“Thales … says that [the material principle] is water, and that is why he asserted that the earth rests on water.” — Aristotle, Met 983b20-2
“Thus,” claims Jonathan Barnes (and nobody but nobody turns a phrase quite like this man) “we have two aqueous asseverations”:*
- Water is the material principle of everything.
- The earth rests on water.
The second point is not especially creative given the ancient context of the, admittedly demythologised, assertion. The ancient near-eastern origin of this Weltanschauung has been well-rehearsed by Kirk & Raven and is worth quoting here for the purposes of padding out this blog post with some more words.
In Egypt the earth was commonly conceived as a flat, rimmed dish resting upon water, which also filled the sky; the sun sailed each day across the sky in a boat, and also sailed under the earth each night. … In the Babylonian creation-epic Apsu and Tiamat represent the primeval waters, and Apsu remains as the waters under the earth after Marduk has split the body of Tiamat to form sky (with its waters) and earth. In the story of Eridu (seventh century B.C. in its youngest extant version), in the beginning ‘all land was sea’; then Marduk built a raft on the surface of the water, and on the raft a reed-hut which became the earth. An analogous view is implied in the Psalms (where also Leviathan is analogue of Tiamat), where Jahweh ‘stretched out the earth above the waters’ (136, 6), ‘founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the floods’ (24, 2). Similarly Tehom is ‘the deep that lieth under’ (Gen. xlix. 25), ‘the deep that coucheth beneath’ (Deut. xxxiii. 13). **
What is remarkable about Thales’ assertion, which moves well beyond the simple traditional Greek view of Okeanos merely encircling the earth, is this very connection to eastern cosmology. This all lends credence to the suggestions that the Milesian was well-versed in Babylonian and Egyptian knowledge.
Now, that “water is the material principal of everything”, the Urstoff, is, as noted before, a different sort of assertion. The impulse is scientific, since “science always strives for economy and simplicity in explanation,” and so, Barnes concludes, “Thales was no mean thinker. He offers reasoned views on abstract and philosophical subjects, and he merits his traditional place of honour at the head of Western science and philosophy.”***
* Jonathan Barnes, The Presocratic Philosophers, rev ed. (London: Routledge, 1982), p. 9.
** Kirk, Raven & Schofield, The Presocratic Philosophers, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: CUP, 1983), 92.
*** Barnes, p. 11.