nothing but two treatises, one On the Solstice and one On the Equinox, regarding all other matters as incognizable. He seems by some accounts to have been the first to study astronomy,​5 the first to predict eclipses of the sun and to fix the solstices; so Eudemus in his History of Astronomy. It was this which gained for him the admiration of Xenophanes and Herodotus​a2 and the notice of Heraclitus and Democritus.

[link to original Greek text] 24 And some, including Choerilus the poet, declare that he was the first to maintain the immortality of the soul. He was the first to determine the sun's course from solstice to solstice, and according to some the first to declare the size of the sun to be one seven hundred and twentieth part of the solar circle, and the size of the moon to be the same fraction of the lunar circle. He was the first to give the last day of the month the name of Thirtieth, and the first, some say, to discuss physical problems.

Aristotle​6 and Hippias affirm that, arguing from the magnet and from amber, he attributed a soul or life even to inanimate objects. Pamphila states that,  p27 having learnt geometry from the Egyptians, he was the first to inscribe a right-angled triangle in a circle, whereupon he sacrificed an ox. [link to original Greek text] 25 Others tell this tale of Pythagoras, amongst them Apollodorus the arithmetician. (It was Pythagoras who developed to their furthest extent the discoveries attributed by Callimachus in his Iambics to Euphorbus the Phrygian, I mean "scalene triangles" and whatever else has to do with theoretical geometry.)7

Thales is also credited with having given excellent advice on political matters. For instance, when Croesus sent to Miletus offering terms of alliance, he frustrated the plan; and this proved the salvation of the city when Cyrus obtained the victory. Heraclides makes Thales himself​8 say that he had always lived in solitude as a private individual and kept aloof from State affairs. [link to original Greek text] 26 Some authorities say that he married and had a son Cybisthus; others that he remained unmarried and adopted his sister's son, and that when he was asked why he had no children of his own he replied "because he loved children." The story is told that, when his mother tried to force him to marry, he replied that it was too soon, and when she pressed him again later in life, he replied that it was too late. Hieronymus of Rhodes in the second book of his Scattered Notes relates that, in order to show how easy it is to grow rich, Thales, foreseeing that it would be a good season for olives, rented all the oil‑mills and thus amassed a fortune.9

[link to original Greek text] 27 His doctrine was that water is the universal primary substance, and that the world is animate and full of divinities. He is said to have discovered  p29 the seasons of the year and divided it into 365 days.

He had no instructor, except that he went to Egypt and spent some time with the priests there. Hieronymus informs us that he measured the height of the pyramids by the shadow they cast, taking the observation at the hour when our shadow is of the same length as ourselves. He lived, as Minyas relates, with Thrasybulus, the tyrant of Miletus.

The well-known story of the tripod found by the fishermen and sent by the people of Miletus to all the Wise Men in succession runs as follows. [link to original Greek text] 28 Certain Ionian youths having purchased of the Milesian fishermen their catch of fish, a dispute arose over the tripod which had formed part of the catch. Finally the Milesians referred the question to Delphi, and the god gave an oracle in this form:10

Who shall possess the tripod? Thus replies

Apollo: "Whosoever is most wise."​11

Accordingly they give it to Thales, and he to another, and so on till it comes to Solon, who, with the remark that the god was the most wise, sent it off to Delphi. Callimachus in his Iambics has a different version of the story, which he took from Maeandrius of Miletus.​12 It is that Bathycles, an Arcadian, left at his death a bowl with the solemn injunction that it "should be given to him who had done most good by his wisdom." So it was given to Thales, went the round of all the sages, and came back to Thales again. [link to original Greek text] 29 And he sent it  p31 to Apollo at Didyma, with this dedication, according to Callimachus:

Lord of the folk of Neleus' line,

Thales, of Greeks adjudged most wise,

Brings to thy Didymaean shrine

His offering, a twice‑won prize.

But the prose inscription is:

Thales the Milesian, son of Examyas [dedicates this] to Delphinian Apollo after twice winning the prize from all the Greeks.

The bowl was carried from place to place by the son of Bathycles, whose name was Thyrion, so it is stated by Eleusis in his work On Achilles, and Alexo the Myndian in the ninth book of his Legends.

But Eudoxus of Cnidos and Euanthes of Miletus agree that a certain man who was a friend of Croesus received from the king a golden goblet in order to bestow it upon the wisest of the Greeks; this man gave it to Thales, and from him it passed to others and so to Chilon.

[link to original Greek text] 30 Chilon laid the question "Who is a wiser man than I?" before the Pythian Apollo, and the god replied "Myson." Of him we shall have more to say presently. (In the list of the Seven Sages given by Eudoxus, Myson takes the place of Cleobulus; Plato also includes him by omitting Periander.) The answer of the oracle respecting him was as follows:13

Myson of Chen in Oeta; this is he

Who for wiseheartedness surpasseth thee;

and it was given in reply to a question put by Anacharsis. Daïmachus the Platonist and Clearchus allege that a bowl was sent by Croesus to Pittacus and began the round of the Wise Men from him.

 p33  The story told by Andron​14 in his work on The Tripod is that the Argives offered a tripod as a prize of virtue to the wisest of the Greeks; Aristodemus of Sparta was adjudged the winner but retired in favour of Chilon. [link to original Greek text] 31 Aristodemus is mentioned by Alcaeus thus:15

Surely no witless word was this of the Spartan, I deem,

"Wealth is the worth of a man; and poverty void of esteem."

Some relate that a vessel with its freight was sent by Periander to Thrasybulus, tyrant of Miletus, and that, when it was wrecked in Coan waters, the tripod was afterwards found by certain fishermen. However, Phanodicus declares it to have been found in Athenian waters and thence brought to Athens. An assembly was held and it was sent to Bias; [link to original Greek text] 32 for what reason shall be explained in the life of Bias.

There is yet another version, that it was the work of Hephaestus presented by the god to Pelops on his marriage. Thence it passed to Menelaus and was carried off by Paris along with Helen and was thrown by her into the Coan sea, for she said it would be a cause of strife. In process of time certain people of Lebedus, having purchased a catch of fish thereabouts, obtained possession of the tripod, and quarrelling with the fishermen about it, put in to Cos, and, when they could not settle the dispute, reported the fact to Miletus, their mother-city. The Milesians, when their embassies were disregarded, made war upon Cos; many fell on both sides, and an oracle pronounced that the tripod  p35 should be given to the wisest; both parties to the dispute agreed upon Thales. After it had gone the round of the sages, Thales dedicated it to Apollo of Didyma. [link to original Greek text] 33 The oracle which the Coans received was on this wise:

Hephaestus cast the tripod in the sea;

Until it quit the city there will be

No end to strife, until it reach the seer

Whose wisdom makes past, present, future clear.

That of the Milesians beginning "Who shall possess the tripod?" has been quoted above. So much for this version of the story.

Hermippus in his Lives refers to Thales the story which is told by some of Socrates, namely, that he used to say that there were three blessings for which he was grateful to Fortune: "first, that I was born a human being and not one of the brutes; next, that I was born a man and not a woman; thirdly, a Greek and not a barbarian." [link to original Greek text] 34 It is said that once, when he was taken out of doors by an old woman in order that he might observe the stars, he fell into a ditch, and his cry for help drew from the old woman the retort, "How can you expect to know all about the heavens, Thales, when you cannot even see what is just before your feet?" Timon too knows him as an astronomer, and praises him in the Silli where he says:16

Thales among the Seven the sage astronomer.

His writings are said by Lobon of Argos to have run to some two hundred lines. His statue is said to bear this inscription:17

 p37  Pride of Miletus and Ionian lands,

Wisest astronomer, here Thales stands.

[link to original Greek text] 35 Of songs still sung these verses belong to him:

Many words do not declare an understanding heart.

Seek one sole wisdom.

Choose one sole good.

For thou wilt check the tongues of chatterers prating without end.

Here too are certain current apophthegms assigned to him:

Of all things that are, the most ancient is God, for he is uncreated.

The most beautiful is the universe, for it is God's workman­ship.

The greatest is space, for it holds all things.

The swiftest is mind, for it speeds everywhere.

The strongest, necessity, for it masters all.

The wisest, time, for it brings everything to light.

He held there was no difference between life and death. "Why then," said one, "do you not die?" "Because," said he, "there is no difference." [link to original Greek text] 36 To the question which is older, day or night, he replied: "Night is the older by one day." Some one asked him whether a man could hide an evil deed from the gods: "No," he replied, "nor yet an evil thought." To the adulterer who inquired if he should deny the charge upon oath he replied that perjury was no worse than adultery. Being asked what is difficult, he replied, "To know oneself." "What is easy?" "To give advice to another." "What is most pleasant?" "Success." "What is the divine?" "That which has neither beginning nor end." To the question what was the strangest  p39 thing he had ever seen, his answer was, "An aged tyrant." "How can one best bear adversity?" "If he should see his enemies in worse plight." "How shall we lead the best and most righteous life?" "By refraining from doing what we blame in others." [link to original Greek text] 37 "What man is happy?" "He who has a healthy body, a resource­ful mind and a docile nature." He tells us to remember friends, whether present or absent; not to pride ourselves upon outward appearance, but to study to be beautiful in character. "Shun ill‑gotten gains," he says. "Let not idle words prejudice thee against those who have shared thy confidence." "Whatever provision thou hast made for thy parents, the same must thou expect from thy children." He explained the overflow of the Nile as due to the etesian winds which, blowing in the contrary direction, drove the waters upstream.

Apollodorus in his Chronology places his birth in the first year of the 35th Olympiad [640 B.C.]. [link to original Greek text] 38 He died at the age of 78 (or, according to Sosicrates, of 90 years); for he died in the 58th Olympiad, being contemporary with Croesus, whom he undertook to take across the Halys without building a bridge, by diverting the river.​a3

There have lived five other men who bore the name of Thales, as enumerated by Demetrius of Magnesia in his Dictionary of Men of the Same Name:

1. A rhetorician of Callatia, with an affected style.

2. A painter of Sicyon, of great gifts.

3. A contemporary of Hesiod, Homer and Lycurgus, in very early times.

4. A person mened by Duris in his work On Painting.

p41 5. An obscure person in more recent times who is mentioned by Dionysius in his Critical Writings.

[link to original Greek text] 39 Thales the Sage died as he was watching an athletic contest from heat, thirst, and the works incident to advanced age. And the inscription on his tomb is:18

Here in a narrow tomb great Thales lies;

Yet his renown for wisdom reached the skies.

I may also cite one of my own, from my first book, Epigrams in Various Metres:19

As Thales watched the games one festal day

The fierce sun smote him, and he passed away;

Zeus, thou didst well to raise him; his dim eyes

Could not from earth behold the starry skies.​20

[link to original Greek text] 40 To him belongs the proverb "Know thyself," which Antisthenes in his Successions of Philosophers attributes to Phemonoë, though admitting that it was appropriated by Chilon.

This seems the proper place for a general notice of the Seven Sages, of whom we have such accounts as the following. Damon of Cyrene in his History of the Philosophers carps at all sages, but especially the Seven. Anaximenes remarks that they all applied themselves to poetry; Dicaearchus that they were neither sages nor philosophers, but merely  p43 shrewd men with a turn for legislation.​21 Archetimus of Syracuse describes their meeting at the court of Cypselus, on which occasion he himself happened to be present; for which Ephorus substitutes a meeting without Thales at the court of Croesus. Some make them meet at the Pan‑Ionian festival, at Corinth, and at Delphi. [link to original Greek text] 41 Their utterances are variously reported, and are attributed now to one now to the other, for instance the following:22

Chilon of Lacedaemon's words are true:

Nothing too much; good comes from measure due.

Nor is there any agreement how the number is made up; for Maeandrius, in place of Cleobulus and Myson, includes Leophantus son of Gorgiadas, of Lebedus or Ephesus, and Epimenides the Cretan in the list; Plato in his Protagoras admits Myson and leaves out Periander; Ephorus substitutes Anacharsis for Myson; others add Pythagoras to the Seven. Dicaearchus hands down four names fully recognized: Thales, Bias, Pittacus and Solon; and appends the names of six others, from whom he selects three: Aristodemus, Pamphilus, Chilon the Lacedaemonian, Cleobulus, Anacharsis, Periander. Others add Acusilaus, son of Cabas or Scabras, of Argos. [link to original Greek text] 42 Hermippus in his work On the Sages reckons seventeen, from which number different people make different selections of seven. They are: Solon, Thales, Pittacus, Bias, Chilon, Myson, Cleobulus, Periander, Anacharsis,  p45 Acusilaus, Epimenides, Leophantus, Pherecydes, Aristodemus, Pythagoras, Lasos, son of Charmantides or Sisymbrinus, or, according to Aristoxenus, of Chabrinus, born at Hermione, Anaxagoras. Hippobotus in his List of Philosophers enumerates: Orpheus, Linus, Solon, Periander, Anacharsis, Cleobulus, Myson, Thales, Bias, Pittacus, Epicharmus, Pythagoras.

Here follow the extant letters of Thales.

Thales to Pherecydes

[link to original Greek text] 43 "I hear that you intend to be the first Ionian to expound theology to the Greeks. And perhaps it was a wise decision to make the book common property without taking advice, instead of entrusting it to any particular persons whatsoever, a course which has no advantages. However, if it would give you any pleasure, I am quite willing to discuss the subject of your book with you; and if you bid me come to Syros I will do so. For surely Solon of Athens and I would scarcely be sane if, after having sailed to Crete to pursue our inquiries there, and to Egypt to confer with the priests and astronomers, we hesitated to come to you. [link to original Greek text] 44 For Solon too will come, with your permission. You, however, are so fond of home that you seldom visit Ionia and have no longing to see strangers, but, as I hope, apply yourself to one thing, namely writing, while we, who never write anything, travel all over Hellas and Asia."

 p47  Thales to Solon

"If you leave Athens, it seems to me that you could most conveniently set up your abode at Miletus, which is an Athenian colony; for there you incur no risk. If you are vexed at the thought that we are governed by a tyrant, hating as you do all absolute rulers, you would at least enjoy the society of your friends. Bias wrote inviting you to Priene; and if you prefer the town of Priene for a residence, I myself will come and live with you."

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 Nelidae, if Bywater's emendation is correct.

2 582 B.C.

3 Cf. Simplicius, In Phys. I.23, 29‑33D.

4 Greek mariners steered by the Great Bear, the Phoenicians by the Little Bear, as Ovid states, Tristia, IV.3.1, 2.

5 See Sir T. L. Heath, Aristarchus of Samos, pp12‑23.

6 De anima, Α 2, 405a19.

7 i.e. a theory concerned with lines, γραμμαί, which of course include curves as well as straight lines.

8 Namely, in a dialogue. Cf.  VIII.4.

9 Because, having created a monopoly, he could charge what he pleased. See Aristotle's version of the story, Pol. I.11, 1259a6‑18.

10 Anth. Plan. VI.51.

11 Or in prose: "Offspring of Miletus, do you ask Phoebus concerning the tripod? Whoso in wisdom is of all the first, to him the tripod I adjudge."

12 Although disguised as Leandrius, the writer meant is Maeandrius, who is known (Inscr. Gr. no. 2905) to have written a local history of Miletus. Such histories, e.g. of Sicyon, Megara, Samos, Naxos, Argolis, Epirus, Thessaly, abounded in the Alexandrian age.

13 Anth. Plan. VI.40.

14 Andron of Ephesus (§ 119) is known to have written in the life-time (or at least before the death) of Theopompus, who is accused of having plagiarized from The Tripod: Eusebius, Praep. Ev. X.3, 7.

15 Fr. 49 Bergk; cf. Schol. Pindar, Isthm. II.17.

16 Fr. 23 Diels.

17 Anth. Pal. VII.73.

18 Anth. Pal. VII.84.

19 Anth. Pal. VII.85.

20 In plain prose: "As the wise Thales was one day watching the contest of the racers, thou, O Sun‑god, O Zeus, didst snatch him from the stadium. I praise thee for removing him to be near thee; for verily the old man could no more discern the stars from earth."

21 The opinion of Dicaearchus thus expressed is correct. With the exception of Thales, no one whose life is contained in Book I has any claim to be styled a philosopher. The tradition of the Seven Wise Men and of their meeting at some court, whether of a native tyrant like Periander or of a foreign prince like Croesus, was used by Plato (Protag. 343A) and, largely through his influence, grew into a romantic legend, the result being late biographies, collections of apophthegms, and letters attributed to various authors, e.g. the apophthegms of Demetrius of Phalerum. Diogenes Laertius swallows all this as true; modern criticism rejects it all as forgery.

22 Anth. Plan. IV.22.

Thayer's Note:

a1 a2 a3 In the extant writings of Herodotus — his Histories — Thales is mentioned only three times. In 1.74 he says, rather vaguely, that Thales foretold a "loss of daylight" (μεταλλαγὴ τῆς ἡμέρης) in the year. In 1.75 he does say that Thales was generally credited with allowing Croesus' army to pass the Halys — but not by building a bridge; rather, by diverting the river upstream — and then immediately casts doubt on the story. In 1.170 he states that Thales was of Phoenician origin, but goes no further into his parentage; and characterizes as "good" the advice Thales gave on one occasion, but that falls short of expressing admiration for the man.

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