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Thales
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Thales








In an earlier chapter mention was made of that truly remarkable
group of thinkers who, in the sixth century before the Christian
era, made the momentous transition from mythology and
tradition to philosophy and science. It was also pointed out that
these pioneers, bold as they were, could not shake themselves
free from the social and intellectual conditions of their day. And
it is precisely this fact of what may be termed contemporary
limitations that makes a review of their speculations so valuable
to a student of Nature Mysticism. For they lived in times when
the old spontaneous nature beliefs were yielding to reflective
criticism. Their philosophising took its spring from the fittest
products of the mytho-poeic faculty, and thus remained in living
contact with the primitive past, while reaching forward, in the
spirit of the future, to an ordered knowledge of an ordered
whole. The chief object of their search was the _Welt-stoff_--
the substance of the universe--and they were guided in their
search by the dominating concepts which had emerged in the
long course of the animistic and mythological stages. Certain
forms of external existence have impressed themselves upon the
general mind, notably those of water, air, and fire; and to these
the reflecting mind naturally turned in its earliest efforts to
discover the Ground of things. The interest taken by the
nature-mystic in this group of thinkers is twofold. Firstly, he
finds that in their speculations there is a large element of
primitive intuition, embodied in concepts fashioned by the
spontaneous play of reflective thought and free imagination.
Closeness to nature is thus secured. And secondly, he rejoices
in the fact that these speculations, crude and premature as
they inevitably were, contained germs of thought and flashes
of insight which anticipate the most advanced speculative science
and philosophy of the present day. He maintains that here is
corroboration of his view of intuition. Nature was the teacher--
and it was to intuition that she chiefly addressed herself; and the
intellect--keen and fresh, but untrained--was able to seize upon
the material presented, and to fix it in concepts and theories
which share in nature's universal and unending life.

Water, air, and fire--what an enormous number and variety of
natural phenomena range themselves under these heads! If we
try to understand why they were singled out in turn, in the
search for the _Welt-stoff_, we shall have penetrated far into the
Nature Mysticism of these famous "elements."

Starting, then, with Thales, we ask why he fixed upon water in
his attempt (the earliest recorded) to determine the constitution
of the universe? What were the properties, qualities, and
functions of that "element" which arrested his attention, and
governed his crude, but acute and original, speculations? As
already remarked, existing cosmological conceptions played an
important role, more especially that of the great primeval ocean
on which the world was supposed to float. This cosmographical
ocean and its accompanying myths will be considered in a
subsequent chapter. But restricting our view at present to the
physical aspects of water, it is not wholly impossible to recover,
and sympathise with, his train of reasoning.

Water is wonderfully mobile, incessantly changing, impelled
apparently by some inherent principle of movement. Its
volatility, also, is very marked; it passes from solid to liquid,
and liquid to vapour, and easily reverses the series. More
especially would the old-world thinker be struck by the
phenomena of the circulation of water. He would see the vapour
drawn up by the sun from lake and ocean, seeming to feed the
heavenly fires, and returning to earth in the form of rain. He
concluded that this must represent the flow of the cosmic
process as a whole. Again, in the falling of dew, in the
gatherings of mists, and in the welling-up of fountains, the solid
materials of the world are apparently passing into a liquid state.

Thales was not the first to note these things. They had been
subtly modifying the thoughts of men for untold generations.
But he was the first whom we know to have gathered together
into a definite theory the vague intuitions which had been so
long unconsciously operative. He singled out this mobile
element and saw in it the substance of the flux of the world as a
whole.

His theory of movement took a wide range. He did not separate
the thing moved from the moving force; nor did he draw any
distinction between the organic and inorganic--the mechanical
and the vital. He regarded all modes of motion as essentially
spontaneous and self-determined. Moreover (as Aristotle tells
us) he identified this inherent principle of change with what is
divine in nature and in the soul. That is to say, the Real, for
Thales, is living impulse and continuous process. It is
experienced in man's conscious activities, and constitutes the
principle of unity in every mode and form of existence.

It is on the organic side of this speculation that Aristotle,
probably biased by his biological studies, chiefly dwells. Is it
possible to trace the grounds of which Thales based his wider
induction? Aristotle helps us. He supposes his predecessor to
have noted that water and life seem to be inseparable, and that
moisture is necessary to the germination and development of all
known organisms. It was natural to conclude that the principle
of life is in the water--the conclusion of the reason also
harmonising with the intuition stimulated by movement. Nor
was the inference altogether unwarranted. Put into historical
perspective, it still retains its force and value. The latest
biological authorities tell us that all branches of the zoological
family tree were formed on the moist shores of large water
basins, and that there is no form of life, not only terrestrial, but
even of the deep seas which has not passed through a littoral
phase. In other words, it is still allowable to hold that the
"moist," as Thales generally called his primal element, contains
one of the secrets of life. So close is the earliest to the latest
pronouncement on the origin of life on the globe!

Reviewing this brief exposition of the leading doctrine of an
ancient speculation, what bearing has it on the principles of
Nature Mysticism as laid down in preceding chapters? Certain
fairly obvious ones. Thales was guided by impressions received
from the qualities, behaviour, and functions of water; and they
led him to attribute a plastic life to matter. It would be
modernising him too severely to style him a hylozoist. But his
ascription of a soul to the magnet and to amber carries him far
on the way to that metaphysical world-view. Deeply suggestive
also is the saying which, if not rightly attributed to him, is at
least characteristic of his school--"All things are full of the
gods." We may therefore infer that the physical properties of
water are such as to suggest the ideas which have culminated in
modern animism. That is to say, water is capable of producing
intellectual and spiritual, as well as what are termed physical
effects. The deeper view of intuition is justified. And Thales, by
virtue of the whole trend and outcome of his speculations, may
claim an honoured place in the ranks of the nature-mystics.





Next: The Waters Under The Earth

Previous: Nature Mysticism And The Race



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