Epictetus, the Discourses as reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments/Book 3/Chapter 1


Of personal adornment

Once, when he was visited by a young student of rhetoric whose hair was somewhat too elaborately dressed, and whose attire in general was highly embellished, Epictetus said: Tell me if you do not think that some dogs are beautiful, and some horses, and so every other creature.—I do, said the young man.—Is not the same true also of men, some of them are handsome, and some ugly?—Of course.—Do we, then, on the same grounds, pronounce each of these creatures in its own kind beautiful, or do we pronounce each beautiful on special grounds? I shall show you what I mean. Since we see that a dog is born to do one thing, and a horse another, and, if you will, a nightingale for something else, in general it would not be unreasonable for one to declare that each of them was beautiful precisely when it achieved supreme excellence in terms of its own nature; and, since each has a different nature, each one of them, I think, is beautiful in a different fashion. Is that not so?—He agreed.—Does it not follow, then, that precisely what makes a dog beautiful, makes a horse ugly, and precisely what makes a horse beautiful, makes a dog ugly, if, that is, their natures are different?—So it appears.5—Yes, for, to my way of thinking, what makes a pancratiast[1] beautiful does not make a wrestler good, and, more than that, makes a runner quite absurd: and the same man who is beautiful for the pentathlon[2] is very ugly for wrestling?—That is so, said he.—What, then, makes a man beautiful other than just that which makes a dog or a horse beautiful in its kind?—Just that, said he.—What is it, then, that makes a dog beautiful? The presence of a dog's excellence. What makes a horse beautiful? The presence of a horse's excellence. What, then, makes a man beautiful? Is it not the presence of a man's excellence? Very well, then, young man, do you too, if you wish to be beautiful, labour to achieve this, the excellence that characterizes a man.—And what is that?—Observe who they are whom you yourself praise, when you praise people dispassionately; is it the just, or the unjust?—The just;—is it the temperate, or the dissolute?—The temperate;—and is it the self-controlled, or the uncontrolled?—The self-controlled.—In making yourself that kind of person, therefore, rest assured that you will be making yourself beautiful; but so long as you neglect all this, you must needs be ugly, no matter if you employ every artifice to make yourself look beautiful.

10Beyond that I know not what more I can say to you; for if I say what I have in mind, I shall hurt your feelings, and you will leave, perhaps never to return; but if I do not say it, consider the sort of thing I shall be doing. Here you are coming to me to get some benefit, and I shall be bestowing no benefit at all; and you are coming to me as to a philosopher, and I shall be saying nothing to you as a philosopher. Besides, is it anything but cruel for me to leave you unreformed? If some time in the future you come to your senses, you will have good reason to blame me: "What did Epictetus observe in me," you will say to yourself, "that, although he saw me in such a condition and coming to him in so disgraceful a state, he should let me be so and say never a word to me? Did he so completely despair of me? Was I not young? Was I not ready to listen to reason? And how many other young fellows make any number of mistakes of the same kind in their youth? I am told that once there was a certain Polemo[3] who from being a very dissolute young man underwent such an astonishing transformation. Well, suppose he did not think that I should be another Polemo; he could at least have set my hair right, he could have stripped me of my ornaments, he could have made me stop plucking my hairs; but although he saw me looking like—what shall I say?—he held his peace." 15As for me, I do not say what it is you look like, but you will say it, when you come to yourself, and will realize what it is and the kind of people those are who act this way.

If you bring this charge against me some day, what shall I be able to say in my own defence? Yes; but suppose I speak and he not obey. And did Laius obey Apollo?[4] Did he not go away and get drunk and say good-bye to the oracle? What then? Did that keep Apollo from telling him the truth? Whereas I do not know whether you will obey me or not. Apollo knew perfectly well that Laius would not obey, and yet he spoke.—But why did he speak?—And why is he Apollo? And why does he give out oracles? And why has he placed himself in this position,[5] to be a prophet and a fountain of truth, and for the inhabitants of the civilized world to come to him? And why are the words "Know thyself" carved on the front of his temple, although no one pays attention to them?

Did Socrates succeed in prevailing upon all his visitors to keep watch over their own characters? No, not one in a thousand. Nevertheless, once he had been assigned this post, as he himself says, by the ordinance of the Deity,[6] he never abandoned it. Nay, what does he say even to his judges? 20"If you acquit me," he says, "on these conditions, namely, that I no longer engage in my present practices, I will not accept your offer, neither will I give up my practices, but I will go up to young and old, and, in a word, to everyone that I meet, and put to him the same question that I put now, and beyond all others I will especially interrogate you," he says, "who are my fellow-citizens, inasmuch as you are nearer akin to me."[7] Are you so inquisitive, O Socrates, and meddlesome? And why do you care what we are about? "Why, what is that you are saying? You are my partner and kinsman, and yet you neglect yourself and provide the State with a bad citizen, and your kin with a bad kinsman, and your neighbours with a bad neighbour." "Well, who are you?" Here it is a bold thing to say, "I am he who must needs take interest in men." For no ordinary ox dares to withstand the lion himself;[8] but if the bull comes up and withstands him, say to the bull, if you think fit, "But who are you?" and "What do you care?" Man, in every species nature produces some superior individual, among cattle, dogs, bees, horses. Pray do not say to the superior individual, "Well, then, who are you?" Or if you do, it will get a voice from somewhere and reply to you, "I am the same sort of thing as red in a mantle;[9] do not expect me to resemble the rest, and do not blame my[† 1] nature[10] because it has made me different from the rest."

What follows? Am I that kind of person? Impossible. Are you, indeed, the kind of person to listen to the truth? I would that you were! But nevertheless, since somehow or other I have been condemned to wear a grey beard and a rough cloak,[11] and you are coming to me as to a philosopher, I shall not treat you cruelly, nor as though I despaired of you, but I shall say: Young man, whom do you wish to make beautiful? 25First learn who you are, and then, in the light of that knowledge, adorn yourself. You are a human being; that is, a mortal animal gifted with the ability to use impressions rationally. And what is "rationally"? In accordance with nature and perfectly. What element of superiority, then, do you possess? The animal in you? No. Your mortality? No. Your ability to use impressions? No. Your reason is the element of superiority which you possess; adorn and beautify that; but leave your hair to Him who fashioned it as He willed. Come, what other designations apply to you? Are you a man or a woman?—A man.—Very well then, adorn a man, not a woman. Woman is born smooth and dainty by nature, and if she is very hairy she is a prodigy, and is exhibited at Rome among the prodigies. But for a man not to be hairy is the same thing, and if by nature he has no hair he is a prodigy, but if he cuts it out and plucks it out of himself, what shall we make of him? Where shall we exhibit him and what notice shall we post? "I will show you," we say to the audience, "a man who wishes to be a woman rather than a man." What a dreadful spectacle! No one but will be amazed at the notice; by Zeus, I fancy that even the men who pluck out their own hairs do what they do without realizing what it means. 30Man, what reason have you to complain against your nature?[12] Because it brought you into the world as a man?[13] What then? Ought it to have brought all persons into the world as women? And if that had been the case, what good would you be getting of your self-adornment? For whom would you be adorning yourself, if all were women? Your paltry body[14] doesn't please you, eh? Make a clean sweep of the whole matter; eradicate your—what shall I call it?—the cause of your hairiness; make yourself a woman all over, so as not to deceive us, not half-man and half-woman. Whom do you wish to please? Frail womankind? Please them as a man. "Yes, but they like smooth men." Oh, go hang! And if they liked sexual perverts, would you have become such a pervert? Is this your business in life, is this what you were born for, that licentious women should take pleasure in you? Shall we make a man like you a citizen of Corinth,[15] and perchance a warden of the city, or superintendent of ephebi,[16] or general, or superintendent of the games? 35Well, and when you have married are you going to pluck out your hairs? For whom and to what end? And when you have begotten boys, are you going to introduce them into the body of citizens as plucked creatures too? A fine citizen and senator and orator! Is this the kind of young men we ought to pray to have born and brought up for us?

By the gods, young man, may such not be your fate! But once you have heard these words go away and say to yourself, "It was not Epictetus who said these things to me; why, how could they have occurred to him? but it was some kindly god or other speaking through him. For it would not have occurred to Epictetus to say these things, because he is not in the habit of speaking to anyone. Come then, let us obey God, that we rest not under His wrath." Nay, but if a raven gives you a sign by his croaking, it is not the raven that gives the sign, but God through the raven; whereas if He gives you a sign through a human voice, will you pretend that it is the man who is saying these things to you, so that you may remain ignorant of the power of the divinity, that He gives signs to some men in this way, and to others in that, but that in the greatest and most sovereign matters He gives His sign through His noblest messenger? What else does the poet mean when he says:

Since ourselves we did warn him,
Sending down Hermes, the messenger god, the slayer of Argus,
Neither to murder the husband himself, nor make love to his consort?[17]

As Hermes descended to tell Aegisthus that, so now the gods tell you the same thing.

Sending down Hermes, the messenger god, the slayer of Argus,

not to distort utterly nor to take useless pains about that which is already right, but to leave the man a man, and the woman a woman, the beautiful person beautiful as a human being, the ugly ugly as a human being. 40Because you are not flesh, nor hair, but moral purpose; if you get that beautiful, then you will be beautiful. So far I do not have the courage to tell you that you are ugly, for it looks to me as though you would rather hear anything than that. But observe what Socrates says to Alcibiades, the most handsome and youthfully beautiful of men: "Try, then, to be beautiful."[18] What does he tell him? "Dress your locks and pluck the hairs out of your legs?" God forbid! No, he says, "Make beautiful your moral purpose, eradicate your worthless opinions." How treat your paltry body, then? As its nature is. This is the concern of Another;[19] leave it to Him.—What then? Does the body have to be left unclean?—God forbid! but the man that you are and were born to be, keep that man clean, a man to be clean as a man, a woman as a woman, a child as a child. 45No, but let's pluck out also the lion's mane, so that he may not fail to be "cleaned up," and the cock's comb, for he too ought to be "cleaned up"![20] Clean? Yes, but clean as a cock, and the other clean as a lion, and the hunting dog clean as a hunting dog!


  1. One who specialized in the pancratium, a combination of boxing, wrestling, and plain "fighting."
  2. An all-round competition in running, jumping, wrestling, and hurling the discus and the javelin.
  3. Once when drunk he burst in upon Xenocrates, but was converted by him and eventually succeeded him in the headship of the Academy. See below IV. 11. 30; Diogenes Laertius, 4, 16; and Horace, Sat. II. 3, 253-7.
  4. Who warned him not to beget a son, the ill-starred Oedipus.
  5. For the expression compare II. 4, 3; IV. 10, 16.
  6. Based upon the Apology, 28 E.
  7. A free paraphrase of the Apology, 29 C, E, and 30 A. Compare also I. 9, 23.
  8. Compare I. 2, 30.
  9. Compare I. 2, 17 (and note, where read "bright red") and 22; the reference is to the stripe in the toga praetexta.
  10. See critical note.
  11. External symbols of a philosopher.
  12. Compare the critical note on § 23.
  13. An almost verbatim quotation from Diogenes the Cynic. See Athenaeus, XIII. 565 C.
  14. Compare I. 29. 16 together with note on that passage, and for a more extended discussion Trans. of the Amer. Philol. Assoc., 52 (1921), 46.
  15. The interlocutor must have been a Corinthian.
  16. Young men completing their education and serving their term in the army.
  17. Homer, Odyssey, a, 37-9.
  18. An inexact quotation of Plato, Alcib. I. 131 D.
  19. Compare I, 25, 13; 30, 1; II. 5, 22.
  20. The implication is that the interlocutor's conception of "cleanliness" has to do merely with things external.

Select critical notesEdit

  1. Deleted by Kronenberg, and "nature" rather than "my nature" would seem to be more logical here (cf. Grant's note on Aristotle's Ethics, 2.1.3). But μου is supported by the precisely similar σου of § 30, which is if anything even more illogical. In the original remark of Diogenes, whom Epictetus is clearly quoting in § 30 (see the note at that point), ἐγκαλεῖν τῇ φύσει is used as it is normally in Greek. Apparently we have in these two locutions a form of expression peculiar to Epictetus.