Sacred Texts  Classics  Index  Previous  Next 
Buy this Book at

The Discourses of Epictetus, tr. by P.E Matheson, [1916], at

p. 343




When a young student of rhetoric came into his lecture-room with his hair elaborately arranged and paying great attention to his dress in general: Tell me, said he, do you not think that some dogs and horses are beautiful and some ugly, and is it not so with every creature?

'I think so', he said.

Is not the same true of men, some are beautiful, some ugly?


Now do we give the attribute 'beautiful' to each of them in their own kind on the same grounds or on special grounds in each case? Listen and you will see what I mean. Since we see that a dog is born for one thing and a horse for another, and a nightingale, if you like to take that, for another, speaking generally one would not be giving an absurd opinion in saying that each of them was beautiful when it best fulfilled its nature; and since the nature of each is different, I think that each of them would be beautiful in a different way, would it not?


So that what makes a dog beautiful makes a horse ugly, and what makes a horse beautiful makes a dog ugly, seeing that their natures are different?

'So it seems.'

Yes, for what makes a pancratiast 3-1 beautiful does not, I imagine, make a good wrestler, and makes a very ridiculous runner; and one who is beautiful for the pentathlon makes a very ugly appearance as a wrestler?

'True', he said.

What then makes a man beautiful if it is not that which in its kind makes dog and horse beautiful?

'It is just that', he said.

What then makes a dog beautiful? The presence of a dog's virtue. What makes a horse beautiful? The presence of a horse's virtue. What makes a man beautiful? Is it the presence of a man's virtue? Therefore, young man, if you would be beautiful, make this the object of your effort, human virtue. And what is human virtue? Consider whom

p. 344

you praise, when you praise men dispassionately; do you praise the just or the unjust?

'The just.'

Do you praise the temperate or the intemperate?

'The temperate.'

The continent or the incontinent?

'The continent.'

Therefore if you make yourself such an one, be sure that you will make yourself beautiful, but as long as you neglect this you cannot help being ugly, though you should use every device to appear beautiful.

But beyond this I do not know what more to say to you; for, if I say what I think, I shall vex you and you will go out and perhaps never return, but if I say nothing, consider what my conduct will be then; you come to me to get good, and I shall be refusing to do you good; you come to me to consult a philosopher, and I shall be refusing you a philosopher's advice. Besides, it is cruelty towards you to leave you uncorrected. If some day hereafter you come to your senses you will accuse me with god reason: 'What did Epictetus find in me, that when he saw me coming in to him in such a shameful state he should do nothing for me a say never a word to me? Did he so utterly despair of me? Was I n young? Was I not fit to listen to discourse? How many other young men make many mistakes like me in their youth? I hear that one Polemo, who had been the most intemperate of young men, underwent such a wonderful change. Grant that he did not think I should be a Polemo: he could have set my hair right, have taken away my bangles, have stopped me pulling my hairs out, but seeing that I had the aspect of—whom shall I say?—he said nothing.' I do not say whose aspect this is, but you will say it for yourself when you come to look into your own heart, and you will learn what it means and what sort of men they are who adopt it.

If hereafter you bring this charge against me, what defence shall I be able to make?

Yes, but suppose I do speak, and he will not obey?

Did Laius obey Apollo? Did he not go away in his drunken stupor and dismiss the oracle from his mind? What then? Did Apollo withhold the truth from him for that reason? Indeed I do not know whether you will obey me or not, but Apollo knew most certainly that Laius would not obey, and yet he spoke. Why did he speak? Nay, why is he Apollo, why does he give oracles, why has he set himself in this position, to be a Prophet and a Fountain of truth, so that men from all the world come to him? Why is 'Know thyself' written up over his shrine, though no one understands it?

Did Socrates persuade all who came to him to attend to their characters

p. 345

[paragraph continues] Not one in a thousand! Nevertheless when appointed to this post, as he says, by the ordinance of God, he refused to desert it. Nay, what did he say to his judges? 'If you acquit me', he says, 'on these terms, that I cease to do what I do now, I shall not accept your offer, nor give up my ways, but I shall go to any one I meet, young or old, and put to him these questions that I put now, and I shall question you my fellow citizens far more than any others because you are nearer akin to me.' [Plato, Apology, 29c]

Are you so fussy and interfering, Socrates? What do you care what we do?

'What language to use! You are my fellow and kinsman, yet you neglect yourself and provide the city with a bad citizen, your kinsmen with a bad kinsman, and your neighbours with a bad neighbour!'

'Who are you, then?'

To this question it is a weighty answer to say, 'I am he who is bound to take interest in men.' For ordinary cattle dare not resist the lion; but if the bull comes up to withstand him, say to hire, if you think fit, 'Who are you?' and 'What do you care?' Man! in every class of creatures nature produces some exceptional specimen; it is so among cattle, dogs, bees, horses. Do not say then to the exception, 'What are you then?' If you do, he will get a voice somehow and say, 'I am like the purple in a garment: do not require me to be like the rest, nor blame my nature, because it made me different from the rest.'

What then? Am I fit to play this part? How can I be? And are you fit to hear the truth? Would that it were so! Nevertheless since I am condemned, it seems, to wear a white beard and a cloak, and since you come to me as to a philosopher, I will not treat you cruelly as though I despaired of you, but will say, Young man, who is it that you want to make beautiful? First get to know who you are, and then adorn yourself. You are a man, that is, a mortal creature which has the power to deal with impressions rationally. What does 'rationally' mean? Perfectly, and in accordance with nature. What then is your distinctive possession? Your animal nature? No. Your mortality? No. Your power to deal with impressions? No. Your reasoning faculty is the distinctive one: this you must adorn and make beautiful. Leave your hair to Him that formed it in accordance with His will. Tell me, what other names have you? Are you man or woman?


Adorn Man then, not Woman. Woman is born smooth and tender, and if she has much hair on her body it is a prodigy, and exhibited in Rome as a prodigy. But in a man it is a prodigy not to be hairy: if he is born smooth it is a prodigy, and if he make himself smooth by shaving and plucking, what are we to make of him? Where are we to show

p. 346

him, and what notice are we to put up? 'I will show you a man who prefers to be a woman.' What a shocking exhibition! Every one will be astonished at the notice: by Zeus, I think that even the men who pluck out their hairs do so without understanding that this is what they are doing! Man, what complaint have you to make of Nature? Is it that she made you a man? Ought she to have made all to be women? Why, if all were women, there would be no one to adorn yourself for.

If you are not satisfied with your condition as it is, do the thing completely. Remove—what shall I call it?—that which is the cause of your hairiness; make yourself a woman out and out, and not half-man, half-woman, and then we shall not be misled. Whom do you wish to please? Your darling womenkind? Then please them as a man.

'Yes, but they like smooth men.'

Go and hang yourself! If they liked unnatural creatures, would you become one? Is this your function, is this what you were born for, that profligate women should take pleasure in you? Is it with this character that we are to make you a citizen of Corinth, and, if it so chance, City-warden, or Governor of the Ephebi, 3-2 or General, or Steward of the games? Well, and when you have married a wife, are you going to pluck yourself smooth? For whom and for what? And when you have begotten boys, are you going to bring them into our citizenship as plucked creatures too? Noble citizen and senator and orator! Is this the kind of young man we are to pray to have bred and reared for us?

Nay, by the gods, young man! but when once you have heard these words, go and say to yourself: 'These are not the words of Epictetus: how could they be? but some kind god speaks through him; for it would never have occurred to Epictetus to say this, as he is not wont to speak to any one. Come then, let us obey God, that we may not incur God's wrath.'

Why, if a raven croaks and gives you a sign, it is not the raven that gives the sign, but God through him: and if He gives you a sign through a human voice, will He not be making man tell you this, that you may learn the power of the divine, and see that it gives signs to some in this way, and to others in that, and of the highest and most sovereign matters gives signs through the noblest messenger? What else is the meaning of the poet, when he says

Since we warned him
By Hermes Argus-slayer, clear of sight,
To slay him not nor woo his wedded wife?

                                    [Homer, Odyssey, I. 39]

And as Hermes was sent down to tell him this, so now the gods have sent 'Hermes the Argus-slayer, their messenger,' and tell you this—not

p. 347

to pervert what is good and right, and not to interfere with it, but to leave man man and woman woman, the beautiful person a beautiful person, and the ugly person an ugly person. For you are not flesh, nor hair, but a rational will: if you get this beautiful, then you will be beautiful.

So far I do not dare to tell you that you are ugly, for I think you would hear anything rather than that. But see what Socrates says to Alcibiades, most beautiful and charming of men: 'Strive then to attain beauty.' What does he say to him? Does he say, 'Arrange your hair and smooth your legs'? God forbid! but 'Set your will in order, rid it of bad judgements.'

'How treat the poor body then?'

According to its nature: that is God's concern, trust it to Him. 'What then? Is the body to be unclean?'

God forbid! but cleanse your true, natural self: let man be clean as man, woman as woman, child as child.

Nay, let us pluck out the lion's mane, lest it be unclean, and the cock's comb, for he too must be clean!

Clean? yes, but clean as a cock, and the lion as a lion, and the hound of the chase as such a hound should be.

Next: Chapter II. 1) In What Matters Should the Man Who is to Make Progress Train Himself: And (2) That We Neglect What is Most Vital