Heraclitus, Fragment 29 (D 116)


“All people have a claim to self-knowledge (literally ‘self ascertainment’) and sound thinking.” (Robinson 116; cp. DK & S 116)

“It belongs to all men to know themselves and to think well.” (Kahn 29)

“All humans have a share in knowing themselves and in thinking with moderation.” (LM 30)

In the Renaissance it was typical to display Heraclitus as the weeping philosopher. He sees that people have the potential for self-knowledge and sound judgment that they do not realize.

Nearly all statements about human knowledge that we have examined so far have pointed to human failing, to the “human failure to comprehend” (F1), to those who lack comprehension and “hear like the deaf” (F2), to those who “forget where the way leads” (F5), to those with “much learning” who nonetheless fail to gain understanding (F18), to those who fail to see “what is obvious” (F22). Indeed, Heraclitus has said only the divine understanding admits “sound judgment.”

Nonetheless, in what we have examined he has however also indicated, in a fragmentary way, what a wise approach to knowledge would be. Here we have the most positive statement about the possibility for human knowledge and sound thinking so far.

As we continue to explore the fragments, we will see more what self-knowledge and sound thinking consists in. Both require a broadening of the perspective beyond the subjective: even self-knowledge opens up to knowledge of the entire world. Indeed, sound thinking will require opening up even beyond the purely human. Sound thinking requires an approach of a god’s eye perspective that transcends one’s narrow view or even an anthropocentric view. Heraclitus’ dialectic is one that will take into consideration for the world the animal perspective as well as the human. “Asses prefer garbage to gold (F71) not because asses are lacking in understanding but because what is good for an ass is different from what is good for a person. The sound judgment that is possible is one that will recognize the human good not as the measure of sound judgment but as one good within the one broader world.

Heraclitus is depicted in Renaissance artwork as sad because, while he thinks humans have this potential for self-knowledge and sound judgment, he doesn’t think it is achieved. Most people have failed and will likely continue to fail to meet their potential.

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