May 26, 2018 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Epictetus' Discourses

Freedom from Hasty Judgments

Key ideas of this discourse

  1. Actions are neutral. What makes them good or bad is the judgment on which they were based.
  2. Don’t be carried away be external appearances and make hasty judgments.
  3. What a person does is more important than what he claims he is.
  4. If you want to make progress, train yourself and be patient. Don’t try to show off before you are ready.
What makes an action good or bad is your judgment behind it

Never praise or blame a person for things that may be either good or bad; don’t think of it as evidence of that person’s skill or lack of it. This way, you will escape hasty judgment and malice.

“He washes quickly.”

“Is this, therefore acting badly?”

“No, not at all.”

“What’s he doing then?”

“He washes quickly.”

“So, it is all right then?”

“No, that doesn’t follow. [No conclusion about right and wrong can be drawn by his act. His actions themselves are indifferent, and we do not know the reason behind his actions to make a judgement.] If his action is the result of correct judgment, then it is good. If it is the result of bad judgment, it is bad. So, until you know a person’s judgement behind their actions, you should neither praise nor criticize their actions.”

Now, you cannot decide easily the nature of judgment behind an action by outward appearances.

“He is a carpenter.”


“He’s using a carpenter’s tool.”

“What does that prove?”

“She is a musician because she’s singing.”

“What does that prove?”

“He is a philosopher.”


“Because he is wears rough clothes and has long hair.”

So too do tramps. For that reason, if you find someone with that clothing and hair misbehaving, you should not immediately say, ‘Look at that philosopher misbehaving!’. You should rather say, based on the person’s misbehaviour, ‘Look at that person. He is no philosopher at all.’ If you think all that defines a philosopher is wearing rough clothes and sporting long hair, then you’d be right. But if you think of a philosopher as someone who is free from error, why do they not take away his designation as a philosopher when he doesn’t behave like one?

Don’t blame the profession because of a bad professional

This is not how you judge other professions. If you find someone shaping wood clumsily with an axe, you don’t say, “What’s the use of carpentry? See how bad a carpenter is.” Instead you say, “He is no carpenter. He is bad handling an axe.”

Similarly, if you hear someone singing badly, you don’t say, “Look, how musicians sing,” but rather, “She’s no musician.”

It is only regarding philosophy that people have this attitude. If someone behaves in a way that conflicts with the requirements of their profession, they don’t refuse him the title of philosopher. Instead, they take him to be one and his misbehavior as evidence of philosophy serving no useful purpose.


“Because we pay some attention to our conception of a carpenter or musician, but not to that of philosopher. Because our conception is confused and vague, we judge a philosopher by external appearances alone.”

What other art requires one to adopt just costume and hairstyle but has no principles, subject matter, and aim?

“So, what is the subject matter of a philosopher? Is it rough clothes?”

“No, it is reason.”

“What’s his aim? To wear rough clothes?”

“No, but to reason correctly.”

“What are his principles? To grow a long beard and thick hair?”

“No. Rather, as Zeno says, to understand the elements of reason and their nature, how they fit with one another and what comes out of all these facts.”

Then, why don’t you first examine whether a philosopher is true to his profession by misbehaving before accusing the profession itself? As it stands, because he seems to you to be acting badly while you are acting decently, you say, “Look at that philosopher!” as though it is proper to call a person behaving that way a philosopher. And then you say, “Is that what being a philosopher means?” But you don’t say “Look at that carpenter!” or “Look at that musician!” when you know one of them is an adulterer and you see them eat like a glutton.

So, to a certain degree, you do see what a philosopher’s profession is, but you slip up and get confused by your own carelessness.

Don’t get carried away by external appearances

But even those we call philosophers pursue their profession by means that may be sometimes good and sometimes bad. The moment they put on a philosopher’s cloak and grow a beard they declare, “I’m a philosopher!” Yet no one says that she’s a musician the moment she buys a musical instrument. No one says that he is a blacksmith because he has put on a felt cap and apron. No, they get their titles from their art, not from their clothes.

It is for this reason that [philosopher who dressed conventionally] Euphrates said,

“For a long time, I tried to hide the fact that I was a philosopher, and this worked for me. First, whatever I did, I did for my own sake and not for the sake of those watching me. It was for me that I ate properly, looked calm in the way I looked and moved. All this was for me and my God. Also, the contest was mine alone and so were the risks. If I did anything shameful or improper, it did not affect the cause of philosophy; I didn’t commit faults as a philosopher. So those who did not know my intention used to wonder why I never became a philosopher, even though I knew all philosophers and lived with them. And where is the harm when people discover me as a philosopher because of what I do rather than by the way I dress?”

So, if you know how, judge me by all this: How I eat, how I sleep, how I endure, how I refrain, how I help, how I deal with my desires and aversions, how I preserve my relationships – natural or acquired, without confusion and without obstruction. But if you are so deaf and blind that you cannot even recognize [the divine patron of blacksmiths] Hephaestus as a good blacksmith without a felt cap on his head, where is the harm in not being recognized by so foolish a judge?

This is how most people failed to recognize Socrates for what he was. They would come and ask him to introduce them to philosophers. Was he irritated by them, as we should be, and say, “What! Don’t I look like a philosopher to you?” No, he would take them to other philosophers and introduce them. He was satisfied with just being a philosopher and was happy that he wasn’t annoyed by people not recognizing him as one. He always kept in mind his true business. What is the function of a good and excellent person? To have many pupils? Not at all. Let those who have made it their aim look to that. Is it to explain difficult theories precisely? Let others look to it too.

In what area, then, was he someone of note and wanted to be so? In an area where there was hurt and help. He said, “If someone can hurt me, then I am achieving nothing. If I wait for somebody to help me, I amount to nothing. If I want something and it doesn’t happen, then I am miserable.” It is in this great arena that he challenged others to engage with him and, in my opinion, did not give in to anyone. In what way, do you think? Was it by proclaiming and saying, “I am such and such a man.”? Far from it. It was being such and such a man.

Judge people by their actions, not by what they say they are

It is the part of a fool and show-off to say, “I am tranquil and serene. Don’t be ignorant, you people, while you are agitated and confused over things of no value, I alone am free from all disturbance.” So, it is not enough for you to be pain free without also declaring “Come here, all of you who suffer from gout, or headache, or fever, or are lame, or blind and see how free I am from every disorder!” This is boastful and vulgar, unless you could show, like Asclepius [the son of Apollo], how they could treat all their ills and you are showing off your health as a proof of it.

Such is the course followed by the Cynic deemed worthy of receiving the sceptre and crown of Zeus and says,

“So, you may see, all mankind, you are seeking happiness and peace of mind not where it is, but where it is not. Behold, God has sent me to you as an example. I have no property, no house, no wife, no children, not even a bed, tunic, or furniture. See how healthy I am. Test me. If you see I am free from turmoil, hear my remedies and the treatment that cured me.”

Now that is humane and noble. But see whose work it is. It is the work of God, or the work of someone deemed worthy by God, such that he may never lay bare anything before people that would undermine him as the witness for virtue and against external things.

His fair features never paled, nor from his cheeks
Ever wiped he a tear. [Homer, Odyssey, 11.529-1, CG/RH]

And not only this, he must neither yearn for something, nor seek after it – be it a person, place or a lifestyle – like children seeking after the vintage season or holidays. He must surround and adorn himself on every side with self-respect, as others do with walls, doors, and door-keepers.

But, as it stands, people are drawn towards philosophy like people with acid indigestion are drawn towards foods that they soon cannot stand. Then they set off after the sceptre, the kingdom. They let their hair grow long, put on rough clothes, bare their shoulder, and argue with everyone they meet. If they find someone with an overcoat, they quarrel with that person.

Train hard before you can blossom

Man, take a hard winter training first. Look at your own choices to see if they aren’t those of a person with indigestion, or of a woman with the cravings of pregnancy. Practice so you don’t let people know who you are at first. Keep your philosophy to yourself for a while. This is how fruit is produced: the seed must be buried and hidden for a season; it must then grow slowly to perfection.

But if it heads out before the stalk is properly jointed, it never matures, as with the plants in a garden of Adonis. [“Plants in a garden of Adonis” is proverbial saying for incompleteness and early fading.] Now you are like this plant. You have bloomed before your time and will wither in winter. See what farmers say about seeds when the hot weather comes early. They are worried that the seeds will grow lush, only to be destroyed in a single frost, exposing their weakness.

You should be careful, man. You have grown lush. You have leaped forward and gained some reputation before its due time. As a fool among fools, you think that you are somebody. You will be bitten by the frost; rather you have already been bitten by the frost down at the root. [A preposterous metaphor according to W.A. Oldfather since protected roots are not frostbitten ahead of the exposed parts of the plant.] You will still blossom a little at the top and think that you are still alive and flourishing.

Allow us at least to ripen as nature wishes. Why do you expose us to elements, why force us? We are not yet ready to face open air. Let the root grow, let it acquire the first joint, then the second, and then the third. Then, finally, the fruit will force its way out, even if I don’t want it to. Who that has conceived and is full of such great judgments can be unaware of his own nature and resources? Will he not be in a hurry to act according to them? Why, a bull is not unaware of its nature and resources when some wild beast comes along and does not wait for somebody to encourage him. Not does a dog, when he sees some wild animal.

If I possess the resources of a good person, shall I wait for you to come up and equip me for my proper work? But, believe me, I don’t have them yet. Why then would you have me wither away before my time, just as you have done?

Think about this

Until you learn the judgment from which a man performs each separate act, neither praise his action nor blame it. Discourses IV.8.3. Epictetus [WO]