In Thales' wake

The governing Five Star Movement aspires to establish technological domination, along the lines of Thales of Miletus. For this to happen, however, an all-encompassing vision is required, which the Italian party doesn’t have, writes Alessio Colonnelli, translator and commentator on European political and social affairs.

There was a solar eclipse on 28 May 585 B.C., 2605 years ago today. Thales of Miletus managed to predict it, having ascertained that the Earth was round. And today, the Ionic scholar also comes to mind because of his approach, which you can spot looming large in the Italian political arena.

In the sixth century, Thales put together an unprecedented form of practical and technological knowledge – a new type of rationality. Mario Vegetti, eminent historian of philosophy, said that Thales’ approach was “of fundamental importance, despite the relative roughness of the hypotheses he formulated.” Some trips to Asia Minor and Egypt helped the thinker expand his already remarkable mathematical skills.

According to Aristotle, Thales also put his knowledge to work with the aim of getting rich. Thanks to some calculations of his, he was able to foresee an abundant year for the olive harvest; and so, this genius of Phoenician origin decided to invest in oil mills, which he then resold at a considerable profit.

This techno-scientific and aggressive course of action was a typical example of the Ionic wise men’s stance towards nature – put it straight to work. From some, often in-depth observations, universal principles were drawn. The gods were ‘snatched’ from the temples and identified with nature, which was eviscerated for its innermost secrets; the aristocratic-sacerdotal class, which up until then had monopolized religion, struggled with all this. Thales and his people were revolutionaries; and the ambition of the Five Star Movement (M5S) is very much the same.

In all probability, the thinker of Miletus did not write any systematic work; the organic unity of his thought was likely inflated by those who wrote about him in the following decades and centuries. What’s certain is that Thales was also a cunning political advisor. But in any case, as far as his overall path is concerned, our knowledge of it is only second or even third hand.

On the other hand, Italians’ knowledge of M5S is very direct – political action has been crude and unscrupulous. A full-on experience. “Ionic,” you could call it. We’ve been witnessing for over a decade now, how the party places all its bets on the use of the Internet. Direct democracy must bypass representative democracy, in their view, by means of laptops and smartphones. These would enable citizens to express themselves without noxious intermediaries, i.e. the wasteful parliamentarians in Rome viewed by M5S as the privileged aristocratic priestly caste of Magna Graecia – as if nothing else’s happened in the last two millennia.

Thales had successfully made a totem of numerical calculus; similarly, Five Star invoke the god of computer science as the solver of all evils. Yet something is missing in their message of progress. Italy’s pupils, for example, cannot go back to school, not even in the areas spared or nearly so by the coronavirus (Sardinia, northeastern Alps, etc.); not even for a few hours a week, or perhaps outdoors as a primary school in Ivrea, the only one though in the whole country, has been testing. Meanwhile, everything else is reopening.

And so, teaching lies there on the world wide web – dry. Many kids are left behind; although no one will be failed this year, according to the Education minster. It’s chaotic. Shouldn’t technology and meritocracy go hand in hand? Why neglect education, a key area in each and every competing country on the entire planet?

By dint of observation, the enterprising Thales firmly set his civilisation’s focus on a number of areas. He put things in order. He strove, as Aristotle noted, to grasp the permanent substratum of which all things are made. He is remembered because he succeeded in developing an overall vision that Five Star, now eclipsing, completely lack.


  • Alessio Colonnelli is an Italian freelance translator, writer and commentator on European political and social affairs, and a contributor to publications that include The New Statesman, The Independent, Prospect Magazine, the Huffington Post (UK), Foreign Policy and Politico Europe. His regularly updated blog, Thoughts on Europe, can be found here.

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