Thales of Miletus and Me

Thales of Miletus and Me July 25, 2021


Thales in Athens
Thales, in a detail from a fresco at the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens (Wikimedia Commons public domain image)




In the wake of my two recent falls — chronicled here and here — several people have responded with suggestions (whether amused or concerned) that I buy and use a walker, that I have myself checked for transitory ischemic strokes, and so forth.  I have not felt such measures necessary, since both falls can be explained simply and adequately as the result of my not paying attention to where I was walking.  I’ve had no episodes of blurred consciousness (no more than usual, anyway!) and, so far as I can determine, I’m not unstable on my feet in any way.  I tripped over a curb in a California parking lot that I hadn’t noticed, and then, roughly a month and a half thereafter and without noticing until it was too late, I stepped into a trough by the side of the path on which I was strolling near Devils Tower, in northeastern Wyoming.


I may be increasingly decrepit, it’s true.  But I don’t think that my ever-accelerating decay had much to do with my two recent falls.  However, they’ve reminded me of a story about the pre-Socratic philosopher Thales of Miletus (Θαλῆς ὁ Μιλήσιος, ca. 624/623  – ca. 548/545 BC).  Also known as a mathematician and an astronomer, Thales (pronounced ThAY-leez) was reckoned anciently as one of the “Seven Sages” of ancient Greece and is sometimes regarded today as the “Father of Science.”  Years ago, on our first trip to Turkey, my wife and I drove down the coast just to pay our respects to his home town of Miletus.


A story circulated about Thales in antiquity — e.g. in Plato’s Theaetetus and in Aristotle’s Politics — in which he was said to have been walking along while thoroughly engrossed in observing the stars.  Unfortunately, he failed to notice a well, and he fell into it.  This occasioned much merriment among people who found his impractical otherworldliness and his consequent poverty ridiculous.  “If you’re so smart,” they effectively said, “why ain’t you rich?”


Thales decided to prove that he could be rich if he chose to be.  So, soon after his embarrassing fall, he somehow reasoned from his astronomical studies that a bumper crop of olives would be delivered by the next harvest.  On that basis, using whatever money he had, he acquired a controlling interest in all of the local olive presses and, when the olives began to arrive for processing, he reaped a fortune.  Having made his point, though, he reputedly returned to his impractical ways and his simple life.


My task, in showing myself still at least marginally competent even after my two falls, is considerably easier than that of Thales.  He had to invest in olive presses.  In other words, he actually had to do something.  Nowadays, though, I can simply self-identify as a multi-billionaire and demand that everybody else respect my self-identification.




Early this morning, we flew from Rapid City into what is currently, I’m beginning to think, the worst airport in the United States.  The walk from our gate to luggage pick-up didn’t require quite as much time as the flight itself, but it was getting there.  Here’s a pleasant thought, though:  The new Salt Lake Airport is a completely smoke-free complex.  This means that, by the time they make their way from their planes to curbside, many smokers are likely to have actually kicked their habit.



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