The Astrologer who Fell into a Well

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John Tenniel's illustration from the 1884 edition of Aesop's fables

The fable of The Astrologer who Fell into a Well is based on a Greek anecdote concerning the pre-Socratic philosopher Thales of Miletus. It was one of several ancient jokes that were absorbed into Aesop's Fables and is now numbered 40 in the Perry Index.[1] During the scientific attack on astrology in the 16th - 17th centuries the story again became very popular.

The fable and its interpretation[edit]

The story of Thales falling into a well while gazing at the stars was originally recorded in Plato's Theaetetus.[2] Other ancient tellings sometimes vary the person or the rescuer but regularly retain the rescuer's scoffing remark that it would be better to keep one's mind on the earth.[3] The Roman poet Ennius summed up the lesson to be learned from the story in the line Quod est ante pedes nemo spectat, caeli scrutantur plagas (No one regards what is before his feet when searching out the regions of the sky) and was twice quoted by Cicero to this effect.[4]

The anecdote was repeated as an amusing story in the English jest book Merry Tales and Quick Answers (1530). In this the philosopher fell plumpe into a ditche over the eares. Wherefore an olde woman that he kepte in his house laughed and sayde to him in derision: O Thales, how shuldest thou have knowlege in hevenly thinges above, and knowest nat what is here benethe under thy feet?[5] Meanwhile Andrea Alciato was mounting a more serious attack on astrology in his Book of Emblems, the first of many editions of which appeared in 1531. In that first edition there was an illustration of the astrologer, head in air, about to trip over a block on the ground.[6] The accompanying Latin poem referred to the story of Icarus and later editions used instead an illustration of his fall from the sky. However, the emblem is titled "Against Astrologers" and the poem concludes with the warning 'Let the astrologer beware of predicting anything. For the imposter will fall headlong, so long as he flies above the stars.'[7] The English emblem compiler Geoffrey Whitney followed Alciato's lead in including the story and an equally fierce attack in his Choice of Emblemes (1586).[8]

The Neo-Latin poet Gabriele Faerno also included the story of the stumbling astrologer in his collection Centum Fabulae (1554), but concluded with the more philosophical point, 'How can you understand the world without knowing yourself first?'[9] As with several others, it was from this source that Jean de la Fontaine included the plot among his Fables (II.13). His poem is remarkable in confining the story to a mere four-line allusion before launching into a 45-line denunciation of astrology (with a side-swipe at alchemy too).[10] But the battle against superstition had been won by the time that Charles Denis included a mere digest of La Fontaine's poem in his Select Fables (1754). His conclusion is that speculation about the future is idle; how many folk, he asks,

Let, for want of due repair,
A real house fall down,
To build a castle in the air?[11]

Samuel Croxall is even more curt in his Fables of Aesop (1732). The moral of the tale, he concludes, is 'Mind your own business'.[12]

References[edit]

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