Thales of Miletus: Greek Philosophy and the Search for God

Thales of Miletus (c. 616 – 548), a Greek Mathematician, Astronomer, and Philosopher.

In the overview of the history of ideas there are truths, and consequences. Ideas have far reaching repercussions. Margaret Sanger (1879 – 1966), the founded of Planned Parenthood was an advocate of eugenics, the selective breeding of her fellow citizens. The ideas of Adolf Hitler (1889 – 1945) led to the slaughter of six million Jews. The political philosophy of collectivism advocated by Karl Marx (1818 – 1883), and Friedrick Engels (1820 – 1895), enslaved and slaughtered more than 150 million people in the twentieth century. In contrast, Adam Smith (1723 – 1790) argued the division of labor can transform the markets and improve productivity. Where capitalism has been implemented, it has produced the wealth of nations.

It is logical that ideas have consequences, because every action is preceded by some idea. The artist has some concept of what he wants to paint, the architect has an idea of the structure he wants to design, and the scientist has a hypothesis he wants to prove. Politicians have an idea of how they want to govern. King James I believed in the Divine Right of the King. Parliament disagreed. Even rioters have some idea in mind when they go out into the streets. Their ideas may not be noble, or enriching to others, but they are present.

Christians should be familiar with the history of theoretical thought, and how ideas have consequences, for the Church offers to the world the most majestic idea of all, which is that God can be known, loved, and worshiped.

When attention is turned to the history of Western theoretical thought, an important date is found to be May 28, 585 BC. On this date, a solar eclipse took place. It had been predicted by Thales of Ionia. Today, he is honored as the founder of Greek philosophy in the Western world. In the East, much philosophical work had already been done among the Hebrews (1 Samuel 19:18-24; 2 Kings 2:5; 4:38-44), which necessitated the West catching up.

The Hebrews had their school of the prophets, now the West would have their academies. The First Group of Philosophers were called the Pre-Socratic Philosophers, referring to those who came before Socrates (c. 470 BC – 399 BC).

What Thales tried to solve, was the question of the One and the Many. He wanted to understand the relationship between Unity and Diversity.

The word universe is a common word, and yet complex upon examination. The word itself is made of “unity” and “diversity.”

The idea of a university, is a place to go to study individual subjects, such as history, psychology, chemistry, theology, biology, engineering, languages, etc. By going to one school there can be diversity of subjects. There is the one and the many, unity and diversity.

The idea of a universe, is that we are living in a sphere that has specific different things. The universe consists of plants, animals, humans, trees, stars, and so many other individual items but they are diverse one from the other. The Greeks asked if there was any unity to this diversity. Is the world a symphony, or a cacophony? Is the universe cosmos, or chaos? Does it even matter? Why?

For most people, simple Logic would compel the mind to believe that since there is order in the universe, there must be a unifying principle, or cause. For some, simple Logic will not do. There must be something more profound, more mysterious to the universe. The revelation of God is not sufficient, since God is spirit. The Natural Man wants something more. The Natural Man wants to know ultimate truth. Revealed truth, observable truth is insufficient. The idea of God is insufficient to these individuals. Their hearts are restless until they can find a thought that will satisfy their souls, whether that thought be true or not.

For example, Richard Dawkins has taken refuge in Atheism. Carl Sagan took refuge in evolutionary thinking. Ungodly cosmologists are satisfied with their own theories on the origin of the universe, such as the idea of a Big Bang. But is it true? How do they know? They were not present at creation, and the original creation has not been repeated, nor can it be duplicated. And what is to be said about the Law of Inertia, that things that are at rest stay at rest, unless they are acted upon by a greater force outside themselves? What caused the Big Bang to occur? That, no one can answer. Nevertheless, men with unsanctified minds, become satisfied with their own exalted thoughts. The Greek philosophers came to believe in Ultimate Reality.

They believed in metaphysic (meta, beyond; physic, physical). There is the desire to go beyond the five senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. Aristotle (384 – 322 BC) is credited with coining the term in his book, Metaphysics, though Thales is credited with beginning the formal process of inquiry.

The inquiry of the Greek philosophers led to Ontology. Ontology is the study of being, and everything that exists is a being.

The inquiry of the Greek philosophers led to Cosmology. Cosmology is the study of creation, and development of the universe, and the place of all that is in it, especially man.

The inquiry of the Greek philosophers led to Identity.  This field of inquiry looks at the relation each thing bears only to itself. What makes a table a table?

The inquiry of the Greek philosophers led to the study of Free Will. Free Will is the ability to act at one own’s discretion, to do what one wants to do. It is the ability to choose, think, and act voluntary. The have Free Will, is to believe, that we as humans, are the authors and actors of our own actions.

The inquiry of the Greek philosophers led to Mind and Matter. How does mind and matter relate. One of the most popular books on this subject is, Think and Grow Rich (Napoleon Hill).

The inquiry of the Greek philosophers led to Religion and Spirituality. Is there life after life on earth? How can evil be explained? Does God exist?

In addition to metaphysics, the Greek philosophers were concerned about Teleology. Telos is the Greek for, “end”, “goal”, or “purpose”. There is a desperate desire to know how what has come to pass, has come into existence. Why is the universe here? Why is man here? What is the end purpose of everything? What is the universe for?

The Bible reveals the answer to each of these Greek inquiries, for these are ultimately theological questions that have been asked, explored, and answered, only to be asked, explored, and argued over today in the 21st century.

Thales said that the Ultimate Essence, the Ultimate Stuff, the Ultimate Substance, the Arche, the Ultimate Reality from which everything is derived is – water.

Many years later, being familiar with the Greek philosophers, Paul engaged some of their disciples in Athens. Speaking to the Stoics, and the Epicureans from the Areopagus, or Mars Hill, the apostle noticed they had a stone dedicated to the Unknown God. Seizing the moment, Paul said to the wise men of his age, “For as I passed by, and beheld your devotions, I found an altar with this inscription, TO THE UNKNOWN GOD. Whom therefore ye ignorantly worship, him declare I unto you. God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands;  Neither is worshipped with men’s hands, as though he needed anything, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; And hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation; That they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after him, and find him, though he be not far from every one of us: For in him we live, and move, and have our being; as certain also of your own poets have said, For we are also his offspring. Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device. And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men everywhere to repent: Because he hath appointed a day, in the which he will judge the world in righteousness by that man whom he hath ordained; whereof he hath given assurance unto all men, in that he hath raised him from the dead” (Acts 17:23).

How foolish it was that the wisest of the Greeks did not know that in God, not water, we live, and move, and have our being.

With his answer, Paul was answering the three greatest questions of the ancient philosophers / scientists.

Question: “How is it that we live?”

Answer. “We live in God.”


Question: “How is it that we move?”

Answer: “We move in God.”


Question: “How is it that we have our being?”

Answer: “We have our being in God.”


Without this foundational truth, the mind of man is left to imagine. When Thales considered his world, his life experience was limited to observing that everything around him was solid, gas, or liquid. No matter how diverse life is, everything can be reduced to one of these three things: solid, gas, or liquid.  If there is some underlying metaphysical principle that can unify everything, thought Thales, it is water. Why? Because water can exist as a solid, a gas, or a liquid. Therefore, everything must be made of water. After all, everything that has life requires water. The seed must have water to grow. An animal must have water to survive. Humans, and flowers, and grass must have replenishing water to continue to live. Perhaps it is so important, perhaps water is the most basic substance of the Universe that creates life itself.

For Thales, water explained being, it explained life, but it did not explain motion. What set being, and life, into motion, to cause existence? When something is moved, there is a reason for that movement. There is a greater influence upon the inert object that moved.

To account for motion, Thales looked for a substance that is hylozoistic (Greek hylē, “matter”; zōē, “life”). In philosophy, this word conveys the view that all matter is alive, either in itself, or by participation in the operation of a world soul, or some similar principle. Hylozoism is logically distinct both from early forms of animism, which personifies nature, and from panpsychism, the belief that everything material, however small, has an element of individual consciousness.

Thales looked at the movement of water in creeks, the seas, rivers, falls, lakes, and streams, and postulated that it had power to move itself. It was hylozoistic.

A sympathetic response towards Thales, when it is realized what he concluded, is that of pity.

What Thales was looking for was God. What he found was water, and that touches the heart as it would for any blind person stumbling about trying to find someone to give them sight. If Thales had had spiritual insight, he might have confessed that he, with the other Greek philosophers, were stumbling about in search of the ultimate meaning to life. “We grope for the wall like the blind, and we grope as if we had no eyes: we stumble at noonday as in the night; we are in desolate places as dead men” (Isaiah 59:10). And Jesus said, “I am the light of the world: he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12).

Leave a Reply