V. THE BEGINNINGS OF GREEK SCIENCE
Herodotus, the Father of History, tells us that once upon a time—which time, as the modern computator shows us, was about the year 590 B.C. —a war had risen between the Lydians and the Medes and continued five years. "In these years the Medes often discomfited the Lydians and the Lydians often discomfited the Medes (and among other things they fought a battle by night); and yet they still carried on the war with equally balanced fortitude. In the sixth year a battle took place in which it happened, when the fight had begun, that suddenly the day became night. And this change of the day Thales, the Milesian, had foretold to the Ionians, laying down as a limit this very year in which the change took place. The Lydians, however, and the Medes, when they saw that it had become night instead of day, ceased from their fighting and were much more eager, both of them, that peace should be made between them."
This memorable incident occurred while Alyattus, father of Croesus, was king of the Lydians. The modern astronomer, reckoning backward, estimates this eclipse as occurring probably May 25th, 585 B.C. The date is important as fixing a mile-stone in the chronology of ancient history, but it is doubly memorable because it is the first recorded instance of a predicted eclipse. Herodotus, who tells the story, was not born until about one hundred years after the incident occurred, but time had not dimmed the fame of the man who had performed the necromantic feat of prophecy. Thales, the Milesian, thanks in part at least to this accomplishment, had been known in life as first on the list of the Seven Wise Men of Greece, and had passed into history as the father of Greek philosophy. We may add that he had even found wider popular fame through being named by Hippolytus, and then by Father aesop, as the philosopher who, intent on studying the heavens, fell into a well; "whereupon," says Hippolytus, "a maid-servant named Thratta laughed at him and said, 'In his search for things in the sky he does not see what is at his feet.' "
Such citations as these serve to bring vividly to mind the fact that we are entering a new epoch of thought. Hitherto our studies have been impersonal. Among Egyptians and Babylonians alike we have had to deal with classes of scientific records, but we have scarcely come across a single name. Now, however, we shall begin to find records of the work of individual investigators. In general, from now on, we shall be able to trace each great idea, if not to its originator, at least to some one man of genius who was prominent in bringing it before the world. The first of these vitalizers of thought, who stands out at the beginnings of Greek history, is this same Thales, of Miletus. His is not a very sharply defined personality as we look back upon it, and we can by no means be certain that all the discoveries which are ascribed to him are specifically his. Of his individuality as a man we know very little. It is not even quite certain as to where he was born; Miletus is usually accepted as his birthplace, but one tradition makes him by birth a Phenician. It is not at all in question, however, that by blood he was at least in part an Ionian Greek. It will be recalled that in the seventh century B.C., when Thales was born—and for a long time thereafter—the eastern shores of the aegean Sea were quite as prominently the centre of Greek influence as was the peninsula of Greece itself. Not merely Thales, but his followers and disciples, Anaximander and Anaximenes, were born there. So also was Herodotas, the Father of History, not to extend the list. There is nothing anomalous, then, in the fact that Thales, the father of Greek thought, was born and passed his life on soil that was not geographically a part of Greece; but the fact has an important significance of another kind. Thanks to his environment, Thales was necessarily brought more or less in contact with Oriental ideas. There was close commercial contact between the land of his nativity and the great Babylonian capital off to the east, as also with Egypt. Doubtless this association was of influence in shaping the development of Thales's mind. Indeed, it was an accepted tradition throughout classical times that the Milesian philosopher had travelled in Egypt, and had there gained at least the rudiments of his knowledge of geometry. In the fullest sense, then, Thales may be regarded as representing a link in the chain of thought connecting the learning of the old Orient with the nascent scholarship of the new Occident. Occupying this position, it is fitting that the personality of Thales should partake somewhat of mystery; that the scene may not be shifted too suddenly from the vague, impersonal East to the individualism of Europe.