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Heraclitus, Fragment 111 (D 98)

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“(Souls smell things in Hades)” (S 98; Cp. Kahn 111, D, R 98)

This fragment comes from Plutarch, as part of a broader statement of his views of the afterlife, and is provided as reported speech. There is some question, given this context, that the fragment is a legitimate quotation and not just a paraphrase.

Without context, this, like so many of the fragments, is difficult to interpret. It seems to me, despite Heraclitus’ reputation as rather somber, that this fragment, like various of other fragments of Heraclitus, might be read as a sardonic joke. Hades is known in the Greek world as a murky realm in which little can be seen. Heraclitus, with his keen sense of perspectivism and focus on how all the senses provide us with some orientation, may have just made a quip about smell possibly functioning where sight would be of more limited help. Might attempts to read this as indicating a belief about the afterlife simply be going too far? Other sardonic comments of Heraclitus include: “Donkeys would prefer garbage to gold” (F 91 [D 9]) or even “The beginning and end are shared in the circumference of a circle” (F 99 [D 103]). In fact, there is no shortage of such statements among the fragments.

The statement also naturally evokes a reference to another fragment in which Heraclitus speaks of smell and the fragment that Kahn chooses to follow this one: “If all things turned to smoke, the nostrils would sort them out” (F 112 [D 7]). It is provocative poetically to read F 111 together with F 112, and with reference to Heraclitus’ view that all things are ordered from “fire everlasting, kindled in measures and in measures going out” (F 37 [D 30]). Fire, of course, creates smoke. The dead, one might poetically imagine, in the murky realm of Hades, are served more by smell than sight — left with the smoky, dark residue of the world, more than fire, which gives light but in measures goes out. Left among the residue of the world, one can imagine the dead with a vague reminiscence of the things once seen, heard, and touched.

 

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