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Heraclitus, Fragments 56 (D 82-3)


Fragment 56: (The most beautiful of apes is ugly when compared with the race of humans.) Sweet 82 (cp. L&M: D81)

(The wisest person seems like an ape when compared with God; both in wisdom and beauty, and in all other things as well) Sweet 83. (cp. L&M D77)

Kahn combines into Fragment 54 statements treated as two different fragments by numerous other authors. I offer Sweet’s translation here, taken from his fragment numbers 82 and 83, respectively. The statements come from Plato’s Hippias Major 289a, 289b. (Cp. K 54, R, DK  82/83)

There is much dispute over whether Fragment 54 is truly to be attributed to Heraclitus. Some maintain it is derivative of Fragment 55.

The first quote is reminiscent of Mill’s later quip: “better Socrates dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.” These quotes however speak of relative and absolute valuations. It is suggested that an ape can be beautiful, for an ape. But this will not meet the standard of beauty for humans. The second quote, too, cuts two ways with the comments of wisdom. Heraclitus here seems to accept that we can speak of wise persons, as he earlier in the first statement spoke of relative beauty, for a pig. Yet, compared to the higher standard, of the god, a human cannot be wise. In fact, the reference to an ape here indicates: As an ape is to a man, so is a man to God.

One might think that these different valuative standards could lead to relative judgments and would relativize expectations. We don’t expect pigs to be as wise as humans. His statements about the lack of intelligence of humans might then humble us, and lead us, like Socrates, to admit our own ignorance. Yet, this is not at least the consistent stance of Heraclitus. While Heraclitus appears to accept such a relativization of standards for pigs, he is generally less willing to do so for humans. Because of the “divine spark” within us, he expects more. As stated in Fragment 29: “It belongs to all men to know themselves and to think well.” While most sleep, he seems to call for us to wake (F 5). While most are deaf, he enlists us to listen (F 17).





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