Mesopotamian Enki or Ea, Egyptian Nun and Greek Okeanos are all primordial gods, and each of them, even in mythical guise, plainly represents water.” What Thales did was to concentrate on “the rational common essence of Enki, Nun and Okeanos as an actual world constituent.”21 Or, more guardedly: “It is possible” that Thales “endorsed the oriental conception of a primeval ocean from which all life came from.”22
The primary reason why water was chosen is theological. Physiological and astronomic reasons could have been contributing factors. The reason for a choice of any arche is a dissatisfaction with traditional Greek religion with its plethora of quarreling gods capable of most unseemly deeds, gods that frequently elicited anything but an attitude of awe and worship. It was common to assume that what made the gods gods was primarily their deathlessness. They were generated but eternal. By extending this eternity to the past, a concept of true divinity is created. Only as truly eternal can such divinity be the source of everything else. These two attributes – eternity and being an ultimate source – become, for Thales, the characteristics of the ultimate principle of the universe. By choosing eternity, Thales uses the traditional attribute of the divine. Being the ultimate source, on the other hand, is an attribute signiﬁcantly extending the traditional view of the divine. In traditional mythology, gods were created. For Thales, the divine is what creates. And by looking at different religions, he chose water for this divine principle. Notwithstanding his interest in practical matters, Thales was primarily of a theoretical mind, a philosopher who extracts from religion a unifying factor. The primacy of theological interests can also be seen in other views attributed to him.
Thales supposed, says Aristotle, “that the soul was something kinetic since he said that the [lode]stone has soul because it moves iron” (De anima 405a19–21 = A22). This statement is an expression of an animistic view of the universe. There is hardly anything more inanimate than a stone, be it a lodestone, and yet, for Thales, even a stone is an animate object.23 Motion observed in everyday life is not a manifestation of mechanistic laws of nature, but an expression of life hidden even in the most lifeless guise. This belief is carried to the extreme in Thales’ statement that “all things are full
21 G.S. Kirk, The Nature of Greek Myths (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1974), p. 295; similarly, Charles H. Kahn, Anaximander and the Origin of Greek Cosmology (New York: Columbia University Press, 1960), p. 200. Cf. a more general statement that “the Greek thinkers … created a method to which they were led by comparison of conclusions reached by ancient civilizations,” Jacques Pirenne, ‘L’Inﬂuence égyptienne sur la philosophie ionienne’, Annuaire de l’Institut de Philologie et d’Histoire Orientales et Slaves 15 (1958–60), p. 81, see also p. 76.
22 H. and H.A. Frankfort, ‘The emancipation of thought from myth’, in H. Frankfort et al., Before Philosophy (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1972 ), p. 253.
23 Slightly more cautiously: the soul is “an analogon of the supposed principle of motion in living [beings],” W.M. Frankl, ‘Thales und der Magnetstein’, Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 35 (1923), p. 155; which may suggest that for Thales, the principle of life and the principle of motion are not necessarily the same.