Philosophers Falling and Fearing Falling

Why, take the case of Thales, Theodorus. While he was studying the stars and looking upwards, he fell into a pit, and a neat, witty Thracian servant girl jeered at him, they say, because he was so eager to know the things in the sky that he could not see what was there before him at his very feet. The same jest applies to all who pass their lives in philosophy. For really such a man pays no attention to his next door neighbour; 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 a creature; but what a human being is and what is proper for such a nature to do or bear different from any other, this he inquires and exerts himself to find out. Do you understand, Theodorus, or not?

Yes, I do; you are right.

(Plato, Theaetetus, in Loeb Classical Library, Plato II, Translated by H. N. Fowler, p. 121).

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 IV).

When he is threatened by a blow nothing can stop a man closing his eyes, or trembling if you set him on the edge of a precipice, just like a child.

(Montaigne, Essays, Translated by M. A. Screech).

Put the world’s greatest philosopher on a plank that is wider than need be: if there is a precipice below, although his reason may convince him that he is safe, his imagination will prevail. Many could not even stand the thought of it without going pale and breaking into a sweat.

(Pascal, Pensées, Translated by A. J. Krailsheimer, Penguin, Baltimore, 1966, Section 44)1.

I often became quite absorbed, and once, whilst returning to school on the summit of the old fortifications round Shrewsbury, which had been converted into a public foot-path with no parapet on one side, I walked off and fell to the ground, but the height was only seven or eight feet. Nevertheless the number of thoughts which passed through my mind during this very short, but sudden and wholly unexpected fall, was astonishing, and seem hardly compatible with what physiologists have, I believe, proved about each thought requiring quite an appreciable amount of time.

(Charles Darwin, in Barlow, Nora (Ed), The Autobiography of Charles Darwin 1809–1882, Collins, London, 1958, p. 25).

  1. From Saul Traiger, “Reason Unhinged: Passion and Precipice from Montaigne to Hume”, in Joyce Jenkins, Jennifer Whiting and Christopher Williams (Eds), Persons and Passions: Essays in Honor of Annette Baier, University of Notre Dame Press, 2005, pp. 100–115. [PDF]