Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.05.40 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.05.40

Georg Wöhrle, Richard McKirahan (ed.), The Milesians: Thales. Translation and additional material by Richard McKirahan. Traditio Praesocratica, 1.   Berlin; Boston:  De Gruyter, 2014.  Pp. vi, 710.  ISBN 9783110315103.  €169.95.  

Reviewed by Irini F. Viltanioti, University of Oxford (

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Thales of Miletus (c. 620-546 BCE) was thought of as the first Greek philosopher: Aristotle, in the Metaphysics (983b19 ff.), famously celebrates him as the founder of natural philosophy. He was a mathematician and astronomer, and a polymath interested in almost every branch of knowledge. A child of Ionia highly appreciated by his contemporaries and posterity, who included him among the so-called Seven Sages, Thales posited, like his fellow co-citizens Anaximander and Anaximenes did later, one material principle (arche) of all things. According to the tradition, Thales’ arche, or bedrock on which every systematic account of reality should be built, was water, a material he considered to be endowed with the capacity to change into all other things within the natural cosmos.

If Thales put his thought into writing, nothing survives. There are a great number of testimonies preserved in the work of authors from the sixth century BCE onwards, but until recently, there has been no complete collection of this evidence. One could, of course, refer to the standard edition of H. Diels and W. Kranz, which, nevertheless, leaves important evidence aside as a result of Hermann Diels’ reconstructive selection of the material. Georg Wöhrle’s edition was the first attempt to collect all the extant evidence in Greek, Latin, and Arabic, which was then presented in conjunction with a German translation.1 The English-speaking reader who needed access to a translation had only a handful of options, which included selected Greek testimonies translated in English.2 This situation has constituted a serious hindrance to gaining further knowledge on Thales and to the development of Presocratic studies more generally.3

Georg Wöhrle’s and Richard McKirahan’s book masterfully fills this gap, by offering to the English-speaking scholarly community the most complete collection ever of the documentary evidence on Thales of Miletus. For this purpose, the texts, some six hundred of them, collected by Wöhrle and included in his 2009 edition are enriched with further evidence, the whole being presented in chronological order and with a facing English translation. The additional material and translation of the Greek are by Richard McKirahan, while Ahmed Alwishah is responsible for the translation of the Arabic and Arash Khazeni has contributed by translating the Persian. The book is divided into three parts: after a brief preface by Richard McKirahan, the first part is a helpful introduction, which sets the scholarly framework of the collection. The edition of the Greek, Latin, and Syro-Arabic texts and their English translation constitute the second and main part of the book, which is followed by a rich and detailed Appendix and End Material. The volume belongs to the Traditio Praesocratica Series, which provides textual evidence on Early Greek philosophy and its reception, and is elegantly presented by Walter de Gruyter.

The introduction is a revised English translation by Merryl Rebello of the German original. It is divided into three parts. In the first part, Georg Wöhrle draws attention to the fact that his edition represents a shift of focus “from re-reconstruction”, which is the approach of Diels and Kranz, “to the genesis of construction” (p. 2). Far from being one more reconstruction of what may have been Thales’ authentic thoughts, the present publication focuses on the testimonies concerning both the philosopher’s doctrine and its posterity, seeking “to document the history of (the adaptive) reception as it can be traced from the earlier extant evidence through the late Middle Ages” (pp. 2-3), and this without “obstructing further reconstructive efforts” (p. 6). Its scope is then essentially different from that of the standard Greek edition. Importantly, Wöhrle rightly underlines the methodological dangers of this approach, from difficulties related to the dating of the material to what is, to some extent, an arbitrary selection of testimonies, in which the mention of Thales’ names is the criterion. The second part of the introduction, by Gotthard Strohmaier, deals with the Islamic reception of Greek philosophy and of the Presocratics more especially. It contains a critical reassessment of the current state of research, while also shedding light on the specificities shared by the testimonies on the Presocratics in Arabic. This illuminating chapter offers not only a solid and erudite framework for the Syro-Arabic texts included in the volume but original and valuable discussion of a topic that has been understudied and on which much work still remains to be done. The third part of the introduction contains practical guidelines, which facilitate access to the material presented in the volume. The introduction as a whole successfully sets the basis of the edition and helpfully instructs the reader on how to make correct use of it.

As mentioned above, in the second part of the book, the Greek, Latin, and Syro-Arabic material (Georg Wöhrle’s collection, enriched with 23 new testimonia, of which four are previously unknown papyrus texts) is presented in chronological order with facing English translation. Testimonia of uncertain date as well as scholia, which are roughly datable, form two distinct groups of their own at the end of the collection. The original texts are taken from the most accurate recent editions. One notices the absence of critical apparatus, but this choice may not be a great loss: given the number of the testimonies, the addition of a critical apparatus would significantly increase the size of this already voluminous collection and would therefore hinder its use. As it is, the reader can easily refer to the editions that have been used and which are grouped according to author in the bibliography. The sources have been meticulously translated into clear and precise English, which respects the spirit and the structure of the original languages. Discrepancies between Wöhrle’s German translation and McKirahan’s English translation are acknowledged in footnotes. Latin and Arabic texts have been inserted when they contain material that is not available in the Greek tradition or when they include significant textual variants. The testimonies are provisionally prefaced by short introductions on their author and his work, which facilitate further research into the context of the presented material. In addition to the chronological approach, the reader can also trace a thematic path by means of an apparatus noting similia that links testimonia dealing with similar topics. Furthermore, frequent bibliographical notes orientate the reader with respect to the current state of research on specific subjects discussed in the testimonies. Overall, the rich and complex material under consideration is selected according to clearly determined criteria and organised in a methodologically exemplary way, which is one of the strongest points of this edition.

Moreover, the book is supplemented with a Subject Index, and Index of Names of Persons, Peoples, and Places as well as with Greek-English, Latin-English, Arabic-English and Persian-English Indexes to the translation, and English-Greek/Latin, English-Arabic and English-Persian Glossaries. It also features a useful concordance with Diels-Kranz, a Catalogue of Testimonia, an Index of Authors and an exhaustive Bibliography containing the various editions of the primary sources used for the collection as well as the relevant secondary literature. This end material, which takes the form of a lengthy appendix, significantly facilitates the use of the collection. It is also indicative of the rigorous work the new edition stems from and of the quality of the volume at hand.

In conclusion, Georg Wöhrle and Richard McKirahan’s book fulfils its aim in the best possible way. It presents the most complete ever collection of testimonies on Thales of Miletus in a manner that is solidly argued, methodologically excellent, and easily accessible to the reader, who may profit not only from the richness of the material but also from the insightful introduction and up-to-date bibliographical orientation. This volume is thus a valuable contribution to the field of Presocratic studies and of Hellenic Studies more generally, and an indispensable tool for both philologists and philosophers and, further, for all those interested in the classical tradition. Bearing in mind the difference is scope, it should undoubtedly be considered as the most accurate and most useful edition of Thales’ evidence.


1.   Georg Wöhrle, Die Milesier. Thales. Herausgegeben von Georg Wöhrle; mit einem Beitrag von Gotthard Strohmaier (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2009).
2.   M. Schofield, G. S. Kirk and J. E. Raven, The Presocratic Philosophers (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983); R. D. McKirahan, Philosophy before Socrates: an Introduction with Texts and Commentary, 2nd ed. (Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co., 2010).
3.   As a result, there has been, to my knowledge, only one comprehensive study on Thales in English, which, however, does not take into account the evidence in its entirety: P. O’Grady, Thales of Miletus: the Beginnings of Western Science and Philosophy (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002).

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