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- Athens: Its Rise and Fall, Book I. - 29/29 -

suspicion of the living. "Love," he said (if we may take the authority of Aulus Gellius, fl. B. C. 586), "as if you might hereafter hate, and hate as if you might hereafter love." Another favourite sentence of his was, "to a surety loss is at hand." [189] A third, "we try gold by the touchstone. Gold is the touchstone of the mind." Bias, of Priene in Ionia, is quoted, in Herodotus, as the author of an advice to the Ionians to quit their country, and found a common city in Sardinia (B. C. 586). He seems to have taken an active part in all civil affairs. His reputed maxims are plain and homely--the elementary principles of morals. Mitylene in Lesbos boasted the celebrated Pittacus (began to govern B. C. 589, resigned 579, died 569). He rose to the tyranny of the government by the free voice of the people; enjoyed it ten years, and voluntarily resigned it, as having only borne the dignity while the state required the direction of a single leader. It was a maxim with him, for which he is reproved by Plato, "That to be good is hard." His favourite precept was, "Know occasion:" and this he amplified in another (if rightly attributed to him), "To foresee and prevent dangers is the province of the wise--to direct them when they come, of the brave."

XV. Of Solon, the greatest of the seven, I shall hereafter speak at length. I pass now to Thales (born B. C. 639);--the founder of philosophy, in its scientific sense--the speculative in contradistinction to the moral: Although an ardent republican, Thales alone, of the seven sages, appears to have led a private and studious life. He travelled, into Crete, Asia, and at a later period into Egypt. According to Laertius, Egypt taught him geometry. He is supposed to have derived his astrological notions from Phoenicia. But this he might easily have done without visiting the Phoenician states. Returning to Miletus, he obtained his title of Wise [190]. Much learning has been exhausted upon his doctrines to very little purpose. They were of small value, save as they led to the most valuable of all philosophies--that of experiment. They were not new probably even in Greece [191], and of their utility the following brief sketch will enable the reader to judge for himself.

He maintained that water, or rather humidity, was the origin of all things, though he allowed mind or intellect (nous) to be the impelling principle. And one of his arguments in favour of humidity, as rendered to us by Plutarch and Stobaeus, is pretty nearly as follows: --"Because fire, even in the sun and the stars, is nourished by vapours proceeding from humidity,--and therefore the whole world consists of the same." Of the world, he supposed the whole to be animated by, and full of, the Divinity--its Creator--that in it was no vacuum--that matter was fluid and variable. [192]

He maintained the stars and sun to be earthly, and the moon of the same nature as the sun, but illumined by it. Somewhat more valuable would appear to have been his geometrical science, could we with accuracy attribute to Thales many problems claimed also, and more probably, by Pythagoras and later reasoners. He is asserted to have measured the pyramids by their shadows. He cultivated astronomy and astrology; and Laertius declares him to have been the first Greek that foretold eclipses. The yet higher distinction has been claimed for Thales of having introduced among his countrymen the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. But this sublime truth, though connected with no theory of future rewards and punishments, was received in Greece long before his time. Perhaps, however, as the expressions of Cicero indicate, Thales might be the first who attempted to give reasons for what was believed. His reasons were, nevertheless, sufficiently crude and puerile; and having declared it the property of the soul to move itself, and other things, he was forced to give a soul to the loadstone, because it moved iron!

These fantastic doctrines examined, and his geometrical or astronomical discoveries dubious, it may be asked, what did Thales effect for philosophy? Chiefly this: he gave reasons for opinions--he aroused the dormant spirit of inquiry--he did for truths what the legislators of his age did for the people--left them active and stirring to free and vigorous competition. He took Wisdom out of despotism, and placed her in a republic--he was in harmony with the great principle of his age, which was investigation, and not tradition; and thus he became the first example of that great truth-- that to think freely is the first step to thinking well. It fortunately happened, too, that his moral theories, however inadequately argued upon, were noble and exalting. He contended for the providence of a God, as well as for the immortality of man. He asserted vice to be the most hateful, virtue the most profitable of all things [193]. He waged war on that vulgar tenacity of life which is the enemy to all that is most spiritual and most enterprising in our natures, and maintained that between life and death there is no difference--the fitting deduction from a belief in the continuous existence of the soul [194]. His especial maxim was the celebrated precept, "Know thyself." His influence was vigorous and immediate. How far he created philosophy may be doubtful, but he created philosophers. From the prolific intelligence which his fame and researches called into being, sprang a new race of thoughts, which continued in unbroken succession until they begat descendants illustrious and immortal. Without the hardy errors of Thales, Socrates might have spent his life in spoiling marble, Plato might have been only a tenth-rate poet, and Aristotle an intriguing pedagogue.

XVI. With this I close my introductory chapters, and proceed from dissertation into history;--pleased that our general survey of Greece should conclude with an acknowledgment of our obligations to the Ionian colonies. Soon, from the contemplation of those enchanting climes; of the extended commerce and the brilliant genius of the people--the birthplace of the epic and the lyric muse, the first home of history, of philosophy, of art;--soon, from our survey of the rise and splendour of the Asiatic Ionians, we turn to the agony of their struggles--the catastrophe of their fall. Those wonderful children of Greece had something kindred with the precocious intellect that is often the hectic symptom of premature decline. Originating, advancing nearly all which the imagination or the reason can produce, while yet in that social youth which promised a long and a yet more glorious existence--while even their great parent herself had scarcely emerged from the long pupilage of nations, they fell into the feebleness of age! Amid the vital struggles, followed by the palsied and prostrate exhaustion of her Ionian children, the majestic Athens suddenly arose from the obscurity of the past to an empire that can never perish, until heroism shall cease to warm, poetry to delight, and wisdom to instruct the future.


Athens: Its Rise and Fall, Book I. - 29/29

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