Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Thales Falls Down the Well Again and Again

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.


Brian Cubbage said...

You should have also mentioned the OTHER story about Thales that Aristotle relates in his Politics: Thales, tired of the popular opinion of philosophers as irresponsible stargazers, shrewdly cornered the Thracian olive market. He thought that this would prove, once and for all, that philosophers COULD be successful at practical pursuits, but they choose a higher calling instead.

Who knows if that story is true, either?

Sandalstraps said...

Here is the OTHER story that Brian is talking about:

"When they reproached him [Thales] because his poverty, as though philosophy were no use, it is said that, having observed through his study of the heavenly bodies that there would be a large olive-crop, he raised a little capital while it was still winter, and paid deposits on all the olive presses in Miletus and Chios, hiring them ceaply because no one bid against him. When the appropriate time came there was a sudden rush of requests for the presses; he then hired them out on his own terms and so made a large profit, thus demonstratiing that it is easy for philosophers to be rich, if they wish, but that it is not in this that they are interested."

This is, as Brian said, from Aristotle's Politics, and it is also a great story, though I've fallen down wells more often than I've turned a profit.

Peter said...

My OT Professor reminded us one day that the OT "Historical" books were really theology books that used history to show how God fulfills His promises both of blessing and judgment. While I am, and probably will remain, a literalist I want to than you for reminding me not to get too wrapped up in the detials ofthe story therefore losing the message.

Brian Cubbage said...

Chris, thanks for providing the story from Aristotle, and correcting my misstatement about which olive market Thales cornered. As Peter says, perhaps it's less important to get wrapped up in the details than to get the main point, but even so.

Your initial post also mentioned (as an aside) the prevalence of flood stories in the Ancient Near East beyond ancient Israel. (A good example of this is the flood in Gilgamesh.) Plato and the ancient Greeks also had stories like that. Plato's Timaeus, a book that has had a great deal of influence on the history of thought, including Christian theology, relates the idea that periodically, the entire earth is flooded and human history begins again from zero. This idea is tied to a cyclical view of history, though, which is very unlike that of ancient Israel; history basically repeats itself again and again, flood, human civilization, flood, human civilization, etc. I find it fascinating, though, that the Greeks, with such a different conception of history, still used a flood myth.