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Thales claimed water as his arche, but Aristotle says that he also said that "Everything is full of gods". Are those two claims in agreement?

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  • Thales' statement is not "ontology"; it is about physis (nature). See The Milesians: "In his account of his predecessors’ searches for “causes and principles” of the natural world and natural phenomena, Aristotle says that Thales of Miletus was the first to engage in such inquiry." Commented Jan 13, 2021 at 11:26
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    And "Thales’ reported claims that the lodestone (with its magnetic properties) and amber (which when rubbed exhibits powers of attraction through static electricity) have souls and that all things are full of gods. Aristotle surmises that Thales identified soul (that which makes a thing alive and thus capable of motion) with something in the whole universe, and so supposed that everything was full of gods—water, or soul, being a divine natural principle." Commented Jan 13, 2021 at 11:31
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    Given that both claims are unsubstantiated nonsense, why do you suppose they are incompatible? Commented Feb 10, 2023 at 14:01

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Water, when poured into a vase, takes the shape of the vase; when poured into a hollow statue, it takes the shape of a statue. Then it's easy to go from here to think water is the arche of everything: in being infinitely malleable into all forms. Simply because Thales is reported to think water is the arche does not mean he thought actual water is the arche, but more likely something that is akin to water. First thinker on something usually does not have the language to express everything that he's meant, but usually borrows some analogous term. I suspect that's why the arche was also thought of as air and the boundless. The boundless is probably the most abstract term here.

However, in the above discussion a shaping hand is needed - to shape the vase, the statue, the form - and this is probably why Thales asserted that it was the gods that provided the shaping hand. The same goes for Pythagoras and then Plato. All of this is ontology as it reflects on the basic constituents of the world.

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Water is the arche. Everything is full of gods.

They're consistent if only for the reason that they're not logically connected i.e. the truth/falsity one doesn't imply the truth/falsity of the other. It's like saying John Smith is English and quadrilaterals have four sides It would've been super-interesting if these two were somehow linked logically. Are they? I dunno.

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  • Kirk and Raven agree with you: "Whether he associated this life-force with water, the origin and perhaps the essential constituent of the world, we are not told.". Even though I like more Nietzsche's poetical view on it, they seem to be a critic authority with regard to classics.
    – user64708
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 18:54
  • @irecorsan, interesting.
    – Hudjefa
    Commented Feb 16, 2023 at 19:38
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One interpretation of the fragment you refer to (11 A 7 in Diels-Kranz numbering):

Some say that [soul] is mixed in the whole universe. Perhaps that is why Thales thought that everything was full of gods.

can be in the lines that something divine permeates the whole nature, which is in turn a logical consequence once you have discovered a unifying principle for it (water in this case), as Thales did. Note however that it is marked with an A, which means that it is a testimony, and not an explicit fragment (which are scarce for the Miletus presocratics). There are only testimonies of Thales' thinking, therefore we may only speculate about the exact content of it.

Nietszche's view on this on Early Greek Philosophy is also similar to the above interpretation:

Greek philosophy seems to begin with a preposterous fancy, with the proposition that water is the origin and mother-womb of all things. Is it really necessary to stop there and become serious? Yes, and for three reasons: Firstly, because the proposition does enunciate something about the origin of things; secondly, because it does so without figure and fable; thirdly and lastly, because in it is contained, although only in the chrysalis state, the idea: Everything is one [...] Thus Thales saw the Unity of the "Existent," and when he wanted to communicate this idea he talked of water.

EDIT: See also this question and this one, and answers therein, for more insight on Thales' thought interpretation and the problem of sources.

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  • Welcome to SE. Your answer is interesting but could be much better. You need to think more carefully about your use of quotations and why a reference or a link to the ideas you are talking about will not suffice. It is also important to make sure that your quotation is relevant to the question. You don't begin to answer is until the last paragraph. It would have been better to spend more time on that.
    – Ludwig V
    Commented Feb 11, 2023 at 10:10

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