The essence of water is embodied only in water. But the Principle called “Water” is something different from that essence and it is because of that it can be taken and comprehended not only as the essence of water embodied in water, but also as the [essence] of earth embodied in earth, etc.28

These statements appear to be indebted more to Hegel than to Thales. Water is matter in ordinary physical sense. It is not known how Thales envisioned the process of generating the cosmos. However, by the fact that water is the arche, earth and fire stem from it: physical earth from physical water. And physicality of water does not contradict its divinity. Spiritual gods and spiritual God come later in Greek philosophy: probably with Anaxagoras if the Nous that is separate from matter is considered to be God, but certainly with Plato and Aristotle. In traditional mythology, the gods were as material as everything else, and not infrequently just as carnal, so the physical nature of Thales’ water is in agreement with traditional treatment of the gods.


A philosophical interest in the concept of the divine is continued by Thales’ pupil, Anaximander. On philosophical level, a question is asked not only about the nature of the gods, but also about the nature of the attributes that make them divine in order to make these attributes the philosophical principles of the universe. In other words, whereas the theological step consisted of extracting the essence of divinity, which was immortality, the philosophical step consisted of extracting the essence of immortality, which is infinity – unlimitedness as such, not infinity of time or of existence, but infinity per se. In this way, the process of abstraction leads to the concept of infinity.29 This is a philosophical step made by Anaximander in which lies his greatest achievement and originality.

According to Anaximander, the world arose from the Apeiron, the limitless, the infinity. The Apeiron is the beginning and origin (ἀρχή) of what exists, of heavens, and of the worlds. In the first stage, a generating power (τò γóνɩμoν) is separated from the Apeiron, which produces two opposites: the hot and the cold. The cold is water enveloped in the air or mist (ἀήρ), and the hot becomes a fiery sphere that surrounds the atmosphere (the cold) that envelops the earth like the bark around a tree (A10). The fiery sphere separates from the cold and turns into rotating wheels filled with fire enveloped in mist. The openings in the wheels are seen as heavenly bodies. The cylindrical earth is suspended in the center of the universe (Hippolytus, Ref. 1.6.3–5 = A11, Aetius 2.20.1 = A21, Aristotle, De caelo 295b10–16 = A26).


28 Alexandre Kojève, Essai d’une histoire raisonnée de la philosophie païenne (Paris: Gallimard, 1968), vol. 1, p. 203.

29 Cornford states that “simply an effort of abstraction” led to the Apeiron; but according to him, it was abstracting the Apeiron from Thales’ water rather than from the essence of divinity, F.M. Cornford, From Religion to Philosophy (New York: Harper & Row, 1957 [1912]), p. 145; Uvo Hölscher dismisses a possibility that “the concept [of infinity] could develop from [the concept] of divinity” because seemingly “‘unlimitedness’ appeared to be incompatible with the Greek concept of divinity,” ‘Anaximander und die Anfänge der Philosophie’, Hermes 81 (1953), p. 277; but how can unlimitedness be incompatible with the unlimited existence of the gods?