Friday, April 19, 2019

Epictetus Discourses 3.1 - On personal adornment

Is keeping your hair combed and wearing nice clothes important to a Stoic?

Epictetus answers this question from a student "whose hair was arranged in a rather too fussy manner, and whose clothing was in general very showy" (v. 1, p. 142).

He begins by observing that dogs, horses and birds are beautiful for what they are - for how they are suited to their nature.  "It wouldn't be absurd for one to declare overall that each of them is beautiful precisely in so far as it best fulfills its own nature; and since each is different in nature, it would seem to me that each of them is beautiful in a different way" (v. 3, p. 142).  He further explains that "what makes a dog beautiful will make a horse ugly, and what makes a horse beautiful will make a dog ugly" (v. 4, p. 142).

Subsequently, you must ask yourself: what makes a human beautiful?  Epictetus teaches, "if you want to be beautiful for your own part, you should strive to achieves this, the excellence that characterizes a human being" (v. 7, p. 142).

What is excellence in a human being?  Excellence is defined as being just, temperate and self-controlled (see v. 8-9, p. 142-143) or as the Stoics would say, you should live according to nature by seeking the good.  And virtue is the sole good.

The next section gets into the topic of duties, namely the duty of a philosopher.  In this specific instance, Epictetus wonders if by saying more, he would offend the student.  But also, if he doesn't saying something to instruct the student, then Epictetus has done the student a greater disservice ("how could it be anything other than cruel for me to leave you unreformed?" v. 11, p. 143).  He eventually discusses Socrates and his duty towards the human race.  "Did Socrates succeed in persuading all who approached him to take proper care of themselves?  Not even one in a thousand.  But all the same, since he had been appointed to this post by the deity [and] he never abandoned it" (v. 19, p. 144).

His duty, as he saw it was to "interrogate [his] fellow citizens, because [they were] most closely related to [him]" (v. 20, p. 144).  He readily recognized he was not like the vast majority of people, and he viewed himself as the purple stripe in a robe - unlike the rest of the stripes, but nonetheless important (see v. 23, p. 144).

Epictetus returns to the topic at hand - on personal adornment.  He instructs, "Learn first to know who you are, and then adorn yourself accordingly.  You're a human being; that is to say, a mortal animal who has the capacity to make use of impressions in a rational manner.  And what does it mean, to use them rationally?  To use them in accordance with nature and perfectly.  What is superior in you, then?  The animal in you?  No.  The mortal?  No.  The capacity to make use of impressions?  No.  The rational element in you - that is what is superior in you.  Adorn and beautify that; but as for your hair, leave it to him who made it in accordance with his will" (v. 25-26, p. 144-145, emphasis added).

The next part gets off on a bit of a tangent about the specifics of whether one should shave or not (if you are a man).  His opinion is, if God made it so that you should grow a beard, as a man, then do so.  But if you shave, when in fact you can grow a beard, you might as well cut off your testicles and "turn yourself into a woman fully and completely so that we may no longer be in doubt" (v. 31, p. 145).  Some people may retort to Epictetus that women like smooth-skinned men, to which he replies, "But if they like inverts, I suppose, you'd become one of those?  Is this your business in life, then; is this what you were brought into the world for, to make yourself appealing to licentious women?" (v. 32-33, p. 145).

He concludes, "let a man be a man, a woman be a woman, and one who is beautiful be beautiful as a human being, and one who is ugly be ugly as a human being.  For you yourself are neither flesh nor hair, but choice, and if you render that beautiful, then you yourself will be beautiful" (v. 39-40, p. 146 emphasis added).  "Beautify your moral choice, and eradicate your bad judgments" (v. 43, p. 146).

And one parting rebuttal to people who think beards are dirty.  "Heaven forbid!"  We ought to keep clean, but we don't shear the lion's mane or the cock's comb to keep it clean!

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