Ever since I was little, I’ve enjoyed solitary walks, whether down a city street or a country road. I find this time therapeutic, and use it to follow lengthy trains of thought that are usually cut short when I’m in the midst of my daily activities. Although the activities I undertake may vary—composing a poem, thinking through some engrossing problem, or pondering an episode from the past—I always return from my jaunts refreshed and encouraged.
The only problem with these peregrinations is that I sometimes lose track of where I am at any given moment. Minutes, even hours, can go by before I snap out of my comfortable reverie and realize that I’ve traveled a long way quite unconsciously. For a variety of reasons, which I won’t go into here, I’ve never been a driver, but I’ve always thought this habit of mine would get me in trouble if I ever decided to take the wheel. It would be too tempting to zone out, and to miss what was right in front of me.
Because of this tendency of mine, I’ve always remembered a story I heard in a philosophy class I took in college. It concerned the pre-Socratic philosopher Thales of Miletus, a man whose lifework was extremely influential on later generations of philosophers. Thales, who lived from the mid 620s until about 546 BCE, rigorously investigated philosophical, mathematical, and astronomical questions, along with many other subjects, and is credited with developing the scientific inquiry method so useful to all those who followed him. Despite this illustrious pedigree, or maybe because of it, Socrates is said to have related an anecdote that makes Thales seem quite foolish. Recorded by Plato in his dialogue Theaetetus, the basic gist of the story is that one day (or more likely, night) as Thales was walking along, he was so busy looking up at the stars that he fell into a well.
There is some question as to whether this actually happened, or whether real events were distorted; for example, there is speculation that perhaps Thales knowingly lowered himself into a well because the stars were more visible from that vantage point. Whatever the case, when I heard the story I immediately identified with Thales. I, too, have been guilty of “looking at the stars” instead of what is right in front of me, and at times have been mocked for it. Hearing about Thales predicament helps me to laugh at myself for doing the same kind of thing, but it also reminds me that I am in good company.