The Problem of Thales


In Borges’ “The Rose of Paracelsus,” a would-be disciple arrives around twilight at the home of the master Paracelsus. He empties his purse of gold coins upon the table and begs to be taken on as pupil. “I am ready to walk that Path with you, even if we must walk for many years. Allow me to cross the desert. Allow me to glimpse, even from afar, the promised land, though the stars prevent me from setting foot upon it. All I ask is a proof before we begin the journey.” Proof? Paracelsus explains that the instinct for proof belongs to credulous minds. The would-be disciple is persistent. He urges Paracelsus to toss a rose into the fire and reconstitute it from its ashes with a word. But the master replies that destruction as such is impossible in paradise; that humanity dwells in paradise; that the only original sin is the failure to recognize our Eden. The young man is beyond instruction. He throws the rose into the flames and watches it wither into a pinch of ash. When the awaited miracle fails to materialize, he withdraws in shame. “Paracelsus was then alone. Before putting out the lamp and returning to his weary chair, he poured the delicate fistful of ashes from one hand into the concave other, and he whispered a single word. The rose appeared again.”

Perhaps Borges was thinking about the story of “The Taoist Priest of Lao-Shan” by Pu Songling, the famous storyteller of the Qing Dynasty. In this tale, a Mr. Wang, the seventh son in an old family, travels to Lao-Shan to be instructed in the “mysterious doctrine” practiced by a Taoist monk. The monk is skeptical that this would-be disciple can endure the “fatigue” of the Path. But he sends Mr. Wang out along with the other followers to cut firewood in the precincts of the monastery. “Wang respectfully obeyed, continuing to work for over a month until his hands and feet were so swollen and blistered that he secretly meditated returning home.” But one evening he witnesses his master performing a number of miracles — dining with spirits, setting up a paper moon that shone like the real moon, transforming a chopstick into a dancing girl — that redoubles Mr. Wang’s faith in the monk. But he can scarcely bear more wood chopping. Eventually, he demands to learn at least one magical art before returning home. Which one? “Well, I have noticed that whenever you walk about anywhere, walls and so on are no obstacle to you. Teach me this, and I’ll be satisfied.” And the monk really does teach Mr. Wang how to walk through walls; and not to go at them slowly, either, but to rush them with all his might. Mr. Wang speeds right through the walls of the monastery. Delighted, when he gets home he brags to his friends and family about his new magical prowess. They don’t believe him. When he careens at a wall at full speed, head down, he slams straight against the brick and falls into a heap on the floor. A bump on his forehead as large as a big egg. Mr. Wang is angry and ashamed, and he curses his old master.

Borges observes: “The reader should not forget that the Chinese, given their superstitious nature, tend to read these stories as if they were real events.”


* * *


The Borges and Pu Songling stories have a moral. In neither piece does the master teach the path to wealth. Paracelsus looked with indifference on the gold coins brought by his disciple, who stammered: “These coins merely symbolize my desire to join you in your work.” And as for Mr. Wang, he came from a wealthy and ancient family; he loathed the months of chopping firewood, work to which he was quite unaccustomed. His monk was poor, scarcely able to provide a full kettle of wine during the night of his revels (of course the kettle proved inexhaustible). Nor does the Path lead to glory. Paracelsus was famous, but the burghers of Basel despised him and thought him a fraud. Mr. Wang, who “went about bragging of his Taoist friends and his contempt for walls in general,” was humiliated by those very bricks when he attempted to make good on his boast. Most importantly, the Path does not lead to power, at least not in the ordinary sense. Paracelsus denied the capacity to destroy so much as a rose; his tools were not the alembics and the instruments his disciple expected, but merely the Word. The Taoist monk followed a life of ascetic denial, a life of monastic isolation and prayer, so that he could enjoy... imaginary revels with invisible beings.

What, then, did the disciples seek at the feet of their masters? In the case of Mr. Wang, the answer is obvious. At first he spoke piously of “the doctrine.” But by the end of the story, after months of hacking away at trees with his axe, he admitted that he was after the secret of immortality that Taoist monks were reputed to possess. Immortality! The aims of the anonymous visitor of Paracelsus were less clear: he wanted to walk that path that led to the Stone. When it became apparent that the disciple had no idea what he was talking about, Paracelsus began to speak about immortality — of the earth, of the world and all its contents. “I tell you that the rose is eternal, and that only its appearances may change.” The foolish pupil was convinced that everything was mortal. He hurled the rose into the fires, which promptly burned it to ashes as though to confirm his credulity.

Paracelsus and the Taoist monk had none of the usual prizes on offer, let alone immortality. What they possessed was a kind of knowledge whose end was no more (and no less) than the transformation of the self. It was the divine Word, “that instrument used by the deity to create the heavens and the earth and invisible paradise in which we exist, but which original sin hides from us.” It unveils the eyes of the soul and lets us into the Eden; it leads us out of the darkness of semblances and into the world of light. But it was an ordeal. Paracelsus was weary, very weary. The Path was arduous. “Did I not say it would be hard?” asked the Taoist monk of Mr. Wang.


* * *


Borges and Pu Songling were great sorters and sifters of the past, reconditioners of the detritus of civilization. And they had a massive dustheap of sages at their disposal. Throughout the Old World, since early antiquity, these figures awed, frightened, or angered those who encountered them. Some were occupational specialists, whose mastery of a secret body of knowledge granted them not only technical knowledge, but other powers besides — for instance, the blacksmiths of West Africa. Then there were experts of ritual whose profound knowledge of human and divine affairs sustained the order of things, the harmony of the world. These were the historians of ancient China, the priestly classes of Egypt or Babylon, perhaps the Celtic bards. But the most ubiquitous, and the most seditious, of the sages were the mystics.

Sufis are among the most renowned of mystics. To begin with, they wrote poetry: always a perilous activity. They whirled, they had ecstatic breaks, they lost consciousness of the world. Some of them could see the dead. Men collected their finger-nail parings or worshipped at their graves. No wonder Sufis were dangerous to the state.

The arch-rationalist Ibn Khaldun did not neglect Sufi mysticism in his handbook of Islamic history. Sufism appears as one of the sciences, sandwiched between speculative theology and the interpretation of dreams. He explains that their doctrines about the oneness of God with his Creation is “strange,” even more so than the Christian notion of the incarnation. Then Ibn Khladun examines the Sufi idea of “absolute oneness,” which he deems even stranger. But just as he brings readers to the brink of exasperation, Ibn Khaldun begins to make sense for his readers: “It appears that what the Sufis say about oneness is actually similar to what the philosophers say about colors, namely, that their existence is predicated upon light.” He goes on to explain that most of what Sufis say and do is perfectly legitimate: their ecstasies, their self-scrutiny, their experience of the supernatural, their apprehension of higher things after sloughing off the veil of earthly perception: these pursuits are the essence of happiness. Sufism was not for everybody, though. Theirs was a narrow path: hatred of the splendors of the world, abstinence from pleasure, indifference to property and social position, retirement into the solitude of prayer. Choices scarcely comprehensible to ordinary men; choices which not only did not bring Sufis any of the great prizes of the world, but could not even be comprehended on the world’s terms. And yet, despite the enmity of the jurists and the muftis: the essence of happiness.

The mystic often appears as the world-denying humbug counterpart to a scholarly or priestly caste more disposed to lend its services to the powers that be. He appears as the inevitably subversive complement of the secular clergy, the Ulema, the Confucian. Ripe for sociological or anthropological analysis, or a dose of historical materialism. But what if there is no world-affirming alternative to mystical ecstasy?

The ancient Aryans left us almost no material traces of their existence. No cities, no chariots or weaponry, no rich burials. What they left was a vast corpus of texts expounding their religious beliefs: the Vedas, revealed to a group of seven seers. Other seers, or rishi, dwelt in the Forest of Cedars. They lived there in crude huts apart from all society, contemplating, meditating, practicing tapas. The act of thinking unleashed light and heat; “the rishis with their tapas were capable of destroying entire stretches of the cosmos.”

The rishis, at once human and divine, were not at all deft at conducting their earthly affairs. They were incompetent and even rude. They had bouts of volcanic ferocity, readily succumbing to a fury that had accumulated like bank interest during eons of meditation. After an intrigue involving their wives, they hounded down Siva and drove him to castration. They spent a lot of time fulfilling rituals but were not accustomed to domestic niceties. Sometimes, when performing sacrifices, the mere sight of a woman was enough to provoke ejaculation. They not only confused themselves in cultivating their esoteric knowledge. Somehow they succeeded in involving the gods (always of delicate ontology) in their confusion as well.

The ancient Aryans hardly bothered with material affairs, or even with defending their sovereignty. They refrained from dominion over men or nature and sought only to learn how to think like the rishis. They wanted to cultivate their knowledge, however esoteric, however dangerous. According to Roberto Calasso: “One becomes what one knows: that was the premise of the rishis." And the rishis were immortal.


* * *


From time to time men of power or wealth have indulged in the search for immortality, and never more so than in recent centuries. Often the quest took the form of a magical art, the consumption of certain herbs or the performance of certain rituals. It was available to whoever had the gumption to search for the requisite ingredients or the money to finance the business. And it was very old.

A couple of years after Qin Shi Huang succeeded in uniting China under his rule in 221 BC, he ascended Mt. Tai and set up a stone monument reciting his achievements at some length, but which may be summarized in one verse: “All under heaven are of one mind, single in will.” On the way down Mt. Tai, he was caught in a storm; he enfeoffed the tree that sheltered him with the fifth rank of counselor. What then? Well, he rambled about the Empire for a few months erecting stones of his accomplishments. Several subjects submitted a memorandum observing that “in the midst of the sea were three spirit mountains named Penglai, Fangzhang, and Yingzhou, with immortals living on them. They asked that they be allowed to fast and purify themselves and to go with a group of young boys and girls to search for them.” The Emperor ordered thousands of children to set out to sea to search for the immortals under the leadership of Xu Fu.

Other expeditions followed. Some courtiers explained to His Majesty that “some entity” was blocking their efforts. “The magic arts teach that the ruler of men should at times move about in secret so as to avoid evil spirits. If evil spirits are avoided, one can reach the status of True Man. If the whereabouts of the ruler of men are known to his ministers, this hinders his spiritual power.” The Emperor accordingly built a network of secret passages so as to achieve the status of a True Man, who incidentally was also capable of passing through fire without getting burned or soaring through the heavens. There were rumors that his ministers were spending lavish sums on the search for immortality, with little to show. But the enterprising Xu Fu again convinced the Emperor to fund an expedition, this time with military personnel for attacking the “huge fish” that prowled the waters around Penglai Island. Xu Fu never returned. He discovered a realm of “flat plains and wide swamps,” whereof he declared himself king. Meanwhile, the First Emperor was dying. He succumbed at the Ping Terrace in Sand Hill, and his increasingly fetid body was secreted back to the capital by carriage. There he was interred in an immense death-palace that flowed with rivers of mercury and was defended by an army of terracotta soldiers.

How many more or less useless adventures has humanity undertaken, to more or less exotic places, in its quest for immortality? Francis Bacon for one was not impressed. He thought the ages of philosophizing had been rich in “barking disputations” but barren of fruit; productive of new schools with slavish devotion to their masters, but incapable of penetrating the secrets of nature. Bacon’s experimental principles are well known: he wanted a philosophy capable of commanding nature, torturing it, squeezing and molding it out of its normal state by the hand of man. Like Paracelsus and the Taoist monk, this knowledge was not to serve the base purposes of profit, power, or fame; but nor was it to serve to transform the self. It was for “the benefit and use of life.”

The New Atlantis tells us by way of fable what Bacon had in mind. In this technocratic utopia, a secretive institution called Salomon’s House conducted an arduous research program whose central mission was “the enlarging of the bounds of Human Empire, to the effecting of all things possible.” The curing of diseases and the indefinite prolongation of life were its chief goals. Immortality, even. Bacon proposed a kind of restored Eden, a postlapsarian paradise in this fallen world. For it was not the inquisition and exploitation of nature that led to the Fall: “it was the ambitious and proud desire of moral knowledge to judge of good and evil.” Bacon cared not a whit for that.

So Bacon did not abandon the dream of immortality that the First Emperor and countless charlatans had chased in the esoteric disciplines whose real purpose was action on the self, not the body. He merely proposed a new method, a novum organum: modern science. Nor did he abandon the esotericism. Salomon’s House is often glossed as the precursor of the modern research university; it is rather a scientific cult or sect. “And this we do also: we have consultations, which of the inventions and experiences which we have discovered shall be published, and which not: and take all an oath of secrecy, for the concealing of those which we think fit to keep secret: though some of those we do reveal sometimes to the state, and some not.”


* * *


One winter the people of Miletus had been mocking Thales for the uselessness of his philosophy, which left him in poverty. This scorn of Thales is itself astonishing. In few places, in few times would anybody dare to question the excogitations of a sage, much less on grounds of utility. The sage’s operations are almost by definition otherworldly and unprofitable. Even more surprising is Thales’ reply. Now, Thales realized that his astronomy need not be idle knowledge. The stars told him that the upcoming olive harvest would be a bumper. He scrounged together a little money while the frost still lay over the land and, before anybody else thought to bid on them, leased all the olive presses in Miletus and Chios for the coming year. When the harvest came and the trees were thick with olives, Thales rented out his presses at exorbitant prices that farmers had no choice but to pay. “He collected a lot of money, showing that philosophers could easily become wealthy if they wished, but that this was not their concern.”

Aristotle found in this story the principle of monopoly: if you are the only seller of a good, you will make a killing. The Renaissance knew Thales primarily as the discoverer of water as the fundamental principle of all things. As Vico remarked: “Thales began with too simple a principle: water; perhaps because he had seen gourds grow on water.” For moderns, Thales is the man who founded philosophy by attempting to explain the world without recourse to the gods: a quixotic project when we in the twenty-first century A.D. can scarcely do without the gods. The lesson is a simple one, however: moral virtue, the prestige of philosophy, and monopoly were all born in the same year, in Miletus, in the early sixth century before Christ.

There was another birth that year, less remarked upon but as important as the others: the birth of techne, that is, the manipulation of esoteric knowledge for the purpose of material gain. It appears that Thales, busy calculating the futures market in olives, did not reflect on what conclusions less high-minded citizens might draw from his action. Namely, that there was no connection between knowledge and virtue. Philosophy could be a tool like any other and used for whatever purpose one wished: for profit, for power. Philosophers could be used, too. It is a lesson that businessmen and politicians wasted no time in learning, and that the tyrants of history mastered with a special relish. They did not reveal their secret. They recruited philosophers to publicize the merits of their wealth or power; they paid them respectable wages as officials and managers.

Thales was the only one of the Seven Wise Men who did not found a state. He devoted himself to physics and the investigation of nature: scientifically admirable, but foolish. His colleagues realized forthwith the world-destroying powers of Logos without virtue. As legislators they are renowned for their wisdom, which consisted of making their polities into machines for producing virtue. Solon did not justify his laws. Instead he proclaimed them in public tablets at the center of Athens for citizens to inscribe them in their minds. Nor did he brook discussion of them: he left the city for fifteen years so that nobody would ask him to change even the least of them. Chilion, who well understood Lycurgus’ dream, sharpened the military rigor of the Spartans and outlawed any effeminizing pleasures from the state. Bias was the leading citizen of Priene and used his oratory to keep evil at bay. He is most famous for his maxim, All men are bad. And these were the very men to whom Thales entrusted the fruits of techne.

Thales was the only one of the Seven Wise Men not to found a state. He was also the only one to found a science.


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The modern entrepreneur is the most cunning students of Thales. He amasses astronomical wealth while paying (in descending order) the doctors, the number crunchers, the lawyers, and the engineers enough to claw onto upper-middle class respectability. Those adepts who retain the title of philosopher — the scholars and the scientists — are paid even less, although they are no doubt satisfied with the dignity of their poverty. We are all disciple of Thales. Some of us are better paid than others.

Joseph Schumpeter does not discuss Thales in his History of Economic Analysis. If he did, he would have had this to say: “Thales of Miletus (c.624-c.546 BC) was a philosopher famed for attempting a material account of existence. Aristotle called him the discoverer of the principle of monopoly when he used his astronomical knowledge to forecast the harvest, leased all the olive presses of the realm, and in due time exacted rents when farmers had no recourse but to his presses when their crop came up. Needless to say, this charming tale of Thales proves nothing for the history of analysis, whatever it might say to the historian of culture, and for our purpose Aristotle remains the first analyst of monopoly of whom we have notice.”

And yet, Schumpeter devoted a number of passages throughout his History to esoteric knowledge. Economics as a science has "never attained a logically consistent architecture — it is a tropical forest, not a building erected according to a blueprint." Hence the dangers of ham-fisted appropriations. He observes that the use of a specialized language incomprehensible to the layman is one of the indices of the development of a science, then adds: "Economists in particular, much to the detriment of their field, have attached unreasonable importance to being understood by the general public, and this public even now displays equally unreasonable resentment toward any attempt to adopt a more rational practice." The rational practice Schumpeter had in mind was the strict segregation of theoretical economics within an institutional and intellectual milieu, with an analytic vocabulary and formal notation proper to itself and alien to the layman. We are told time and again that pure economics ought not have any practical application; that it is a precinct of scientific curiosity and nothing more. This principle led Schumpeter to ferocious indictments of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, and the host of nineteenth-century liberals zealous about spreading the faith. It is not too much to say that Schumpeter would have chastised Thales for revealing a secret of the profession to ordinary, and avaricious, Milesians and Chiosians.


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The cardinal sin of esoteric knowledge is its uselessness, not its falsity. Proof is the scorn which everybody evinces toward knowledge that acts only on the mind, that transforms the self but nothing else. We all know the instinctive horror with which one shrinks from the adepts of esoterica. One is disgusted by their lack of respectability — possibly moral, likely financial, certainly intellectual. They are the sort of people who participate in obscure online blogs. They are the pseudoscientists, the devotees of homeopathy or spirits; but also the amateur artists, the cracked philosophers, and the dilettante naturalists. All those for whom the market can spare neither an hour nor a dime. One presumes, in a generous mood, that their excesses result in some transformation of the self. It certainly does not result in money.

Meanwhile, Thales and Bacon have deepened their researches into the nature of things. The project is still immortality — of the self, of the body, of the social order, of the species, of the planet. Progress is measured obsessively and quantified whenever possible. Reports are often sobering: we have a long way to go. And the project is performed in the public eye to the highest degree. Scrutiny begins in childhood, in the elementary-school tests that measure one’s aptitude for mathematics. It continues throughout our schooling, which is as much a system of credentialing as of pedagogy. And it finishes in the public world of basic science and government grants, of big corporate laboratories and patents. Progress is not so much commoditized in our world as hardened into the skeletal structure of modern society.

All of our sciences are founded upon the immutability of humankind. Not merely upon the predictability of our actions, but above all, on the stability of our biological, intellectual, and moral nature. Only society and technology change: these are our gods, who alone are changeable and for whose transformation we labor mightily. And we are warned constantly, until our ears are deaf with the clanging of swords and our vision is darkened by the deluge of blood, of the dangers that society and technology pose to the individual. Of the violence they do to the planet, the species, the body, and — especially — the self.

Neither Paracelsus nor the monk from Lao-Shan would have been surprised by a world in which the pursuit of material progress was encoded in the social order. But they would have been troubled. They knew, instinctively and also philosophically, the potential (even hunger) for destruction that lurks in every society. The Greek sages realized as much when they made virtue central to their polities. All masters subordinated the means of wisdom — science — to the ends: virtue. For this reason, the pursuit of wisdom in the long antiquity of humankind took the form of excruciating exercises or arduous ordeals whose profit was invisible to the uninitiated. Only Thales, in one of his bad hours, let slip the secret that knowledge need not obey the dictates of virtue. It served self-interest just as readily. Bacon made it serve the social interest, too.

But sages have always known that any empire worthy of humanity could only be ruled by virtue. Wen the Filial, the fifth emperor of the Han Dynasty, reluctantly assumed the Mandate of Heaven following two decades of instability. He had plenty of political techne at his disposal with which to oppress his subjects, terrorize his enemies, and engross his treasury: Confucianism and legalism. Instead, like the monk from Lao-Shan, he tread the Taoist path of non-action (wu wei). In his decrees he often lamented his lack of virtue and his specific failings. Yet this modest monarch granted a general amnesty throughout the empire, ended collective punishment and penal mutilations, and fostered the arts of agriculture and industry. Here is how he begins an edict concerning defense against the warlike tribes at the border of the Empire: “I am without understanding and have been unable to spread virtue abroad, and so I have not brought order and quiet to the lands beyond our borders. Thus the people who dwell in the wastelands that surround China are not at peace in their way of life, while those within our realm labour and find no rest. Both of these faults have come about because my virtue is insufficient and has failed to penetrate to distant regions.” The Emperor himself lived amidst his vast wealth in the utmost simplicity of life.

In telling their stories of the exacting sages, Pu Songling and Borges were directing our attention to the transformative power of their own art: literature. Literature is the realm to which we have banished most of human aspiration: there, the gods of antiquity pursue their unending romps with mortals; there, an infinite profusion of whys resolves itself into a crisp narrative; there, good triumphs over evil — at least sometimes. It is in literature that Emperor Wen the Filial still directs China through his virtue. Escapism? An opiate for the leisure class? A glass bead game? Literature is these things only insofar as it something more: a path to the divinities, a transcendence of the crudities that rule our social and technological order, a transformation of the self.

All too often, writers have viewed their craft as a means for directing society or manipulating tyranny. Their voices can be powerful. Throughout the early years of the Second World War, Ezra Pound prophesied on Fascist radio his social and economic oracles; in the Cantos he celebrated an order of perfect despotism. Then the U.S. Army conquered Italy and sent the poet to a military prison in Pisa. It was there he began to compose the Pisan Cantos:

“Master thyself, then others shall thee beare”
Pull down thy vanity
Thou art a beaten dog beneath the hail,
A swollen magpie in a fitful sun,
Half black half white
Nor knowst’ou wing from tail
Pull down they vanity
How mean they hates
Fostered in falsity,
Pull down they vanity,
Rathe to destroy, niggard in charity,
Pull down they vanity,
I say pull down.

The Army locked Pound in a special cage with security precautions wholly different from most other prisoners. The guards were forbidden to speak with him, as if, like some evil enchanter, he could put a spell on them. Years later, a man who had served guard over Pound for two weeks informed some of the young pups at a lawyers' bar in Texas that, for all their reading, he knew more than they ever would — and he began to talk about China and ideographs, Adams and usury, troubadours and the Medici, and all of the other things he learned about while keeping watch over the man who knew everything. 


Principal Sources
Aristotle, Politics
Francis Bacon, The New Atlantis and the Great Instauration, ed. J. Weinberger
Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions, trans. Hurley
Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Non-Fictions, ed. E. Weinberger
Roberto Calasso, Literature and the Gods
———, Ka
———, Ardore
Katib Chelebi, The Balance of Truth, trans. Lewis
Hugh Kenner, The Pound Era
Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, trans. Rosenthal
Ezra Pound, The Cantos
Songling Pu, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, trans. Giles
Sima Qian, Records of the Grand Historian, trans. Watson
Joseph Schumpeter, The History of Economic Analysis
Giambattista Vico, The New Science