Goes With The Job

One of the responsibilities of the Greek professor at Seabury involves the perpetual translation of an inscription on one of the seminary common-room fireplaces. Yesterday in our Greek study group, Beth and Jane asked me about it again: Ηθος Ανθρωπος Δαιμων, (Ethos Anthropos Daimon).

I hadn’t done the background work on the quotation before — just gave a translation from reasoning about what I was told, that is, “Character is a person’s tutelary spirit” (I’ve also said “guardian angel,” with explanation). That never satisfied me, quite; I disliked the sequence of nouns in the nominative, though that could be a proverbial style. Exactly what to do with daimon wasn’t clear to me, either; I figured it was a personal guiding spirit such as Socrates invokes.

So yesterday I did the research legwork to find out (a) that my sources had misquoted the fireplace,
Ethos Anthrwpwi daimon
which actually reads Ηθος Ανθρωπῳ Δαιμων, and then (b) that the saying comes from Heraclitus, Fragment 119 (some of the translations here look odd, but it has the Greek side-by-side), and the generally accepted sense of daimon here is that of “fate” or “destiny.” That works better — “A person’s character is their destiny” — and now instead of three nominatives, we have a dative of interest (“dative of the possessor,” Smyth 1474), which makes perfect sense.

2 comments / Add your comment below

  1. My copy of Brooks Haxton’s translation has it as fragment 121 with the translation as, “One’s bearing shapes one’s fate.”

    Compatible, just an FYI thing. Heraclitus seems like he was a pretty cool guy.

  2. In fairness, I’d like to point out that Jane and I also were relaying the fragment based on what we’d been told was written there… so it was really the sources’ sources misquoting the fireplace. We screwed up the quadratic equation on our own, but I plead not guilty on this one.

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