A quotation from Thales?

A correspondent writes:

I have seen this statement all over the web referring to an alleged quote of Thales:

Megiston topos: hapanta gar chorei (Μέγιστον τόπος• άπαντα γαρ χωρεί)
“Space is the greatest thing, as it contains all things”

However, I have never seen a reference to an ancient text.  Is this a web myth?

The reference is to Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the philosophers, book 1, chapter 35:

Φέρεται δὲ καὶ ἀποφθέγματα αὐτοῦ τάδε·

πρεσβύτατον τῶν ὄντων θεός· ἀγένητον γάρ.
κάλλιστον κόσμος· ποίημα γὰρ θεοῦ.
μέγιστον τόπος· ἅπαντα γὰρ χωρεῖ.
τάχιστον νοῦς· διὰ παντὸς γὰρ τρέχει.
ἰσχυρότατον ἀνάγκη· κρατεῖ γὰρ πάντων.
σοφώτατον χρόνος· ἀνευρίσκει γὰρ πάντα.

Here are certain apothegms attributed 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.[1]

  1. [1]Loeb translation, vol. 1, p.37.

11 thoughts on “A quotation from Thales?

  1. Nach Einschätzung bei Diels-Kranz, Die Fragmente der Vorsokratiker, Band 1, zählt die Stelle bei Diogenes Laertios I 35 zu den A-Fragmenten, das heißt, zu Texten die über Leben und Werk berichten, aber nicht vom jeweiligen Philosophen selbst stammen. Bei Diels-Kranz wird in Fußnoten weiterführende Literatur angeführt, Angaben, die natürlich auf einem älteren Stand sind. Man müsste sich also durch Marouzeaus l’annee philosophique durcharbeiten, um neuere Sekundärliteratur zu finden.

  2. I.e. “According to Diels-Kranz, The fragments of the Pre-Socratics, vol. 1, the passage in Diogenes Laertius I 35 belongs to the A-fragments, i.e. texts discussing the life and work, but not by the philosopher himself. Further literature may be found in the footnotes to Diels-Kranz, although earlier, of course. One should also look in Marouzeau’s L’Annee Philologique for newer secondary literature”.

    Thank you very much for this: interesting. It certainly reads like direct quotation in the Loeb, but clearly another view is possible.

  3. I remember looking at a book on Presocratic philosophers at the library which is an update of Diels Kranz (which after all is over 50 years old from the latest edition). After fragments and tesimonia it was saying at the notes that it is debatable if Thales even wrote a book or if what we have are just the recollections of his students and admirers.

  4. Thank you very much for that reference. It was VERY helpful. I find it to be a bit puzzling for the following reasons:

    Earlier in that text Diogenes Laertius (DL) makes this statement,

    “His doctrine was that water is the universal primary substance, and that the world is animate and full of divinities [gods].”1

    I believe the phrase “universal primary substance” refers to the Greek word ἀρχήν which is an indeclinable adverb referring to the origin or the source (archē), i.e., water is the origin or source. However, if “Space is the greatest thing, as it contains all things” does it contain water? If water is the source (archē) how can space contain it?

    Additionally, Kirk and Raven cast doubt on the simple platitude that Thales believed ‘all things are water’,

    “Two things, then, have emerged from the present discussion: (i) ‘all things are water’ is not necessarily a reliable summary of Thales’ cosmological views; and (ii) even if we do accept Aristotle’s account (with some allowance, in any event, for his inevitably altered viewpoint), we have little idea of how things were felt to be essentially related to water.”2

    They previously pointed out in this section that Aristotle may not have understood Thales’ notion of cosmology, of water and archē. Aristotle seemed to object to the earth resting on water because of the logical postulate, ‘what does the water rest on’? …and, “Thales would almost certainly still accept the popular conception of the earth (or, in this case, its immediate support) stretching downward indefinitely”3

    With regard to this passage by DL:

    “Some think he was the first to study the heavenly bodies and to foretell eclipses of the sun and solstices, as Eudemus says in his history of astronomy; for which reason both Xenophanes and Herodotus express admiration; and both Heraclitus and Democritus bear witness for him.”4

    Kirk and Raven point out,

    “Diogenes (i, 24, DKiiAi) added that Thales discovered the passage of the sun from solstice to solstice, and the relation of the diameter of sun and moon to their orbits.”5

    “Diogenes’ second piece of information is quite anachronistic, for Thales cannot have thought that the heavenly bodies had orbits, since they did not pass under the earth (which was not made free-swinging until Anaximander) ; at the most they had semi-orbits, and the ratio of diameter to celestial path would be twice that given.”5

    Kirk and Raven also point out that ‘all things are full of gods’ may not really be accurate either of Thales belief,

    “(ii) Even apparently inanimate things can be ‘alive ‘; the world is full of gods”2

    “This presupposition is still sometimes called ‘hylozoism’; but this name implies too strongly that it is something uniform, determinable, and conscious. In fact the term applies to at least three possible and distinct attitudes of mind: (a) the assumption (conscious or not) that all things absolutely are in some way alive ; (b) the belief that the world is interpenetrated by life, that many of its parts which appear inanimate are in fact animate ; (c) the tendency to treat the world is a whole, whatever its detailed constitution, as a single living organism, (a) is an extreme, but in view of the universalizing tendency of Greek thought not an impossible, form of the general presupposition; in a way it might be said to be exemplified by Xenophanes. Thales’ belief, it has been suggested, approaches closer to (b). (c) is implicit in the old genealogical view of the world’s history described in chapter I, which still persisted to a large extent under the new rationalized form of philosophical cosmogony. Aristotle is seen at his most perspicuous in 118, where, perhaps with Thales especially in mind, he shows himself aware of the possibility of this kind of attitude.”6

    I also think the notion of chorei translated here as ‘space’ deserves further context as to what ‘space’ could have meant for Thales. Chorei can be translated as flux as in Heraclitus’ ‘All is flux’ (panta chorei) as well as make room for another, give way, withdraw.7

    1 DL, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, I, 23
    2 THE PRESOCRATIC PHILOSOPHERS: A CRITICAL HISTORY WITH A SELECTION OF TEXTS, BY G. S. KIRK, J. E. RAVEN & Schofield, CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS, ISBN 978-0-521-27455-5, page 94-95
    3 THE PRESOCRATIC PHILOSOPHERS, page 90
    4 DL, Lives, I, 23
    5 THE PRESOCRATIC PHILOSOPHERS, page 83
    6 THE PRESOCRATIC PHILOSOPHERS, page 98
    7 http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/morph?l=xwrei%3D&la=greek&can=xwrei%3D0&prior=ga\r&d=Perseus:text:1999.01.0257:book=1:chapter=1&i=1#lexicon

  5. This is a summary of Kirk and Ravens view:1

    “Thales is traditionally the first to have revealed the investigation of nature to the Greeks; he had many predecessors, as also Theophrastus thinks, but so far surpassed them as to blot out all who came before him. He is said to have left nothing in the form of writings except the so- called Nautical star-guide.” [Simplicius Phys. p. 23, 29 Diels]

    The last sentence is not in Theophrastus’ fragment so the ‘Nautical star-guide’ was an opinion of Simplicius.

    And according to some he left no book behind; for the Nautical star-guide ascribed to him is said to be by Phokos the Samian. [Diogenes Laertius I, 23]

    Diogenes states that Lobon of Argos said that Thales wrote 200 hexameters. [Diog. L. I, 34] Lobon of Argos was a stichometrist, a type of chemist, who was not held in high regard. Diogenes also reports that Phokos the Samian wrote the “Nautical star-guide”.

    Aristotle did not see any books by Thales at least on cosmological matters and was very tenuous ascribing opinions to Thales.

    “It is possible that the ‘Nautical star-guide’ was a genuine sixth-century work similar to the hexameter ‘AorpoAoyicc of Cleostratus of Tenedos (DK ch. 6) or the so-called Hesiodic ‘AaTpovopiri (DK ch. 4) : so Diels and others have assumed.”

    Kirk and Raven conclude that,

    “The evidence does not allow a certain conclusion, but the probability is that Thales did not write a book; though the ancient holders of this view might have been misled by the absence of a genuine work from the Alexandrian library, and also by the apophthegmatic nature of the wisdom assigned to the Seven Sages in general.”

    I have found this to be the case with many of the pre-Socratics which I suppose gives job security to the philologists ;-).

    One observation I would make is to be careful when you hear stuff like the ancient philosophers ‘believed that the ultimate realty was water or fire’ and that ‘they were animists or hylozoists’.

    This is way too simplistic. Try reading Aristotle’s ‘Metaphysics’ written only a few hundred years later to see a level of linguistic sophistication that could not have developed in the short time between Aristotle and Thales.

    Also, the Phoenician alphabet was thought to have arrived in Greece around the 8th century BCE. It was very similar to ancient Hebrew. The Greeks added vowels to a language made up of what was chiefly consonants. While more primitive types of writing were around long before the Phoenician alphabet came to Greece, the Greeks before this mainly communicated wisdom in the oral tradition of the rhapsodists. This lent itself to the mythological epics of Homer and Hesiod. Perhaps Phoenician writing made any such thing as uniquely Greek philosophy to exist. This would mean Phoenician writing was only around a few hundred years earlier than Thales. By the same type of logical premise stated concerning the level of sophistication between Thales and Aristotle we might also speculate that the mythology of Homer ad Hesiod were not mere ‘primitive’ stories but actually had a level of genius and artistry that may have escaped many later commentators.

    One additional observation about Thales. Anaximander, considered a student of Thales, was not much younger than Thales. Once again, we have no direct writing of Anaximander but there is more certainty that he wrote. One of the most important fragments comes from three different sources. Simplicius, one of the sources, writes this:

    “Of those who declared that the first principle is one, moving and indefinite, Anaximander… said that the indefinite was the first principle and element of things that are, and he was the first to call the first principle indefinite [apeiron]. He says that the first principle is neither water nor any other of the things called elements, but some other nature which is indefinite, out of which come to be all the heavens and the worlds in them. The things that are perish into the things out of which they come to be, according to necessity, for they pay the penalty and retribution to each other for their injustice in accordance with the ordering of time” [Simpl. Phys. 24.13]

    The most certain part of this fragment with regard to coming from Anaximander is “according to necessity; for they pay one another recompense and penalty for their injustice”. Both mentor and student were concerned with movement and change with regard to phusis (physics), kinetic and endurance, the problem of one and many which Aristotle is especially concerned with. Anaximander is certainly concerned with the ‘indefinite’ (apeiron – probably the alpha primitive of peras or form…without form) and origin (archē) in a very sophisticated fashion. This would lead one to think that his contemporaneous mentor was not so simple minded about water as well. I have been writing a philosophy series for over a year now which even goes further to try to flesh out a connection to Hesiod’s Theogony with the notion of chaos (χάος), genet’ (γένετ’ – related to γένεσις (genesis, “origin, source, beginning, nativity, generation, production, creation” and thus concerned with archē) and the rise of the logos with Thales and writing. In particular, the cosmogony of the Theogony begins with the inquiry to the Muses, “Tell me all of this, you Muses who have your homes on Olympus, from the beginning [archê, ἀρχῆς], tell who first of them (the gods) came-to-be [genet’, γένετ᾽].” The Muses respond, “First of all Chaos came-to-be [genet’, γένετ᾽]; but then afterwards Broad-breasted earth, a secure dwelling place forever for all [the immortals who hold the peaks of snowy Olympus], and misty Tartara in the depths under the wide-wayed grounds and Eros who, handsomest among the deathless gods a looser of limbs, in all the gods and in all human beings overpowers in their breasts their intelligence and careful planning.”2 There is an incredible level of sophistication and artistry in this which seems to me to defy the ‘progressivists” view that the ancient Greeks were somehow less astute than moderns and that we have progressed beyond their ancient insights.

    1 THE PRESOCRATIC PHILOSOPHERS: A CRITICAL HISTORY WITH A SELECTION OF TEXTS, BY G. S. KIRK, J. E. RAVEN & M. SCHOFIELD, Second Edition, CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS, ISBN 978-0-521-27455-5, Section “Writings”, page 86-88
    2 Theogony 105-133

  6. Thank you very much for these details. Isn’t it fascinating to see these testimonia? Particularly from Simplicius?

    I see that the 1957 edition of Kirk and Raven is online at Archive.org here.

  7. It certainly is fascinating. I always wonder what it would be like if we found more ancient manuscripts (like an intact reproduction of the Alexandrian Library…we can dream ;-)). I believe with Heidegger that every translation is a transformation. I find it fascinating to dwell on specific transformation like Greek to Latin. I also think this happens even within the confines of a single language as languages are heterogeneous not homogeneous. Thanks for your time and scholarly attentions Roger; it is appreciated!

  8. Well, they are still out there to be found. A work by Galen was discovered in the 90’s, by a bored student left alone with the catalogue of the Vlatadon monastery in Thessaloniki. Arabic translations probably contain things we would like to have. We can hope!

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