Heraclitus, Fragment 22 (D 56)


“Men are deceived in the recognition of what is obvious, like Homer who was wisest of all the Greeks. For he was deceived by boy’s killing lice, who said: what we see and catch we leave behind; what we neither see nor catch, we carry away.” (Kahn 22; cp. DM & S 56, LM D22)

This text constitutes part of the legend that Homer died, beguiled by a children’s riddle. A standard interpretation of the passage underlines that Heraclitus simply is pointing to an inability of Homer (like Hesiod and other religious poets) to achieve a deep understanding (see Kahn 111f.).

Heraclitus views nature as complex, as hiding. To understand it, he thinks we need considerable reflection. Wisdom is difficult. As he says, “nature loves to hide.” In contrast, the religious poets were viewed as perceiving understanding to be easy to attain. In accord with this view, this fragment is viewed as a criticism of the simple mindedness of the religious poets. The reflection required even of a children’s riddle was enough to kill Homer.

The fragment also criticizes the ordinary Greek understanding of wisdom. For Heraclitus does not think that Homer is in fact the wisest in Greece, only that he is perceived as such by the majority of Greeks. To invoke the words of a much later writer, H.G. Wells: “In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.”

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