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Some Original Sources for Modern Tales of Thales - The Tales of the Olive Presses and of the Well

Michael Molinsky (University of Maine at Farmington)

The Tale of the Olive Presses

One of the most commonly repeated stories about Thales is that, in order to prove the value of learning and philosophy, he made himself rich by controlling access to olive presses needed after the harvest.  The story can be traced all the way back to the Greek philosopher Aristotle (384 – 322 BCE), who details it in Book I, Section 11 of his work Politics [2, pp. 1997-1998]:

There is the anecdote of Thales the Milesian and his financial scheme, which involves a principle of universal application, but is attributed to him on account of his reputation for wisdom.  He was reproached for his poverty, which was supposed to show that philosophy was of no use.  According to the story, he knew by his skill in the stars while it was yet winter that there would be a great harvest of olives in the coming year; so, having a little money, he gave deposits for the use of all the olive-presses in Chios and Miletus, which he hired at a low price because no one bid against him.  When the harvest-time came, and many were wanted all at once and of a sudden, he let them out at any rate which he pleased, and made a quantity of money.  Thus he showed the world that philosophers can easily be rich if they like, but that their ambition is of another sort.  He is supposed to have given a striking proof of his wisdom, but as I was saying, his scheme for getting wealth is of universal application, and is nothing but the creation of a monopoly.  It is an art often practiced by cities when they are in want of money; they make a monopoly of provisions.

While some modern sources aimed at general audiences do mention Aristotle as the original source of the story, they rarely seem to repeat his obvious skepticism.  He points out that the concept of a monopoly was well known, and suggests that the entire story was being attributed to Thales simply based on his reputation as a wise man. 

As Aristotle indicates, Thales had a wide-ranging reputation for wisdom in the ancient Greek world and beyond, which led to his name being used in much the same way that the name “Einstein” is used in popular media today: as a generic term used in conversation to indicate a smart person.  For example, in the play The Birds, the Greek playwright Aristophanes (c. 446 – c. 386 BCE) had one character exclaim, “Why, the man’s a Thales!" [9, p. 229].  Similarly, the Roman playwright Titus Maccius Plautus (c. 254 – 184 BCE), in his work The Rope, has one character sarcastically tell another, “Hello, there, you Thales" [12, p.71].

The Tale of the Well

While the story of the olive presses emphasized the supposed real-world applications of the wisdom of Thales, the common tale of Thales and the well presents the opposite story, one of practical problems associated with too much learning.  The oldest existing source for this story is the dialogue Theatetetus written by Plato (c. 429 – c. 347 BCE) [4, pp. 301-302]:

Socrates: Well, here’s an instance: they say Thales was studying the stars, Theodorus, and gazing aloft, when he fell into a well; and a witty and amusing Thracian servant-girl made fun of him because, she said, he was wild to know about what was up in the sky but failed to see what was in front of him and under his feet.

While of course it is perfectly possible that Thales really did fall down a well because he was watching the stars rather than the ground, it seems a bit more probable that Plato simply invented the story in order to make a point.  As we’ve already seen, Thales had a wide reputation in the ancient world, and so it would make sense for Plato to select his very recognizable name to use in a story of a philosopher too absorbed in learning for his own good.

Michael Molinsky (University of Maine at Farmington), "Some Original Sources for Modern Tales of Thales - The Tales of the Olive Presses and of the Well," Convergence (November 2015)