Friday, December 28, 2007

A Curious Thalesian Tale

Well might he look down
from time to time...
(Image from

In my recent 'literary' diversions touching upon Christmas, Boxing Day, St. Pugnacious, and Islamist song-and-dance, I've detoured from my serious interest in the trial of theoretical curiosity.

As perhaps became apparent from my Ciceronian post, distrust of curiosity for distracting one from more immediate, serious matters did not begin with the Church Fathers, but those fathers were able to mine the rich, classical veins for nuggets of ancient wisdom either explicitly or implicitly critical of curiosity's distractions.

In Plato's dialogue Theaetetus, Socrates criticizes those philosophers who concern themselves with distant, abstract things but neglect practical affairs closer to hand:
[T]he lords of philosophy have never, from their youth upwards, known their way to the Agora, or the dicastery, or the council, or any other political assembly; they neither see nor hear the laws or decrees, as they are called, of the state written or recited; the eagerness of political societies in the attainment of office . . . do not enter even into their dreams. Whether any event has turned out well or ill in the city, what disgrace may have descended to any one from his ancestors, male or female, are matters of which the philosopher no more knows than he can tell, as they say, how many pints are contained in the ocean. Neither is he conscious of his ignorance. For he does not hold aloof in order; that he may gain a reputation; but the truth is, that the outer form of him only is in the city: his mind, disdaining the littlenesses and nothingnesses of human things, is "flying all abroad" as Pindar says, measuring earth and heaven and the things which are under and on the earth and above the heaven, interrogating the whole nature of each and all in their entirety, but not condescending to anything which is within reach. (Plato, Theaetetus, translated by Benjamin Jowett, Part 1, Page 38)
Socrates illustrates this with an anecdote about Thales:
I will illustrate my meaning . . . by the jest which the clever witty Thracian handmaid is said to have made about Thales, when he fell into a well as he was looking up at the stars. She said, that he was so eager to know what was going on in heaven, that he could not see what was before his feet. This is a jest which is equally applicable to all philosophers. For the philosopher is wholly unacquainted with his next-door neighbour; he is ignorant, not only of what he is doing, but he hardly knows whether he is a man or an animal; he is searching into the essence of man, and busy in enquiring what belongs to such a nature to do or suffer different from any other.... (Plato, Theaetetus, translated by Benjamin Jowett, Part 1, Page 39)
The Church Father Tertullian, brilliant rhetorician and skilled lawyer but somewhat neglectful of details, picked up on this anecdote to disparage curiosity:
Now, pray tell me, what wisdom is there in this hankering after conjectural speculations? What proof is afforded to us, notwithstanding the strong confidence of its assertions, by the useless affectation of a scrupulous curiosity, which is tricked out with an artful show of language? It therefore served Thales of Miletus quite right, when, star-gazing as he walked with all the eyes he had, he had the mortification of falling into a well, and was unmercifully twitted by an Egyptian, who said to him, "Is it because you found nothing on earth to look at, that you think you ought to confine your gaze to the sky?" His fall, therefore, is a figurative picture of the philosophers; of those, I mean, who persist in applying their studies to a vain purpose, since they indulge a stupid curiosity on natural objects, which they ought rather (intelligently to direct) to their Creator and Governor. (Tertullian, Ad Nationes, Book II, Chapter 4)
Tertullian knows the story, but he has 'forgotten' that the one who twitted Thales was a Thracian maiden and has substituted, in her stead, an Egyptian. He has also changed the story from one illustrating the point that philosophers ought to apply their intellectual concentration upon practical affairs to one illustrating the point that philosophers ought to direct their curiosity toward God.

Actually, Tertullian's wording has implied that philosophers ought not to "indulge a stupid curiosity on natural objects" but on "their Creator and Governor" -- as the translator has realized and as the Latin original shows:
qui stupidam exerceant curiositatem naturae quam prius in artificem eius et praesidem (Tertullian, Adversus nationes II 4, quoted in Hans Blumenberg, The Legitimacy of the Modern Age, p. 629, n. 68)
Tertullian, however, surely did not mean that one ought to "indulge a stupid curiosity" on one's "Creator and Governor," i.e., God, but (like Homer) had simply nodded off -- and was thus also 'off' his otherwise dependable rhetorical brilliance.

Nitpicking aside, let us turn to Hans Blumenberg, who also notes the Thalesian anecdote and Tertullian's use of it:
The first philosopher to live in Athens, Anaxagoras, could be accused of impiety because he had maintained that the sun was a glowing mass; and even if this accusation was only an explicit formula for the demythologizing of philosophy that he definitively carried out, it was nevertheless certainly not accidental that it became the central charge against him. Perhaps the anecdote about Thales that Plato hands down also has a similar background; the laughter of the Thracian maid over the philosopher who fell in the well while sauntering and observing the stars may represent not only the malicious pleasure of the unfree in observing the consequences of idleness, but also an understanding of the revenge taken by her tellurian gods on the Milesian who devoted his attention entirely to the stars. In the patristic polemics, the gaze upward is still contrasted, as the one capable of transcendence, to the downward gaze of the heathens, who are in the power of material idols. But the Thracian maid's ridicule of the protophilosopher Thales also hints at a further motif, which was to reappear in the course of the process through which the theoretical attitude became questionable: the conflict between the distant and the nearby, between that which has no immediate effect in life and the daily duties of a citizen in a community. He knows his way about the heavens, but he does not see what lies before his feet, sneers the slave girl. (Blumenberg, Legitimacy of the Modern Age, pp. 245-246)
Although Blumenberg implicitly acknowledges that he is speculating in suggesting that the Thracian maid inferred that Thales was being divinely punished for his (curious) attention to the stars instead of to the gods closer to hand, the speculation allows Blumenberg more readily to draw out the implications of the tale for Tertullian:
[F]or Tertullian . . . [curiosity] has scarcely anything to do with the Augustinian "pleasure of the eyes" but exhibits a more 'literary' character, comparable to the vanity of education and the pleasure of dialectical activity. To this the simplicity of the anima idiotica [uneducated soul] is contrasted. To the extent that the cognitive appetite directs itself at nature, it is reprehensible not on account of the nature of its objects but rather because it prefers the inferior realm of the dependent and the conditioned to the immediacy of its relation to its author. Thales's astronomical curiosity is reprimanded for this metaphysical short-sightedness. (Blumenberg, Legitimacy of the Modern Age, p. 302)
Tertullian thus draws out the implication of divine displeasure that Blumenberg has imputed to the Thalesian tale and criticizes philosophers for their "stupid curiosity" about contingent things rather than an intelligent curiosity about the ground of all contingent things, i.e., God.

Augustine, as we have seen, suspects that not merely stupidity but something more demonic is at work in the attractions toward which curiosity leads, but unlike Tertullian, Augustine went through a Gnostic phase, and Blumenberg thinks that he carried over into his orthodox Catholicism a continuing Gnostic distrust of the cosmos.

I'm not sure, however, that Augustine's Manichaean brand of Gnosticism would explain this, but more on that another time.

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At 2:55 AM, Anonymous kapok said...

I was deep in thought over the holidays and bumped into a fan that my mum had placed in front of an electric heater.

Yes a FAN! Curiousity killed the Thalean cat. Well nearly.

"Augustine, as we have seen, suspects that not merely stupidity but something more demonic is at work in the attractions toward which curiosity leads"

I think he was correct.


At 7:27 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

Well, JK, you fell perfectly into the very danger that Augustine has so well described -- distracted by an inner-directed curiosity as you explored the dark depths of your own interiority, you neglected the light that lights up otherwise dark hallways and illuminates them sufficiently for one to note the presence of the deadly fan.

As St. Paul would say, you have no excuse!

Jeffery Hodges

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At 9:37 AM, Anonymous kapok said...

Oh thank you my friend!

I was so afraid you'd reply it was rather the stupidity factor. I admit I'm a bit worried about being possessed but I think now that a demon just moved the fan.

Mum did say, "Oh @!%t!, It wasn't that close."

I'll pay more attention from now on.


At 10:02 AM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

JK, your mum speaks French?

Jeffery Hodges

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