Vous êtes sur la page 1sur 11


Thales of Miletus (/eliz/; Greek: ( ), Thals; c. 624 c. 546 BC)

was a pre-Socratic Greek philosopher fromMiletus in Asia Minor, and one of the Seven
Sages of Greece. Many, most notably Aristotle, regard him as the first philosopher in
theGreek tradition.[1] Aristotle reported Thales' hypothesis about the nature of matter
that the originating principle of nature was a single material substance: water.
According to Bertrand Russell, "Western philosophy begins with Thales."[2] Thales
attempted to explain natural phenomena without reference to mythology and was
tremendously influential in this respect. Almost all of the other Pre-Socratic philosophers
follow him in attempting to provide an explanation of ultimate substance, change, and
the existence of the world without reference to mythology. Those philosophers were also
influential and eventually Thales' rejection of mythological explanations became an
essential idea for the scientific revolution. He was also the first to define general
principles and set forth hypotheses, and as a result has been dubbed the "Father of
Science," though it is argued that Democritus is actually more deserving of this title.[3][4]
In mathematics, Thales used geometry to solve problems such as calculating the height
of pyramids and the distance of ships from the shore. He is credited with the first use
of deductive reasoning applied to geometry, by deriving four corollaries to Thales'
Theorem. As a result, he has been hailed as the first true mathematician and is the first
known individual to whom a mathematical discovery has been attributed. [5]

The current historical consensus is that Thales was born in the city of Miletus around the
mid 620s BC. Miletus was an ancient Greek Ionian city on the western coast of Asia
Minor(in what is today Aydin Province of Turkey), near the mouth of the Maeander River.

The dates of Thales' life are not exactly known, but are roughly established by a few
dateable events mentioned in the sources. According to Herodotus (and determination
by modern methods) Thales predicted the solar eclipse of May 28, 585 BC.[6] Diogenes

Lartius quotes the chronicle of Apollodorus of Athens as saying that Thales died at the
age of 78 in the 58th Olympiad (548545 BC).
Diogenes Lartius states that ("according to Herodotus and Douris and Democritus")
Thales' parents were Examyes and Cleobuline, then traces the family line back
to Cadmus, a mythological Phoenician prince of Tyre. Diogenes then delivers conflicting
reports: one that Thales married and either fathered a son (Cybisthus or Cybisthon) or
adopted his nephew of the same name; the second that he never married, telling his
mother as a young man that it was too early to marry, and as an older man that it was
too late. Plutarchhad earlier told this version: Solon visited Thales and asked him why he
remained single; Thales answered that he did not like the idea of having to worry about
children. Nevertheless, several years later, anxious for family, he adopted his nephew
Thales involved himself in many activities, taking the role of an innovator. Some say that
he left no writings, others say that he wrote On the Solstice and On the Equinox. (No
writing attributed to him has survived.) Diogenes Lartius quotes two letters from Thales:
one to Pherecydes of Syros offering to review his book on religion, and one to Solon,
offering to keep him company on his sojourn from Athens. Thales identifies the Milesians
as Athenian colonists.[8]

Practice and theory[edit]

Thales was known for his innovative use of geometry. His understanding was theoretical
as well as practical. For example, he said:
Megiston topos: hapanta gar chorei ( )
Space is the greatest thing, as it contains all things
Topos is in Newtonian-style space, since the verb, chorei, has the connotation of
yielding before things, or spreading out to make room for them, which
is extension. Within this extension, things have a
position. Points, lines, planes and solids related by distances and angles follow
from this presumption.

Thales understood similar triangles and right triangles, and what is more, used
that knowledge in practical ways. The story is told in DL (loc. cit.) that he
measured the height of thepyramids by their shadows at the moment when his
own shadow was equal to his height. A right triangle with two equal legs is a 45degree right triangle, all of which are similar. The length of the pyramids shadow
measured from the center of the pyramid at that moment must have been equal
to its height.
This story indicates that he was familiar with the Egyptian seked, or seqed - the
ratio of the run to the rise of a slope (cotangent). The seked is at the base of
problems 56, 57, 58, 59 and 60 of the Rhind papyrus - an ancient Egyptian
mathematics document.
In present day trigonometry, cotangents require the same units for run and rise
(base and perpendicular), but the papyrus uses cubits for rise and palms for run,
resulting in different (but still characteristic) numbers. Since there were 7 palms
in a cubit, the seked was 7 times the cotangent.

Thales' Theorem:

To use an example often quoted in modern reference works, suppose the base of
a pyramid is 140 cubits and the angle of rise 5.25 seked. The Egyptians
expressed their fractions as the sum of fractions, but the decimals are sufficient
for the example. What is the rise in cubits? The run is 70 cubits, 490 palms. X,

the rise, is 490 divided by 5.25 or 9313 cubits. These figures sufficed for the
Egyptians and Thales. We would go on to calculate the cotangent as 70 divided
by 9313 to get 3/4 or .75 and looking that up in a table of cotangents find that the
angle of rise is a few minutes over 53 degrees.
Whether the ability to use the seked, which preceded Thales by about
1000 years, means that he was the first to define trigonometry is a matter of
opinion. More practically Thales used the same method to measure the
distances of ships at sea, said Eudemus as reported by Proclus (in Euclidem).
According to Kirk & Raven (reference cited below), all you need for this feat is
three straight sticks pinned at one end and knowledge of your altitude. One stick
goes vertically into the ground. A second is made level. With the third you sight
the ship and calculate the seked from the height of the stick and its distance from
the point of insertion to the line of sight.
The seked is a measure of the angle. Knowledge of two angles (the seked and a
right angle) and an enclosed leg (the altitude) allows you to determine by similar
triangles the second leg, which is the distance. Thales probably had his own
equipment rigged and recorded his own sekeds, but that is only a guess.
Thales Theorem is stated in another article. (Actually there are two theorems
called Theorem of Thales, one having to do with a triangle inscribed in a circle
and having the circle's diameter as one leg, the other theorem being also called
the intercept theorem.) In addition Eudemus attributed to him the discovery that a
circle is bisected by its diameter, that the base angles of an isosceles triangle are
equal and that vertical angles are equal. According to a historical Note,[26] when
Thales visited Egypt, he observed that whenever the Egyptians drew two
intersecting lines, they would measure the vertical angles to make sure that they
were equal. Thales concluded that one could prove that all vertical angles are
equal if one accepted some general notions such as: all straight angles are
equal, equals added to equals are equal, and equals subtracted from equals are
equal. It would be hard to imagine civilization without these theorems.
Due to the scarcity of sources concerning Thales and the diversity among the
ones we possess, there is a scholarly debate over possible influences on Thales
and the Greek mathematicians that came after him.

Historian Roger L. Cooke points out that Proclus does not make any mention of
Mesopotamian influence on Thales or Greek geometry, but "is shown clearly in
Greek astronomy, in the use of sexagesimal system of measuring angles and in
Ptolemy's explicit use of Mesopotamian astronomical observations." [27] Cooke
notes that it may possibly also appear in the second book of Euclid's Elements,
"which contains geometric constructions equivalent to certain algebraic relations
that are frequently encountered in the cuneiform tablets." Cooke notes "This
relation however, is controversial."[27]
Historian B.L. Van der Waerden is among those advocating the idea of
Mesopotamian influence, writing "It follows that we have to abandon the
traditional belief that the oldest Greek mathematicians discovered geometry
entirely by themselvesa belief that was tenable only as long as nothing was
known about Babylonian mathematics. This in no way diminishes the stature of
Thales; on the contrary, his genius receives only now the honour that is due to it,
the honour of having developed a logical structure for geometry, of having
introduced proof into geometry." [25]
Some historians, such as D. R. Dicks takes issue with the idea that we can
determine from the questionable sources we have, just how influenced Thales
was by Babylonian sources. He points out that while Thales is held to have been
able to calculate an eclipse using a cycle called the "Saros" held to have been
"borrowed from the Babylonians", "The Babylonians, however, did not use cycles
to predict solar eclipses, but computed them from observations of the latitude of
the moon made shortly before the expected syzygy." [12]Dicks cites historian O.
Neugebauer who relates that "No Babylonian theory for predicting solar eclipse
existed at 600 B.C., as one can see from the very unsatisfactory situation
400 year later; nor did the Babylonians ever develop any theory which took the
influence of geographical latitude into account." Dicks examines the cycle
referred to as 'Saros' - which Thales is held to have used and which is believed
to stem from the Babylonians. He points out that Ptolemy makes use of this and
another cycle in his book Mathematical Syntaxis but attributes it to Greek
astronomers earlier than Hipparchus and not to Babylonians.[12] Dicks notes
Herodotus does relate that Thales made use of a cycle to predict the eclipse, but
maintains that "if so, the fulfillment of the 'prediction' was a stroke of pure luck
not science".[12] He goes further joining with other historians (F. Martini, J.L. E.
Dreyer, O. Neugebauer) in rejecting the historicity of the eclipse story altogether.


Dicks links the story of Thales discovering the cause for a solar eclipse with

Herodotus' claim that Thales discovered the cycle of the sun with relation to the
solstices, and concludes "he could not possibly have possessed this knowledge
which neither the Egyptians nor the Babylonians nor his immediate successors
possessed."[12] Josephus is the only ancient historian that claims Thales visited
Herodotus wrote that the Greeks learnt the practice of dividing the day into 12
parts, about the polos, and the gnomon from the Babylonians. (The exact
meaning of his use of the word polos is unknown, current theories include: "the
heavenly dome", "the tip of the axis of the celestial sphere", or a spherical
concave sundial.) Yet even Herodotus' claims on Babylonian influence are
contested by some modern historians, such as L. Zhmud, who points out that the
division of the day into twelve parts (and by analogy the year) was known to the
Egyptians already in the second millennium, the gnomon was known to both
Egyptians and Babylonians, and the idea of the "heavenly sphere" was not used
outside of Greece at this time.[28]
Less controversial than the position that Thales learnt Babylonian mathematics is
the claim he was influenced by Egyptians. Pointedly historian S. N. Bychkov
holds that the idea that the base angles of an isosceles triangle are equal likely
came from Egypt. This is because, when building a roof for a home - having a
cross section be exactly an isosceles triangle isn't crucial (as it's the ridge of the
roof that must fit precisely), in contrast a symmetric square pyramid cannot have
errors in the base angles of the faces or they will not fit together tightly.

Historian D.R. Dicks agrees that compared to the Greeks in the era of Thales,

there was a more advanced state of mathematics among the Babylonians and
especially the Egyptians - "both cultures knew the correct formulae for
determining the areas and volumes of simple geometrical figures such as
triangles, rectangles, trapezoids, etc.; the Egyptians could also calculate
correctly the volume of the frustum of a pyramid with a square base (the
Babylonians used an incorrect formula for this), and used a formula for the area
of a circle...which gives a value for of 3.1605--a good approximation."[12] Dicks
also agrees that this would have had an effect on Thales (whom the most ancient
sources agree was interested in math and astronomy) but he holds that tales of
Thales' travels in these lands are pure myth.

The ancient civilization and massive monuments of Egypt had "a profound and
ineradicable impression on the Greeks". They attributed to Egyptians "an
immemorial knowledge of certain subjects" (including geometry) and would claim
Egyptian origin for some of their own ideas to try and lend them "a respectable
antiquity" (such as the "Hermetic" literatureof the Alexandrian period).[12]
Dicks holds that since Thales was a prominent figure in Greek history by the time
of Eudemus but "nothing certain was known except that he lived in Miletus". [12] A
tradition developed that as "Milesians were in a position to be able to travel
widely" Thales must have gone to Egypt. [12] As Herodotus says Egypt was the
birthplace of geometry he must have learnt that while there. Since he had to
have been there, surely one of the theories on Nile Flooding laid out by
Herodotus must have come from Thales. Likewise as he must have been in
Egypt he had to have done something with the Pyramids - thus the tale of
measuring them. Similar apocryphal stories exist of Pythagoras and Plato
traveling to Egypt with no corroborating evidence.
As the Egyptian and Babylonian geometry at the time was "essentially
arithmetical", they used actual numbers and "the procedure is then described
with explicit instructions as to what to do with these numbers" there was no
mention of how the rules of procedure were made, and nothing toward a logically
arranged corpus of generalized geometrical knowledge with analytical 'proofs'
such as we find in the words of Euclid, Archimedes, and Apollonius." [12] So even
had Thales traveled there he could not have learnt anything about the theorems
he is held to have picked up there (especially because there is no evidence that
any Greeks of this age could use Egyptian hieroglyphics). [12]
Likewise until around the second century BC and the time of Hipparchus (c. 194120 BC) the Babylonian general division of the circle into 360 degrees and their
sexagesimal system was unknown.[12] Herodotus says almost nothing about
Babylonian literature and science, and very little about their history. Some
historians, like P. Schnabel, hold that the Greeks only learned more about
Babylonian culture from Berossus, a Babylonian priest who is said to have set up
a school in Cos around 270 BC (but to what extent this had in the field of
geometry is contested).
Dicks points out that the primitive state of Greek mathematics and astronomical
ideas exhibited by the peculiar notions of Thales' successors (such as

Anaximander, Anaximenes, Xenophanes, and Heraclitus), which historian J. L.

Heiberg calls "a mixture of brilliant intuition and childlike analogies", [29] argues
against the assertions from writers in late antiquity that Thales discovered and
taught advanced concepts in these fields.

In the long sojourn of philosophy there has existed hardly a philosopher or

historian of philosophy who did not mention Thales and try to characterize him in
some way. He is generally recognized as having brought something new to
human thought. Mathematics, astronomy and medicine already existed. Thales
added something to these different collections of knowledge to produce a
universality, which, as far as writing tells us, was not in tradition before, but
resulted in a new field.
Ever since, interested persons have been asking what that new something is.
Answers fall into (at least) two categories, the theory and the method. Once an
answer has been arrived at, the next logical step is to ask how Thales compares
to other philosophers, which leads to his classification (rightly or wrongly).

The most natural epithets of Thales are "materialist" and "naturalist", which are
based on ousia and physis. The Catholic Encyclopedia notes that Aristotle called
him a physiologist, with the meaning "student of nature." [30] On the other hand, he
would have qualified as an early physicist, as did Aristotle. They studied corpora,
"bodies", the medieval descendants of substances.
Most agree that Thales' stamp on thought is the unity of substance,
hence Bertrand Russell:[31]
"The view that all matter is one is quite a reputable scientific hypothesis."
"...But it is still a handsome feat to have discovered that a substance remains the
same in different states of aggregation."
Russell was only reflecting an established tradition; for
example: Nietzsche, in his Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks,

"Greek philosophy seems to begin with an absurd notion, with the proposition
that water is the primal origin and the womb of all things. Is it really necessary for
us to take serious notice of this proposition? It is, and for three reasons. First,
because it tells us something about the primal origin of all things; second,
because it does so in language devoid of image or fable, and finally, because
contained in it, if only embryonically, is the thought, 'all things are one.'"
This sort of materialism, however, should not be confused with
deterministic materialism. Thales was only trying to explain the unity
observed in the free play of the qualities. The arrival of uncertainty in
the modern world made possible a return to Thales; for
example, John Elof Boodin writes ("God and Creation"):
"We cannot read the universe from the past..."
Boodin defines an "emergent" materialism, in which the objects of
sense emerge uncertainly from the substrate. Thales is the
innovator of this sort of materialism.

Rise of theoretical inquiry[edit]

In the West, Thales represents a new kind of inquiring community
as well. Edmund Husserl[33] attempts to capture the new
movement as follows. Philosophical man is a "new cultural
configuration" based in stepping back from "pregiven tradition"
and taking up a rational "inquiry into what is true in itself;" that is,
an ideal of truth. It begins with isolated individuals such as Thales,
but they are supported and cooperated with as time goes on.
Finally the ideal transforms the norms of society, leaping across
national borders.

The term "Pre-Socratic" derives ultimately from the philosopher
Aristotle, who distinguished the early philosophers as concerning
themselves with substance.
Diogenes Laertius on the other hand took a strictly geographic
and ethnic approach. Philosophers were either Ionian or Italian.
He used "Ionian" in a broader sense, including also the Athenian

academics, who were not Pre-Socratics. From a philosophic point

of view, any grouping at all would have been just as effective.
There is no basis for an Ionian or Italian unity. Some scholars,
however, concede to Diogenes' scheme as far as referring to an
"Ionian" school. There was no such school in any sense.
The most popular approach refers to a Milesian school, which is
more justifiable socially and philosophically. They sought for the
substance of phenomena and may have studied with each other.
Some ancient writers qualify them as Milesioi, "of Miletus."