Studying Nature with Thales

While admiring the autumnal beauty of a cool clear day I was struck by a sudden perspective: a group of birch trees framed by their larger neighbors. The contrast of pale golden leaves and the smooth light bark was an ideal artist’s vignette. Behind me was a small brook—meandering gently amid ancient, deep cut banks—now at rest. Leaves dappled its surface while yet more lay suspended in the dark translucent water beneath, as if frozen in a moment in time.

Since bibliophiles are doomed to think in terms of the books they are reading, the scenery seemed a counterpart to some passages by Thales of Miletus: “Of all things that are, the most ancient is God, for he is uncreated” and “The most beautiful [thing] is the universe, for it is God’s workmanship.” Thales was one of the earliest thinkers of whom we have record. The Miletian sage was famous for his naturalistic investigations of the world which challenged the mythological or superstitious traditions of his contemporaries. Yet this by no means ruled out a spiritual perspective.

I reflected that one can view the world in terms of the God of the Greeks and the God of the Jews. Nor does one exclude the other. Their ultimate compatibility was maintained by the Jewish Platonist Philo and the early Christian scholar, Justin Martyr. In moments of aesthetic or intellectual delight, it is often the philosophical aspect that predominates. Yet this mood is not absent in the Old Testament, as we see in the Wisdom Books. For example

See how the skies proclaim God’s glory, how the vault of heaven betrays his craftsmanship! Each day echoes its secret to the next, each night passes on to the next its revelation of knowledge…. (Ps. 18:2-3, Ronald Knox transl.)

To return to Thales, as described in one of my favorite works, Lives of Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laertius:

Being asked what is difficult, he replied: “To know oneself.” What is easy? “To give advice to another.”  And when asked how to live well, “By refraining from doing what we blame in others.”

This entry was posted in Philosophy, Religion. Bookmark the permalink.