Heraclitus, Fragment 97 (D 29)


“The best choose one thing in exchange for all, everflowing fame among mortals; but most men have sated themselves like cattle.” (Kahn, 97; cp. R 29, S 29, D 29)

Heraclitus thinks of the best as those who are wise, who have the divine perspective. He speaks though explicitly of “the best” in various other passages: In F 63 he notes the unparalleled worth of the best: “One man is worth ten-thousand, if he is best.” In F 109 he equates the wisest and the best: “A gleam of light is the dry soul, wisest and best.” In F 29 he contrasts most Ephesians with the best, who they banished. In F 97, too, he is contrasting the best with most men, or the masses, as he does in numerous passages. The best, who we know Heraclitus thinks focus on wisdom. Most men do not, but are happy with imaginings.

Here Heraclitus is focusing on the resoluteness of the best, on their single-mindedness. Most men, by contrast, do not have such single-mindedness. They are in fact, not really like humans. They are animal-like. Sweet translates the last word of the fragment not as “cattle” (as Kahn and Robinson do) but as “sheep.” The main point seems to be that most men have not affirmed their humanity at all. They are uncontrolled and unfocused. “The best choose one thing in exchange for all.” Heraclitus speaks elsewhere of “fire” as that element that is an exchange, as gold is for goods (F 40) and of “everlasting fire” as an ordering (F 37), the logos. The best align in thought and deed with the logos. Most men, however, do not have wisdom and see things as they are. What they experience is not reality but is distorted by “their opinions” (F 4).

Heraclitus might be seen here to make a distinction between seeking the favor of one’s contemporaries and seeking “fame among the mortals.” In every generation we do honor brave and wise people of the past. But we often fail to recognize them in our midst. The best appear not to act to please their contemporaries but in the interest of wisdom, which leads to honor into posterity, or “everflowing fame.”


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