June 7, 2018 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Tag(s): Epictetus' Discourses ||

Freedom From Impurities

Key ideas of this discourse

  1. Cleanliness is a human trait.
  2. The first purity is the purity of the mind.
  3. But we should keep our bodies clean as well.
  4. You will be credible when your physical appearance supports you.
  5. Beautify your inner qualities, but don’t neglect your outer appearance
Cleanliness is a human trait

Some people question whether the social instinct is a necessary element of human nature. Even these people, it seems to me, would not question that the instinct of cleanliness is distinctly human and humans are distinguished from animals in this quality as much as by anything. [William Oldfather comments that Epictetus is not correct in saying this since animals such as cats, moles, and snakes keep themselves as clean as any human being. Some animals are, in fact, as clean or cleaner than human beings.] So, when we see some animal cleaning itself we are surprised and say that the animal is acting “like a human being.” If we find some animal being dirty, we immediately say, “Well, of course it isn’t a human being.”

Thus, we think of cleanliness as a distinctly human quality, which we first received from the gods. Since gods are by nature pure and unsoiled, to the extent humans are close to the gods by way of reason, to that extent humans are pure and clean. But human beings, by nature, cannot be very pure because of the material they are made of. Their rationality given to them by the gods tries to keep it as clean as possible.

The first purity is the purity of the mind

The first and the highest purity is what develops in the mind. The same is true of bodily impurity. But you would not find the impurity of the body to be the same as that of the mind. What could make the mind more impure than what soils it regarding carrying out its own actions? Now the actions the mind is to exercise are

  • choice and refusal;
  • desires and aversions; and
  • preparations, intentions, and assents.

What is it, then, that makes the mind dirty and impure in these actions? Nothing other than its bad judgments. So, the impurity of the mind consists of its bad judgments, and the purity of mind consists of creating within it the right judgments. A pure mind is, therefore, one that makes right judgments. That kind of mind alone can escape confusion and pollution of its own actions.

We should keep our bodies clean as well

We should try, as far as possible, to achieve something like this for our body too. It is impossible not to have some flow of mucus, because we are made that way. For that reason, nature has created hands and has made our nostrils like tubes to carry away the fluids. So, if anyone sniffs them up again, I say he isn’t acting as a human being should.

“It’s impossible for the feet not to get muddy and dirty when we pass through things of that kind.”

“So, nature has provided us with water and with hands.”

“It’s impossible that some impurity from eating should not remain on the teeth.”

“Nature says ‘wash your teeth.’”


“So that you may be a human being and not a wild beast or a pig.”

“It’s impossible that through our sweat and the pressure of our clothes, some uncleanliness should not be left behind on our body that needs to be cleaned.”

“For this reason we have water, oil, hands, a towel, a scraper, and everything else that is used for cleaning the body. Not in your case? But a smith will remove the rust from his iron, and has tools made for that purpose. You yourself wash your plate before you eat, unless you are hopelessly dirty and unclean. But will you not wash your body and keep it clean?”

“Why should I?”

“Let me say it again. First, to act like a human being and second, not to offend those whom you meet. You are doing something like this here, without realizing it. You think it is all right to smell bad. But do you think it is also all right for those who sit with you, those who recline by you at table, and those who kiss you?”

Oh, go off to into some backwoods, that’s what you deserve. Spend your life there alone, smelling yourself. It is only right that you enjoy your uncleanliness all by yourself. But you are living in a city. What kind of character are you exhibiting when you behave without thought or consideration?

If nature has given you a horse under your care, would you have totally ignored it? Well then, think of your body as a horse that’s entrusted to you. Wash it, rub it down, make it such that no one will turn their back on you or try to avoid you. But who doesn’t want to avoid someone who is dirty and smelly, whose skin looks even worse than someone who is smeared with dung? In the latter case, the stench is external and accidental, but in your case, it is because of your neglect and, therefore, comes from within, as though you have grown completely rotten.

“But Socrates rarely bathed.”

“And yet his body looked radiant. He was so agreeable and pleasing that the most handsome and noble were taken with him. They wanted to sit with him rather than with those with the finest features. He might have never bathed or washed, if he so pleased. Yet even his rare baths were effective.”

“But Aristophanes says, ‘I speak of pallid men who go barefoot.’”

“Yes, but he also says that Socrates ‘walked on air’ and stole people’s clothes at the wrestling school. [That is to say that Aristophanes’ evidence is of no value.] Yet all those who have written about Socrates say exactly the opposite: He was not just pleasant to listen to, but pleasant to look at. They have written the same about Diogenes, too.”

You will be credible when your physical appearance supports you

Even by the way we look, we shouldn’t do anything to scare people away from philosophy. In our body, as in everything else, we should show ourselves to be appealing and untroubled. “Look, people. I have nothing, and I need nothing. I have no house and no city and am a refugee, if it so happens, and have no hearth. Yet, see how I live a happier and a more untroubled life than all the noble and the rich. Yes, and you can see how even my poor body is not injured by my plain living.”

But if someone with the appearance and expression of a condemned person tells me this, what god will persuade me to come near philosophy, if those are the sorts of people philosophy produces? It is not for me. I would not do it. Not even if it would make me a wise person.

I’d rather have young people who are just beginning to feel drawn towards philosophy come to me with hair well-dressed rather than dishevelled and dirty. For it shows that here is a young person with a certain sense of beauty and a desire for elegance, and where he sees it, he cultivates it. And all I have to do is to show him the way, and say, “Young man, you’re seeking the beautiful, and you’ll do well. Know then, it comes from your reasoning faculty. Look for it there where you have your impulses to act or not to act, where you have desires and aversions. This part is something special you have within you, but your body is nothing but clay. Why trouble yourself about it for no purpose? If you learn nothing else, time will at least teach you that it is nothing.”

But if he comes to me soiled and dirty, with moustaches down to his knees, what can I say to him? What sort of comparison can I give to convince him? What has he ever concerned himself with that is beautiful, so I can redirect his attention and say, “Beauty not there, but here.”? Do you want me to tell him, “Beauty does not lie in being soiled and dirty, but in reason.”? Does he care for beauty? Does he show any sign of it? Go and argue with a pig that it should not wallow in mud! It was for this reason that the discourses of Xenocrates appealed even to Polemo, a young man who loved beauty. He had come to Xenocrates with the first glimmers of enthusiasm for the beautiful, though he was looking for it in the wrong place. [Polemo, the head of the Platonic Academy and the teacher of Zeno was converted to philosophy by Xenocrates, the previous head of the Academy. See Discourses 3.11]

As a matter of fact, nature has not made dirty even the animals which associate with humans. Does a horse wallow in mud? Or a well-bred dog? But the pig, filthy geese, worms, and spiders – the creatures farthest removed from humans – do. Do you not then, a human being, want to be even among the animals that associate with humans, but rather be a worm or a spider? Will you not take a bath somewhere, sometime in any way you like? Will you not wash yourself? If you don’t like hot water, then use cold. Will you not come to us clean, that your companions may be happy. What, do you even enter our temples that way, where it is forbidden by custom to spit or blow one’s nose, when you yourself are nothing more than spit and drivel?

Beautify your inner qualities, but don’t neglect your outer appearance

Well, what then? Is anyone demanding that you make yourself beautiful? By no means, except in those things that nature requires: the reason, its judgments, and its activities. But with regards to your body, only so far as cleanliness demands, to avoid offending others. If you hear that one shouldn’t wear purple, go off, smear your cloak with dung or tear it to pieces.

“Where can I find rough clothes that look good?”

“Man, you have water, wash it. Look, here’s a lovable young man, here is an old man worthy of love and to be loved in return. Here is someone to whom one can entrust the education of one’s son; to whom perhaps daughters and young men will come – all to having him deliver his lectures from dung-hill! Heavens, no!”

Every eccentricity is the result of some human trait. But this comes close to not being human at all.

Think about this

Is anyone demanding that you beautify yourself? Heaven forbid! except that you beautify that which is our true nature – the reason, its judgments, and its activities; but your body, only so far as cleanliness only so far as to keep it cleanly; only so far as to avoid giving offence. Discourses IV.11.33. Epictetus [WO]