Retranslations…

1. To me, the most interesting of all the fragments of Heraclitus is the terse one that most collections number 119, after the German scholars Diels and Kranz: ἦθος ἀνθρώπῳ δαίμων. Carrying these three words into our alphabet we get: êthos anthrôpoi daimôn.  The only unambiguous word here is anthrôpoi, ‘of or for human beings’.  We still use the word ethos to mean the spirit of a time or place or group.  It points us to something like a subculture–a set of shared attitudes and perhaps enthusiasms in a given setting.  And from the Greek daimôn we take the simple word demon.

The usual translation goes like this: “Character, for humans, is fate.”

How far back this goes I can’t say.  Alexander of Aphrodisias–who lived a couple of centuries before Jesus– cited the fragment in Greek in a work that the Romans later translated as De Fato.  So it makes sense to say it goes back a long way.  But it’s a little odd to take daimôn and turn it into fate.

Anyone who has read about Socrates’ trial knows that he speaks there of feeling sure of his decision to die because his daimôn did not interpose to tell him to stop.  To him and his contemporaries, a daimôn was a lesser and more personal divinity, a kind of guardian angel or Jimminy Cricket.  Such spirits acted as guides, it seems, not just for Socrates but for Homer’s heroes as well.

So how might we retranslate this fragment?

Ethos can and perhaps should be be translated as character, I think; but it is not far from spirit, either, as when we speak of someone’s spirit.

So here are two or three attempts at a more exact translation into English, none I think quite satisfactory:

Character for humans is a divinity.

Or we could say, character, human character is divine.  The trouble with these is that we don’t, most of us, have the Socratic sense of the near presence of divine guides in our lives.  Very religious people can perhaps say with conviction that there are guardian angels in our lives.  That would yield: Your spirit, your character, is your guardian angel.

Your spirit is your guardian angel (or perhaps your guiding angel).

None of this improves, it seems to me, on what we have had.

Character, for humans, is fate, which is to say, character directs us along our way in life.  What the Greeks had that we may lack is a strong sense that fate was real and was divine.  The Romans too had this sense, if more abstractly.

Perhaps the best I can say for a retranslation is this: The glory of Heraclitus is that he remains someone whose ideas we can never quite fix–or translate.  His punning terse Greek remains fascinatingly uncertain and shifting, no matter how much we study or mull.  I tell my students that the best scholars can’t do much better than an amateur can do on first reading.  So I make them learn the Greek: êthos anthrôpoi daimôn.  Once you memorize these three words you can translate and retranslate them as often as you think of them; once you have a sense of them you almost cannot help yourself from trying to understand them better, in different ways.   As Heraclitus said of his Logos, you will never reach the end of it.