Amasis and Thales

Category: Ancient Learning > Paideia > Philosophy in Questions & Answers

1 Introduction

The question-and-answer genre is often framed as a kind of contest. The present text is unique, however, in being a kind of double contest: between an Ethiopian king who raises the questions and the Egyptian king Amasis who answers them; but also between Amasis and the Greek sage Thales, who gives a “better” answer for each quesiton.

2 Translation

[Questions of the Egyptian king Amasis and answers of the Ethiopian king (153a5–13):]

(1) What is the oldest thing? Time.
(2) What is the greatest? The cosmos.
(3) What is the wisest? The truth.
(4) What is the most beautiful? Light.
(5) What is the most common? Death.
(6) What is the most helpful? A god.
(7) What is most harmful? A daemon.
(8) What is the strongest? Fortune.
(9) What is the easiest? The pleasant.

[Thales’ corrections to these answers (153c11–153d15):]

(1) What is the oldest thing?
A god, said Thales, because they are something unoriginated.
(2) What is the greatest?
Space, because everything else is the cosmos, but it contains the cosmos.
(3) What is the most beautiful?
The cosmos, because everything that is well-ordered is part of it.
(4) What is the wisest?
Time, because it has either already discovered1 or will discover all things.
(5) What is the most common?
Hope, because even those who have nothing else posses it.
(6) What is the most helpful?
Virtue, because it makes everything else helpful by using it nobly.
(7) What is the most harmful?
Vice, because it harms the greatest number of things when it is present.
(8) What is the strongest?
Necessity, because it alone is invincible.
(9) What is the easiest?
That which is in accordance with nature, because people often get tired of pleasures.

1 Or ‘invented’.

3 Greek text

(1) Τί πρεσβύτατον; χρόνος.
(2) Τί μέγιστον; κόσμος.
(3) Τί σοφώτατον; ἀλήθεια.
(4) Τί κάλλιστον; φῶς.
(5) Τί κοινότατον; θάνατος.
(6) Τί ὠφελιμώτατον; θεός.
(7) Τί βλαβερώτατον; δαίμων.
(8) Τί ῥωμαλεώτατον; τύχη.
(9) Τί ῥᾷστον; ἡδύ.

(1) Τί πρεσβύτατον; θεός, ἔφη Θαλῆς· ἀγέννητον γάρ ἐστι.
(2) Τί μέγιστον; τόπος· τἄλλα μὲν γὰρ ὁ κόσμος, τὸν δὲ κόσμον οὗτος περιέχει.
(3) Τί κάλλιστον; κόσμος· πᾶν γὰρ τὸ κατὰ τάξιν τούτου μέρος ἐστί.
(4) Τί σοφώτατον; χρόνος· τὰ μὲν γὰρ εὕρηκεν οὗτος ἤδη, τὰ δ’ εὑρήσει.
(5) Τί κοινότατον; ἐλπίς· καὶ γὰρ οἷς ἄλλο μηδέν, αὕτη πάρεστι.
(6) Τί ὠφελιμώτατον; ἀρετή· καὶ γὰρ τἄλλα τῷ χρῆσθαι καλῶς ὠφέλιμα ποιεῖ.
(7) Τί βλαβερώτατον; κακία· καὶ γὰρ τὰ πλεῖστα βλάπτει παραγενομένη.
(8) Τί ἰσχυρότατον; ἀνάγκη· μόνον γὰρ ἀνίκητον.
(9) Τί ῥᾷστον; τὸ κατὰ φύσιν, ἐπεὶ πρὸς ἡδονάς γε πολλάκις ἀπαγορεύουσιν.