Heraclitus, Fragment 66 (D 33)


“It is law (custom) also to obey (respect) (the) counsel of (the single) one.” (Robinson, 33; cp. Kahn, 66, D, S 33.)

This quote does not make clear reference to ideals. It tells us what is customary or what is legal. Nonetheless, most commentators focus on it as a statement of Heraclitus’ normative position about law.

In numerous of the past few fragments, Heraclitus has indicated that the masses of men generally error. He notes that the Ephesians deserve to be hung for having expelled the best (F64). He speaks of  “barking dogs” — fools, excited by any account, of the many “worthless” and the few good (F59). As he says, one has the value of ten-thousand, if he is the best (F63).

Reading the statement as suggesting a normative ideal, the “one” referred to in this fragment is thus taken to either be one individual (that one in ten thousand) or what Heraclitus refers to as “the one wise thing, unwilling and willing to be called by the name of Zeus” (R33).

However, even if it is the former, then this is only because of that one individual’s good judgment, because of their knowledge of “what is shared by all” (F45). Heraclitus has an early natural law perspective. There is a wise account on which we are to order our own political affairs, a “divine” law that “nourishes” human laws (F 30).

Heraclitus, like Plato after him, expresses little faith that counsels of men will reach better decisions, more informed by good judgment, than rare individuals. If rule by the rare best individual isn’t required, it is at least allowed by custom or law.



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