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.





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