The Thracian Speaks

 by on November 13, 2013
Nov 132013

The Thracian servant-girl is perhaps the most underestimated character in philosophy. She is by all accounts a foil to philosophy: slave rather than free, uneducated, concerned with practical matters, and female. She is the opposite of much of what characterizes philosophy and is thus an outsider. Anything she would say is ipso facto not philosophy and should be regarded, as it has been, as gossip.

Socrates sets the tone for all future commentary while telling the story in Theaetetus. After the Thracian ridicules Thales for falling into a well, Socrates responds: “The same joke applies to all who spend their lives in philosophy.” With this, we are momentarily deceived into thinking that Socrates has recognized the Thracian’s mockery as a philosophical critique that should be internalized and allowed to transform us as philosophers. Yet no sooner has Socrates laid the foundation for a transformative dialogue between philosopher and maid than Plato steers him toward a discussion of the rigid distinction between the practicality of the uneducated masses and the freedom of the philosopher. Socrates thus must take the ridicule of common sense as a badge of honor in the project whose goal is to filter out mere opinion in the search for truth. Despite his incompetence in practical areas, the philosopher enjoys the freedom and leisure that accompany the “higher level” life. In this way, Plato sets a precedent not only for the treatment of the Thracian but also for the thought-action dialectic that would plague philosophers like an unsolvable puzzle for centuries.

From the little that Heidegger says on the topic, we can gather that he agrees with Plato and takes the Thracian’s laugh as the scorn of intellectual outsiders whose concern for activity and common sense prevent them from entering the other-worldly realm of philosophy. But he also understands the risk implied in the doing of philosophy, and he takes the laugh as a well-intentioned reproach–the reproach of a housemaid to be sure. Heidegger’s focus on the laughter of the housemaid becomes quite the problem for Arendt, who arguably makes this discussion between philosophy and common sense a theme of much of her work. Arendt more than any other exemplifies the tension between thought and action, both in her relationship with Heidegger as she reacts to the danger of the amoral solitary thinker and within her own thought. She addresses Plato’s Thracian explicitly in The Life of the Mind, and it wouldn’t be at all controversial to suggest that Arendt, in her body of work taken as a whole, resembles the Thracian woman laughing at the philosopher.

Yet the relationship is more complicated than even Arendt admits. Though she would like at times to play the role of the outsider, and though she makes known her criticisms of the speculative philosopher, both her political and philosophical writings show a relentless desire to seek out a compromise: to bridge the gap between thought and action in such a way that their partnership becomes something proper to philosophy rather than remaining as opposites in an endless dialectic. Implied in her work is a hope that the philosopher qua philosopher can be a fully functioning moral and political actor and, the corollary, that the common citizen qua citizen is a worthy and necessary participant in philosophical dialogue.

It is in this same spirit that we can read Plato’s account of the Thracian girl. Her lack of importance to some readers would be understandable if she had merely laughed at Thales and disappeared. But she didn’t just mock Thales; she made a statement. The statement as logos and reason is the foundation of Western philosophy. Thales himself, as I write about here, represents the dawn of the practical account of first principles. Henceforth the statement (reasoning in general), first in speech then in writing, becomes the cornerstone of philosophy. Whether by literary accident or by design, the Thracian girl made a statement that, if it had come from Socrates or another Greek free man, would have been considered a philosophic critique rather than merely an unthoughtful quip. The statement is this:

[Thales] was eager to know the things in the sky, but that what was behind him and just by his feet escaped his notice.

This statement taken by itself, not as a joke by an uneducated outsider, is quite astonishing in its simplicity and relevance to a range of philosophical questions, but the traditional interpretations are confined to the same conceptual circumscription: the rigid separation between the philosopher and the common person, between thought and action. However, with a new focus, we see that the Thracian girl’s statement could be taken as a direct challenge to that very separation.

Instead of focusing on the laugh, which opposes itself to the thought of the philosopher, we could focus on the statement, which enters into discussion with the philosopher. And instead of understanding the Thracian as opposing the concerns of the masses to those of the philosopher, we could see her words as a reminder of the intimate connection between what lies under Thales’ feet and what he observes in the sky. Plato went to the trouble of putting words that grounded the wonder of Thales–ironically, someone known for practical activity–into the mouth of a Thracian maid. It would be an unfortunate loss to underestimate those words because the speaker was Thracian, uneducated, female, a maid.

What has for so long been unproductive about our reading of Thales’ fall into the well is the almost obsessive focus on the laugh of the maid. If we refocus on the logos of the story and let the Thracian’s statement speak for itself, if we let her criticism of the separation between thought and action qualify as philosophy, we can rethink Heidegger’s interpretation: philosophy is that which brings Thales and a Thracian maid to the table in the cooperative attempt to ground wonder. What begins in wonder must end in a compromise of accounts, and the object of wonder must make itself known, that is, practical. In the Thracian maid we no longer see the laugh of an uninitiated outsider; we see the earliest philosophical critique of the separation of thought and action within philosophy. That critique was offered, as it happens, by a woman and was taken up again in the 20th century by another. But gender is only the background in what by any measure of thoughtfulness should be considered a revolutionary, undervalued contribution to philosophy: the Thracian’s critique. This new focus on her truth rather than her maid-ness is not a mere joke but something to think over and to act on.

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The plunge into the well, into knowledge of the “lifeworld” and its mechanisms without directly prepared defenses, allows observers of the fall a clearer understanding of life processes. Socrates, Jesus, Heidegger, all fell into the well. What remains of their teachings, to be drawn for our refreshment with those waters, are various techniques and warnings. We shouldn’t merely laugh. But laughter also can be the gift of a perspective that can help pull the drowning back into social equilibrium. Had Heidegger embraced Arendt’s perspective, or Quixote Dulcinea’s. . .