Thales, Was He So Original After All?
I have been reading Kathleen Freeman’s book, Ancilla to the Pre-Socratic Philosophers. The first chapter covered the Orpheus. Not much was known about Orpheus and Aristotle thought he was only a legend. Whatever the case, I was surprised to learn that Orphism dated from the 6th Century B.C. and lasted until the fall of the Roman Empire. Orphism had a major effect on several ancient Greek Philosophers such as Pythagoras and Plato.
One of the fragments that caught my attention was a quotation from Athenagoras who wrote that:
“Orpheus was the first theologian. He gave Water as the beginning of the whole, from Water came Mud, and from both came a serpent, Heracles or Time. This Heracles produced a huge Egg, which split into two, forming Gê (Earth) and Ouranos (Heaven).”
I assume the Athenagoras here is the Christian apologist from the 1st century A.D. If that is true he wrote considerably later than the original Orpheus and as time would have it, he probably got a lot of it wrong. Still, it is interesting that he uses “Water” as the “beginning of the Whole”. I sens a similarity between the “Water” of Orpheus as the beginning and Thales’ use of water as his arche, the origin of all things. I have never seen this connection before. However, David Roochnik writes that “according to Aristotle, Thales’s arche is the source of all things. It is that from which all things come into being and into which they perish.”1
I can’t prove it but I believe Thales, at the least, may have been influenced by the Orphics and may have indeed been an Orphic. If so, his philosophy would be hard to distinguish from his religion.
1. Roochnik, David, Introduction to Greek Philosophy, the Teaching Company 2002