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Hans Blumenberg – Thales Of Miletus & The Thracian Woman

A fresco of a Thracian woman with golden necklace and earrings on the ceiling of the main chamber in the Ostrusha Mound near Kazanlak, Bulgaria. Picture by Ivo E. Stankov .


With today’s sharing from the Blue House of Via-HYGEIA, we are continuing to explore Hans Blumenberg’s works, here with an excerpt from ‘The Laughter of the Thracian Woman, a proto-history of Theory’, translated into English from the original German by Spencer Hawkins for Bloomsbury Academic, 2015. This is chapter 2, from pages 5 to 13.


Socrates is Transferred into Protohistory

“Theory” already had a history—just a short two centuries—when it came across an activity beloved again and again over the course of this history: returning to its origins, or at least re-examining them. It had just begun to be worthwhile to measure contemporary luminaries by their archaic prototypes when Plato confronted the fate of his teacher Socrates by comparing him to the figure of the proto-philosopher. In the corpus of Aesopic fables, which were familiar to every Greek from childhood, and which the condemned Socrates had still grabbed after from within his cell before death, a pertinent morsel appears concerning an astronomer who meets his downfall through the self- forgetting entailed by his theoretical activity:

An astronomer (astrologos) was in the habit of going out regularly in the evening to observe (episkopēsai) the stars. Once as he was strolling through the outskirts of the town with his attention (ton noūn holon) completely fixed on the heavens, he fell into a well before he knew what was happening to him. While he was howling and shouting, a passer-by who heard his pitiful tones came up and, as soon as he found out what had happened, remarked, “My good fellow, while you’re trying to watch things in the heavens, you don’t even see things on the earth.” *1

In the Theaetetus dialogue, Plato lets his Socrates transfer this story to Thales of Miletus. The formerly unnamed astronomer turns into the founder of philosophy; the equally anonymous witness of his fall becomes the Thracian woman in the status of domestic slave for Milesian citizens. The figures of the confrontation have gained concreteness and background:

The story is that Thales, while occupied in studying the heavens above and looking up, fell into a well. A good-looking and whimsical maid from Thrace laughed at him and told him that while he might passionately want to know all things in the universe, the things in front of his very nose and feet were unseen by him. *2

As befits the structure of the fable, to which Plato unmistakably refers, he lets himself immediately supply the moral of the story: “The jest also fits all those who become involved in philosophy.” This epimythium cannot have been the fable’s original one; the wisdoms tacked on after fables are generally not of the same origin (gleichurspünglich) as the fables. There is no basis for reading anything into Plato’s version about humanity in general, but only about the philosopher’s bizarreness on its way to becoming tragic.

Of course, it is not Thales who is the reference point in the Platonic context, but Socrates. When the dialogue was written, the philosopher’s unbearability had already reached its limit among Socrates’ contemporaries, and the polis had punished him with death. What had been announced in the laughter of the maid reached its conclusion in hatred. At this point, the Socrates of the dialogue cannot be identical with the historical figure whom the reader and author have in mind; as a literary figure, he still has his end ahead of him and does not even imagine it when he makes fun of himself and philosophy’s particular form of “realism” through the image of the Milesian philosopher. For Plato and his public, theory is introduced as fate; fate binds theory’s prototype to the figure of its culmination, who had become unsurpassable in understanding the world and the human. From Plato’s perspective, in that comedy at the well’s edge, as in the tragedy at the civil court, a similar clash of worlds is at stake: a clash between concepts of reality, whose unintelligibility to one another can manifest as the emergence of laughter or the effect of deadliness. In the dialogue, Socrates still accepts the ridicule alongside his prefiguration, as he would accept the cup of poison in jail and reject offers of escape.

By projecting the servant’s ridicule onto Thales, Socrates only indirectly hears it directed at himself. At the end of the Protagoras, when ironic cluelessness turns out to be the result of all dialectic, Socrates hears the ridicule of Failure personified: “The recent outcome of our speeches is, like a human being, accusing and ridiculing us; and should it attain a voice, it would say: ‘You two are strange, Socrates and Protagoras.’” The futility of the philosopher’s primary occupation, however, is not the only image of ridiculousness that he displays, but his practical behavior in its entirety appears ridiculous as a consequence of philosophical eccentricity. In the Gorgias, Socrates tells Polus, not without satisfaction, about the time when the lot had appointed his demos to count the votes in the public assembly, and when he found no way to deal with the task, he drew general ridicule to himself. It is no accidental bad luck; ridicule follows him, even confirms to him that he has long abandoned the position of the everyman. In Kierkegaard’s dissertation on the concept of irony, *3 he argued that Aristophanes approached the truth in making Socrates a figure in the comedy The Clouds.

Aristophanes had ridiculed Socrates in the comedy, at a time when the latter was still pursuing natural philosophy in Thales’ tradition and investigating the celestial phenomena with Anaxagoras as his model:

‘Socrates, who otherwise did not visit the theater often, partook eagerly this time. He said to those who sat near him that it seemed to him as if he were attending a funny dinner party, where one was making an artful joke out of him. As even some strangers wanted to know just who this Socrates was, he stood up and let his original be seen against his copy, which was presented on the stage’.*4

Plato’s Socrates recounts his turn away from natural philosophy and his flight to the “logoi” in the Phaedo. The stargazer, whom Aristophanes still mocks in the comedy, can no longer be detected in the narrator of the Thales anecdote, although the young Socrates in The Clouds is indeed much more similar to the Milesian. But Socrates does not lay claim to the fable as an heir to Thales’ natural philosophy. His claim concerns the theorist’s eccentricity, no matter what the object, although it was the choice of philosophy as his object that cost Socrates all sanction and endangered his life. This all bespeaks an immanent logic: in the two centuries since Thales, it had become more evident what was actually laughable about theory. The anecdote must be read with the knowledge that Socrates had turned away from the interest in nature, which prevailed during his youth, in favor of probing human life and behavior. Then it becomes clear that the spatial distance and inaccessibility of the objects in the starry sky—in comparison to the nearness of practical existence’s pitfalls—did not constitute the theorist’s exoticism, but only represented it.

What Socrates had discovered, after abandoning natural philosophy, was the sphere of conceptuality for things human, but even from this perspective the reality of the obvious (des Nächstliegenden) was missed and therefore turned into a pitfall. For the theory of practice is no less theory than the theory of the stars. That is apparent in the philosopher himself—not as he was represented in the anecdote, but as the Platonic Socrates portrays the philosopher—the figure whose theoretical peculiarity unmistakably marked him as a being captivated by the “essences” (von den Wesen erfaßten “Wesen”): “For really such a man pays no attention to his next door neighbor; he is not only ignorant of what he is doing, but he hardly knows whether he is a human being or some other kind of creature.” Here the Thracian maid’s reproach is decoupled from the Milesian astronomer’s object, which is noble (erhaben), but ultimately arbitrary; no further information is necessary about his nocturnal machi- nations to position him as eccentric. The “Socratic turn”—which was supposed to have fetched philosophy down from the sky and given it over to the most obvious of all interests, investigating “what a human being is and what is proper for such a nature to do or bear different from any other”—had not changed theoretical behavior by a hair. It had only removed its object from everyday familiarity and thrust it into the distance, so that the everyday would appear as bewildering as the stars. What ultimately made the difference was thus not his change in object, but theory’s changing demand on its practitioner: the Socratic type of philosopher does not recognize a human being (menschliches Wesen) in his neighbor, while—and because—he is preoccupied with studying the essence of the human (Wesen des Menschen). Everyone else’s laughter, represented by the Thracian maid’s, has become the indicator for a philosopher’s successful concentration on thematizing his object. Awkwardness while performing any practice that mimics theory at all advances to the status of proof of having attained unprecedented access to the matter in question.

What had played out at the cistern of Miletus occurred on the scale of a private misunderstanding. Between Thales’ time and Plato’s writing came the polis, which showed suspicion towards the philosopher’s machinations in the market. Theoretical success becomes an offense within the state’s reality:

The leaders [among philosophers], in the first place, from their youth, remain ignorant of the way to the agora, do not even know where the court-room is, or the senate-house, or any other public place of assembly; as for laws and decrees, they neither hear the debates upon them nor see them when they are published; and the strivings of political clubs after public offices, and meetings, and banquets, and revelings with chorus girls—it never occurs to them even in their dreams to indulge in such things.

A deficiency sticks to Socrates and to his self-description as philosophy’s shaping force; the avant-garde of practical philosophy appears not to have really tested their leading man’s commitment to the cause: for his deficiency is in his socialization. In this depiction (Zeichnung)— perhaps a distortion (Verzeichnung) or caricature (Überzeichnung)—the Platonic Socrates prefigures the separateness (chorismos) of forms conceived by his greatest pupil, not yet as a doctrine, but still as a way of life. For only in his corporality does Socrates belong to the community, and he even yielded that up to them as his kind of tax payment. The timelessness of philosophical objects has not yet been declared as their exceptional quality since the philosopher had already made timelessness into his own quality. “Well, Socrates, we have plenty of leisure (skholé), have we not?” asks his interlocutor Theodorus. Socrates agrees, after a little delay.

No criterion for differentiating between theory and “realism” will prove more precise than their dispositions towards time as infinite or finite, respectively. Only later will the theorist trade leisure for industry, when everyone must demonstrate how little time he or she has. In Plato’s time, the sophists were already coached and coaching others to watch the water-timer during a court trial; rhetoric generally meant standing under time pressure—the temporality of slaves.

One last thing must still be withheld from the philosopher, if he has not already lost everything in the abyss of his broken relationship to the polis: “And all of these things the philosopher does not even know that he does not know …” He does know, as Socrates says, that he knows nothing; but in the knowledge of what he does not know he is badly informed. Otherwise he would not be so fundamentally deficient in life’s realism. Astronomy, which Thales supposedly brought to the Greeks, was now nothing but an exceptional case where engaging with fundamental problems looked bizarre; it was nothing but a metaphor for bizarreness when he went “studying the stars, and investigating the universal nature of every thing that is, each in its entirety …” The accusation of the Thracian maid, about which we know neither how the philosopher answered nor whether he really felt touched by it, is now accepted as a professional stigma: “never lowering [his mind] to anything close at hand.” *5

This is the context in the dialogue where Socrates introduces the Thales anecdote.

It remains disputed whether Plato was the first to name the figures in the fable from Aesop’s corpus and to link the piece with Thales, in order for Socrates to shine forth by outdoing Aesop. Alternately, Plato could have found Thales’ name already there in his Aesopica and had his Socrates faithfully cite what he had read. The anonymization would only have come about later: in other words, the anecdote could have fallen victim to the fable genre’s obligatory typification.

The case for this objection rests on two premises: both Thales and Aesop belong to the same century, and both come from Miletus. Behind the anecdote stands the real situation of the astronomer observing the stars—although the fable account of this promotes the misunderstanding that this only happens at night and that his stay in the cistern could only be considered an accident, while in fact astronomers also had to determine the position of stars during the day in order to calculate the calendar cycle, and the optics at the bottom of a well served that end best.

And yet both sides of the argument do not fit together properly. Aesop is not established as a historical figure; even if one thinks of him as an on-site observer of Thales, or even just as a collector of local gossip about him, it remains unconvincing that Aesop should have violated the rules he gave the fable genre, which he had imprinted if not invented. But that would be the case if the piece were equipped by Aesop himself with the name of the unlucky hero. Then again, Plato could have encountered a story regarding Thales of Miletus elsewhere, such as among the treasury of anecdotes about the Seven Wise Men. In that case, his Socrates would only be imitating the fable form ironically—and the whole argument about Aesop’s possible relationship to Thales would become unnecessary. This possibility cannot be entirely excluded; but it is unlikely because Plato characterizes Socrates as so intimate with Aesop’s fables that he reaches into his memory bank from prison and—acting as an author for the first time and the last— puts Aesop’s fables into verse. Through the report on his imminent death in the Phaedo, a connection between Socrates and Aesop was established for Plato’s public; we then receive an inverted view of Socrates’ reworking Aesop when Socrates applies the stargazer fable indirectly in the Theatetus. Between the two pieces, we witness the skill and desire to compose. Only a literary stylist like Plato was up to the task of changing the fable for his purposes, and these changes involved more than just naming the anonymous astronomer-type, who is foreign on his home planet.

Plato’s sources matter if we want to determine how the configuration would have been available to be placed in Socrates’ mouth. In the historical background of two centuries, a misunderstanding may have caused astronomical protocol from the depth of a well to look like the result of an accident, and that may have influenced the invention of the little piece—without the sky watcher’s tumble, the story would not have its premise. The view of the man in the cistern must have come after the perception of strange behavior, so that its consequence would draw taunts and lessons to him; or the man crying for help from the depths would have needed to announce the sequence of events to the passerby who had rushed over, so that the latter could render the wisdom of the extant fable. In comparison to the story we consider Aesopic, Plato made a masterpiece of liveliness by staging the immediate perception of the event. As he hurried from out of nowhere towards the cries for help, the passerby in the fable, who could not have been a spectator, could have concluded from the pitiful situation that the inattentiveness of an air-gazer had prompted it; but he could hardly have suspected the intensity of an astronomical theorist. In that form, the story was a general warning against the danger of nocturnal accidents, since such threats could just as well befall lovers sneaking around. It may not then be overlooked that the passerby in the extant fable announces himself to the fall victim after the fact (mathōn ta symbebēkota). The fallen astronomer verbally delivers the information required for the reprimand imparted to him.

Even without considering the invention of the female figure, it is now clear how much the fable would still be lacking if it were supposed to depict the confrontation between theory and lifeworld. Taking the tale as a reference to Thales of Miletus would not be enough. The path was not one from fact to type, from namedness to anonymity, from anecdote to fable, but rather the reverse. Plato was interested in the identity of the astronomer and the proto-philosopher, in order to let Socrates project his identity onto that of the proto-philosopher, while the poet of the fable could not utilize the stargazer’s identity to make his point. Anyone was acceptable for him; and because everything in the fable rushes towards the epigrammatic ending, he even misses the chance to make the bearer of wisdom into a witness of the event. For that effect as well, the Thracian woman will be much more suitable.

The public that ridiculed Plato’s hero could no longer be called barbarians; the Sophistic Enlightenment, which was blossoming in Athens, had mastered the art of exposing weakness and rendering it contemptible. In order to speak in a pre-figurative way about Socrates’ fate from Socrates’ own mouth, long before the cup of hemlock, the focus must be on martyrdom for the cause of pure ideality. The blood of the witness to truth is not yet spilt; it rises to a blush in his face, whenever he is supposed to speak in court or anywhere else about the things “at his feet and before his eyes[.] He is a laughing-stock not only to Thracian girls but to the multitude in general.”

The one-time tumble down the well puts no end to the problem. Socrates masters rhetorical augmentation at the very point when he speaks about philosophers’ rhetorical incapacity; he grasps onto the plural of wells and tumbles, so that his philosopher—and thereby he himself—“falls into pits and all sorts of perplexities …” His public is merciless, for it is educated. That is the change in conditions which Plato expressly establishes through Socrates: “… he stammers and becomes ridiculous, not in the eyes of Thracian girls or other uneducated persons, for they have no perception of it, but in those of all men who have been brought up as free men, not as slaves.” In order to complete this viciously sharpened paradigm, in which the opposite of a slave’s upbringing is made into the precondition of the philosopher’s imminently fatal situation and thereby of Socrates’ fate, the nameless- unspecified passerby from the fable—who do not need to be anything more than that before—must now become a slave.

Not necessarily a female slave and by no means necessarily a Thracian one. But a Thracian slave woman could do more than provide a mocking joke to contrast with the theorist’s gravity; she also had the background—which Plato evokes again elsewhere—of a world of alien gods, feminine, nocturnal, subterranean. The thought that she would be silently thinking of these gods when she sees the philosopher plummet into the earth should be thoroughly permitted to the reader. Plato by no means needs to tell the Athenians to which goddess Socrates has just prayed at the opening of the Republic, when he is making the return trip from the Piraeus; there the first festival for the Thracian goddess Bendis was celebrated—which would have allowed Plato’s contemporaries to date the dialogue’s events. And Socrates remarks about how particularly impressed he was by the ceremonial procession of the Thracians, who had built a strong merchant community at the Athenian city’s harbor. Wilamowitz-Moellendorff recalls this context to his father-in- law Mommsen, who was interested in the peoples of the late Roman Empire, by emphasizing the Thracians’ role in greater Athens: “And the race was good. Thucydides, Aristotle, Antisthenes have Thracian blood. This nation, which was not destroyed until the assaults of the Byzantine Period, particularly from the Bulgarians, certainly deserves an epitaph.” *6

This means that the Athenians did know something about what may have passed through that Thracian woman’s mind two centuries earlier. She was certainly not the one who let the proto-philosopher fall, yet she was in league with those who had staunchly expressed disapproval of anyone who interrupts nocturnality and worships the heavenly. For them, during the night’s silence, even the city gods of Miletus lost some of their standing and authority. And once again that reveals a subterranean link between the anecdote and Socrates’ case. The recipients of Plato’s text would have noticed this link if we impute to them any rudimentary form of “hermeneutics.” For they would know the following: the Attic polis always considers the gods of their civic cult, or at least acts that way. The polis thus cannot find a philosophy harmless that first says virtue is knowledge and then teaches them to know that they know nothing. Plato invented that laughter as a response to the sight of the Milesian philosopher, in order to associate it with Socrates’ death sentence. And it would have been no stretch for Plato’s public to see the tragic aspect of the comic figure, even long after Socrates’ execution and even without the author’s insinuation. The Socrates of the dialogue lets the gods fade into the background; in their place the conflict between concepts of reality, the hopelessness of their ever reaching consensus, rises to the fore as the crisis of which the laughter then, and the death sentence now, were just the symptoms. Over the anecdote’s reception history, it has retained an ambiguous position between comedy and tragedy; the equivalence that Plato evokes, between a case of state violence and a fall down a well, has lost its significance.



*1.Aesop, ‘Aesop without Morals’, 110. The epimythium runs: this story (logos) can be applied to the sort of people who make themselves conspicuous through unusual behavior, but bring nothing of common utility to humanity.

*2. Plato, ‘Theaetetus’ 174A–B. Translation by Martin Heidegger, What Is a Thing, 3.

*3. “Aristophanes has come very close to the truth in his depiction of Socrates.” Kierkegaard, ‘The Concept of Irony’, 6.

*4. Fénélon, ‘Abrégé des vies des anciens Philosophes’ (quoted from a German translation: J. F. Fleischer: ‘Kurze Lebensbeschreibungen und Lehrsätze der alten Weltweisen’. Frankfurt: 1762, 204) (my translation).

*5.Plato, ‘Theaetetus’, 173C–175D, 121.

*6.Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff to Theodor Mommsen, November 9, 1884. Mommsen.

Hans Blumenberg, a picture by Peter Zollna, Suhrkamp.


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Hans Blumenberg – Thales Of Miletus & The Thracian Woman

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