Philosophy During the Tragic Age of the Greeks

Nietzsche On Thales

Translated by Maximillian A. Mügge
Revised by Charles S. Taylor

§ 3

Greek philosophy seems to begin with a preposterous idea, 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. The first mentioned reason leaves Thales still in the company of religious and superstitious people, the second however takes him out of this company and shows him to us as a natural philosopher, but by virtue of the third, Thales becomes the first Greek philosopher. If he had said: "Out of water earth is evolved," we should only have a scientific hypothesis; a false one, though nevertheless difficult to refute. But he went beyond the scientific. In his presentation of this concept of unity through the hypothesis of water, Thales has not surmounted the low level of the physical discernments of his time, but actually leapt over them. The deficient and unorganized observations of an empiric nature which Thales had made as to the occurrence and transformations of water, or to be more exact, of the Moist, would not in the least have made possible or even suggested such an immense generalization. That which drove him to this generalization was a metaphysical thought, which had its origin in mystic intuition and which together with the ever renewed endeavours to express it better, we find in all philosophies,-the proposition: Everything is one !

How forcefully such a faith deals with all empiricism is worthy of note; with Thales especially one can learn how Philosophy has behaved at all times, when she wanted to get beyond the hedges of experience to her magically attracting goal. On light supports she leaps in advance; hope and divination wing her feet. Calculating reason too, clumsily pants after her and seeks better supports in its attempt to reach that alluring goal, at which its divine companion has already arrived. One imagines two wanderers by a wild forest-stream which carries with it rolling stones; the one, light-footed, leaps over it using the stones and swinging upon them ever further and further, though they precipitously sink into the depths behind. The other stands helpless there most of the time; one has first to build a pathway which will bear a heavy, weary step; sometimes that cannot be done and then no god will help one across the stream. What therefore carries philosophical thinking so quickly to its goal ? Does it distinguish itself from calculating and measuring thought only by its more rapid flight through large spaces ? No, for a strange illogical power wings the foot of philosophical thinking; and this power is creative imagination. Lifted by the latter, philosophical thinking leaps from possibility to possibility, and these for the time being are taken as certainties; and now and then even whilst on the wing it gets hold of certainties. An ingenious presentiment shows them to the flier; demonstrable certainties are divined at a distance to be at this point. Especially powerful is the strength of imagination in the lightning-like seizing and illuminating of similarities; afterwards reflection applies its measuring and models (templates) and seeks to substitute the similarities by equalities, that which was seen side by side by causalities. But though this should never be possible, even in the case of Thales the indemonstrable philosophizing has yet its value; although all supports are broken when Logic and the rigidity of Empiricism want to get across to the proposition: Everything is water; yet still there is always, after the demolition of the scientific edifice, a remainder, and in this very remainder lies a moving force and as it were the hope of future fertility.

Of course I do not mean that the thought in any restriction or attenuation, or as allegory, still retains some kind of " truth "; as if, for instance, one might imagine the creating artist standing near a waterfall, and seeing in the forms which leap towards him, an artistically prefiguring game of the water with human and animal bodies, masks, plants, rocks, nymphs, griffins, and with all existing types in general, so that to him the proposition: Everything is water, is confirmed. The thought of Thales has rather its value -- even after the perception of its indemonstrableness -- in the very fact, that it was meant unmythically and unallegorically. The Greeks among whom Thales became so suddenly conspicuous were the anti-type of all realists by only believing essentially in the reality of mortals and gods, and by contemplating the whole of nature as if it were only a disguise, masquerade and metamorphosis of these god-humans. Humans were to them the truth, and essence of things; everything else mere phenomenon and deceiving play. For that very reason they experienced incredible difficulty in conceiving of ideas as ideas. Whilst with the moderns the most personal item sublimates itself into abstractions, with them the most abstract notions became personified. Thales, however, said, "Not man but water is the reality of things"; he began to believe in nature, in so far that he at least believed in water. As a mathematician and astronomer he had grown cold towards everything mythical and allegorical, and even if he did not succeed in becoming disillusioned as to the pure abstraction, Everything is one, and although he left off at a physical expression he was nevertheless among the Greeks of his time a surprising rarity. Perhaps the exceedingly conspicuous Orpheans possessed in a still higher degree than he the faculty of conceiving abstractions and of thinking unplastically (without images); only they did not succeed in expressing these abstractions except in the form of the allegory. Also Pherecydes of Syrus who is a contemporary of Thales and akin to him in many physical conceptions hovers with the expression of the latter in that middle region where Allegory is wedded to Mythos, so that he dares, for example, to compare the earth with a winged oak, which hangs in the air with spread pinions and which Zeus bedecks, after the defeat of Kronos, with a magnificent robe of honour, into which with his own hands Zeus embroiders lands, water and rivers. In contrast with such gloomy allegorical philosophizing scarcely to be translated into the realm of the comprehensible, Thales' are the works of a creative master who began to look into Nature's depths without fantastic fabling. If as it is true he used Science and the demonstrable but soon outleapt them, then this likewise is a typical characteristic of the philosophical genius. The Greek word which designates the Sage belongs etymologically to sapio, I taste, sapiens, the tasting one,sisyphos, the person of the most delicate taste; the peculiar art of the philosopher therefore consists, according to the opinion of the people, in a delicate selective judgment by taste, by discernment, by significant differentiation. He is not prudent, if one calls him prudent, who in his own affairs finds out the good; Aristotle rightly says: "That which Thales and Anaxagoras know, people will call unusual, astounding,difficult,divine but -- useless, since human possessions were of no concern to those two." Through thus selecting and precipitating the unusual, astounding, difficult, and divine, Philosophy marks the boundary lines dividing her from Science in the same way as she does it from Prudence by the emphasizing of the useless. Science without thus selecting, without such delicate taste, pounces upon everything knowable, in the blind covetousness to know all at any price; philosophical thinking however is always on the track of the things worth knowing, on the track of the great and most important discernments. Now the idea of greatness is changeable, as well in the moral as in the esthetic realm, thus Philosophy begins with a legislation with respect to greatness, she becomes a Nomenclator (name-giver). " That is great," she says, and therewith she raises us above the blind, untamed covetousness of our thirst for knowledge. By the idea of greatness she assuages this thirst: and it is chiefly by this, that she contemplates the greatest discernment, that of the essence and kernel of things, as attainable and attained. When Thales says, " Everything is water," we are startled up out of our worm-like mauling of and crawling about among the individual sciences; we divine the last solution of things and master through this divination the common perplexity of the lower grades of knowledge. Philosophers try to make the total-chord of the universe re-echo within themselves and then to project it into ideas outside themselves: whilst they are contemplative like the artistic, sympathetic like the religious, looking out for ends and causalities like the scientific, whilst they feel themselves swell up to the macrocosm, they still retain the circumspection to contemplate themselves coldly as the reflex of the world; they retain that cool-headedness, which dramatic artists possess, when they transform themselves into other bodies, speak out of them, and yet know how to project this transformation outside themselves into written verses. What the verse is to the poet, dialectic thinking is to philosophers; they snatch at it in order to hold fast their enchantment, in order to petrify it. And just as words and verse to dramatists are only stammerings in a foreign language, to tell in it what they lived, what they saw, and what they can directly promulgate by gesture and music only, thus the expression of every deep philosophical intuition by means of dialectics and scientific reflection is, it is true, on the one hand the only means to communicate what has been seen, but on the other hand it is a paltry means, and at the bottom a metaphorical, absolutely inexact translation into a different sphere and language. Thus Thales saw the Unity of the " Existent," and when he wanted to communicate this idea he talked of water.