What does Hemingway mean when he says "But, thank God, they are not as intelligent as we who kill them; although they are more noble and able" in The Old Man and the Sea?

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Santiago in Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea demonstrates a great respect for the fish that are, in effect, his foes.  He respects and in a sense loves the fish, though he catches them, or tries to, in order to stay alive himself. 

In the quote you ask about,...

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Santiago in Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea demonstrates a great respect for the fish that are, in effect, his foes.  He respects and in a sense loves the fish, though he catches them, or tries to, in order to stay alive himself. 

In the quote you ask about, Santiago is grateful that fishermen are smarter than fish.  Humans, of course, have a higher level of intelligence than fish.  This enables someone like Santiago to use tools to catch them.  Otherwise, Santiago would have no hope of competing with a marlin.

Yet, these huge creatures (marlins) are in some ways more noble than humans.  They are far superior in strength, of course, and the marlin Santiago fights with matches his endurance minute by minute and hour by hour.  The fish is a creature who roams freely in its natural environment and is part of the natural world that Santiago respects and admires.  The novel comes down to a test of wills between the fish and Santiago, and though the fisherman wins, it is a great struggle and Santiago wins at great physical costs. 

In fact, it takes a man like Santiago, who shows nobility himself, to defeat the noble and able creature.

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Hemingway is using Santiago, the main character, to comment on the nature of the greatness of the marlin and nature. Santiago is attempting to reel in the great marlin who is "two feet longer than the skiff." The Old Man recognizes that the marlin does not have man's intellect, yet, ironically, as far as nobility of character and strength, the fish is actually greater than man. The marlin and Santiago are likened as brothers. Both illustrate many characteristics of the Hemingway code hero: Bravery, courage, and grace under pressure. The idea of grace under pressure (when the world fall apart around you, you stay calm and face unbeatable odds with courage), is why the marlin is so hard to conquer and what makes this a great tale of an Old Man and a Marlin.

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