A witty and attractive Thracian servant-girl is said to have mocked Thales for falling into a well while he was observing the stars and gazing upwards; declaring that he was eager to know the things in the sky, but what was behind him and just by his feet escaped his attention.
- A fragment on Thales from Plato's Theaetetus
Thales is, along with Anaximander, considered to be the first Greek philosopher. He lived in Miletus in Asia Minor in the 6th Century B.C.E., and (according to Baird and Kaufman's Ancient Philosophy) was "a contemporary of the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah, of the Persian prophet Zoroaster, of the Indian sage Gautama Siddhartha (the Buddha), and of the Chinese philosophers Confucius and Lao-Tze." [note: there is little historical evidence that Lao-Tzu (preferred spelling in the Wade-Giles method of transliterating Chinese) actually existed. He was most likely a legendary figure created by early Taoists, but that is for another time.]
In this passage from Plato's Theaetetus we have quite possibly the first ever "absent-minded professor" story. Thales was, by reputation, an excellent astronomer, and it is said that he accurately predicted the solar eclipse of May 23, 585 B.C.E. However, contemplating the nature of the heavenlies is a dangerous hobby, and according to this story, one day while he was staring up at the sky charting the course of the stars Thales fell down a well.
I first heard this story in an Ancient Greek Philosophy course in college, and I loved it immediately. It has become one of my favorite stories, because I can so relate to someone who was so fixated on heaven that they got tripped up on the earth. But I don't just mention it here because it is one of my favorite stories, and I don't just mention it because I think that many of us religious people could learn from Thales' tumble down a well; I mention the story of Thales falling down a well here first and foremost because I think that through looking at this story we can see how we ought to approach all ancient stories, even and especially the ancient stories recorded in our sacred Bible.
It is important to notice what concerns we bring to a story, and what questions we ask of a story. Nothing that was written by Thales has survived, and so all that we know of him comes from fragments found in other ancient Greek philosophers, many writing hundreds of years after Thales' time. If the main concern that we bring to the story of Thales falling down a well is the historicity of the story (and, for whatever reason that is often the main concern that we bring to Biblical stories) then the question that we ask of the story is: Did this really happen? Did a man named Thales ever fall down a well? Did a witty and attractive Thracian servant-girl ever mock him for it?
This concern leads us to ask questions which cannot be answered, and whose answers would not really be helpful, anyway. There is simply not enough historical evidence to say whether or not this event happened, or whether Plato took some dramatic liberties. We don't know if this represents accurate history or a myth which developed after Thales' death. But, even if we could know that this story happened, how would such knowledge help us? Would we get any more out of the story knowing that it is a historically "true" story?
There are other, better concerns which could be brought to this story, and other, better questions which could be asked of it. Rather than asking whether or not a story really happened, we could ask, for instance, what a story means. We could ask: What does this story communicate? Of the story of Thales falling down the well while staring at the stars we could ask: Why was this story told in the first place? Why was it so important that it was preserved for the two centuries between Thales and Plato, or the twenty-three centuries between Plato and us?
That any story from the ancient world has survived long enough for us to be familiar with it is a miracle. But it is not a random miracle. It is a designed miracle, which required a great deal of human effort and perhaps a little divine intervention. Stories which survive have been preserved by cultures for a reason. When we encounter these stories we must wonder at why these stories were so important that they were preserved. What did they mean for the people who preserved them? What do they mean to us today? These questions are so much more important questions than the question of historical accuracy, because they open us up to meaning.
The story of Thales falling down the well is a true story because it provides us with true information about ourselves. There are many kinds of people in the world, including absent minded philosophers and witty but pretty servant-girls. This story tells us that those who stare at the stars fall down wells and are mocked by the practical minded people around them.
I've spent most of my life trying and failing to balance spiritual contemplation with practical application. Thales struggled with this as well, so when I read this story about Thales I learn about myself. I've looked up at the sky and wondered what was behind the stars, past the edges of the universe. I've asked the unanswerable questions and answered them anyway, knowing my answers were wrong. I've had thoughts and questions burning inside me, demanding that I release them. And I've fallen into more than a few wells while dealing with these issues.
The story of Thales has been preserved in part because it reminds us that this struggle to find balance is an inherently human struggle which has been around for all of recorded history. The truth of the story does not depend on whether or not the events described in the story ever happened. The truth of the story depends on whether or not the insights communicated by the story still ring true today, in our culture, a culture so different than the culture in which the story was first conveyed.
No matter what the fundamentalists say, the Bible can be approached in this way as well. In fact, I think, the Bible ought to be approached in this way. The Bible is an ancient book full of ancient stories, stories whose value is found not in whether or not the events described ever happened, but in whether or not the messages still speak to us.
I don't know whether or not Thales fell down a well, and there's no way I will ever be able to know that. But I do know that when I read of Thales' fall I read of my own fall. I'm pretty sure, based on the nature of the literature, that Adam and Eve never literally existed, but when I read of their temptation in the garden I read of my own spiritual pride. There may never have been a man named Noah, or an ark, or a world-wide flood [note: the flood narrative was a popular myth in the ancient Near East, and it predates the peoples of Ancient Israel] but that Biblical story speaks to me of a God who holds the whole universe together, and of a life which is very fragile indeed without the grace of that God.
When our primary concern is historical, and when we lose the value of myth and the meaning of story, we cut ourselves off from the power of these mythological stories to speak to us and transform us. When we lose that the Bible stops being the Word of God because God no longer speaks through it. It simply becomes a history text or an encyclopedia, spitting out questionable "facts" which don't really communicate anything.
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