Thales of Miletus was a renowned polymath who lived from approximately from 620-546 BCE. He delved into many fields of study, making advancements in mathematics, astronomy, meteorology, cosmology and various other forms of science and philosophy. Although very little specific information is known about Thales’ ideas and discoveries, his glowing reputation has survived because of the massive influence he had on philosophers, scholars and scientists who succeeded him. One such famous admirer of Thales was the distinguished philosopher, Aristotle, who recorded many tales about the scholar from Miletus, including one story where Thales made himself a quick fortune just to spite his unkind neighbors.
As the story goes, Thales of Miletus’ scholarly motivations were incredibly pure—he was said to have pursued his studies for the enjoyment of learning and curiosity, instead of a mere desire to profit from his discoveries. Thales’ countrymen, according to Aristotle, teased the philosopher for this characteristic, insinuating that while he had a wise sense for science and philosophy, he contrastingly had no business-sense whatsoever. The comments of these neighbors were so rude and hurtful that Thales reportedly became determined to prove them wrong. Summoning all of his knowledge about weather, nature and economics, Thales quickly developed a scheme that would make him an incredibly wealthy man. Aristotle recorded how the philosopher allegedly made his fortune:
“The story is as follows: people had been saying reproachfully to him that philosophy was useless, as it had left him a poor man. But he, deducing from his knowledge of the stars that there would be a good crop of olives, while it was still winter and he had a little money to spare, used it to pay deposits on all the oil-presses in Miletus and Chios, thus securing their hire. This cost him only a small sum, as there were no other bidders. Then the time of the olive-harvest came, and as there was a sudden and simultaneous demand for oil-presses he hired them out at any price he liked to ask. He made a lot of money, and so demonstrated that it is easy for philosophers to become rich, if they want to; but that is not their object in life. Such is the story of how Thales gave proof of his cleverness” (The Politics, Book I, Bekker page 1259a).
Although such monopolies as the one created by Thales are discouraged and often illegal in the modern day, Aristotle was a great fan of the ploy and touted Thales’s oil-press hustle as an ultimate example of smart moneymaking. No doubt, he also enjoyed the story as an example of a philosopher taking his theoretical knowledge and repurposing it for a pragmatic and profitable use.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Depiction of Thales of Miletus from the Promptuarii Iconum Insigniorum of Guillaume Rouille (1518?-1589), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Politics by Aristotle, translated by T. A. Sinclair and revised by T. J. Saunders. London: Penguin Classics, 1962, 1992.