Heraclitus of Ephesus

ἦθος ἀνθρώπῳ δαίμων. – Heraclitus, Fragment 199*

“ethos anthropo daimon”: a dative noun sandwiched between two nominatives.  No verbs, of course: the being verb εἰμί is often implied.  The first word in a sentence is often given a certain emphasis … but so is the last.  Heraclitus the Obscure, indeed.  The passage is traditionally rendered something to the effect of “A man’s character (ethics, moral standing) is his guardian spirit (fate, destiny, guardian angel, tutelary divinity)”, with the understanding that character (ἦθος ) is what is important here.  A man’s ethical nature determines his fate.  But this reading seems to take for granted that a man’s (and we’re going to use the male noun here because there was nothing like feminism in 6th Century Greece: when they said “man” they meant “man”.) δαίμων was not a real thing.  If one assumes, as I see no reason to believe Heraclitus did not, that individuals do, in fact, possess a tutelary diety who oversees their destiny, that implied being verb between the two nominative nouns works as an equals sign:

ἦθος ἀνθρώπῳ δαίμων.

ethos = nom. masc. sing. noun “character”

anthropo = dat. masc. sing. noun “for humans” (appears to be dative of interest)

daimon = nom. masc. sing. noun “guardian spirit”

esti = 3rd per. sing. active. “he/she/it is” (implied)

[for humans] character == guardian spirit

A man’s character is his guardian spirit, and vice versa.  A good moral character and a good fate/guardian are synonymous.

This semester, I am taking a survey class of Ancient Greek philosophy.  Last week we covered Heraclitus of Epheseus, a philosopher from southern Italy in the 6th Century BCE.  His work only remains in the form of testimonia, making everything a little sketchy, but his works seem to provide me with my first look at Hermetic thought—or, at very least, its predecessors.

Heraclitus’ core thesis revolved around the universal λόγος (logos: word, account, speech, reason), which governed all things.

“…[A]ll things come to be [or: happen] in accordance with the logos…”[1]

“Listening not to me, but to the logos, it is wise to agree that all things are one.”[2]

The λόγος was common to all, but most people could not comprehend it even after long study.  It governed a κόσμος (cosmos) which “…the same for all, none of gods nor humans made, but it was always and is and shall be: an ever-living fire, kindles in measures and extinguished in measures.”[3]

To those who could understand the λόγος, Heraclitus attributed noos**[4 ] , understanding, and σοφρῆν (sophren)[5], right-thinking.

He spoke of the gods in general and in particular, but also of το σόφον  (to sophon), Wisdom or the wise, which “…is one alone, both unwilling and willing to be called by the name of Zeus.”[6]

Clearly, I don’t know enough of Heraclitus or Hermetic thought to draw any stronger conclusions than “Hey!  Look!  Noos, logos, sophia!  A parallel!”  But it’s interesting, and gives me my first hints of the directions these ideas will later take.


* My source for the original Greek; I really don’t like their translation, though.

** Sadly, I cannot find the original Greek noun.

[1] Curd, Patricia. A Presocratics Reader: Selected Fragments and Testimonia. 2nd ed. Trans. McKirahn, Richard D. and Patricia Curd. Heraclitus1. (22B1) p. 40

[2] Ibid. 11. (B50) p.42

[3] Ibid. 45. (B30) p. 45

[4] Ibid. 8. (B104) p.41

[5] Ibid. 35. (B116) p.44

[6] 47. (B32) p.46


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