December 13, 2017 - Ancient Stoicism in Plain English
Your Choices Shape Your Excellence
Key ideas of this discourse
What makes an animal excellent does not make a human being excellent.
Your superiority as a human being comes from your ability to reason.
Adorn yourself as befits a human being.
Your beauty comes from the nature of your choices.
The excellence of an animal is not the excellence of a human
A richly dressed rhetoric student with an elaborate hair style came to Epictetus. Epictetus asked the student:
“Tell me, don’t you think that some dogs and horses are beautiful? And, in general, is this not true of all animals?”
“Yes, it is.”
“Is this also not true of human beings – some are beautiful, others ugly?”
“Do we call an animal beautiful because it is beautiful in a general sort of way or because it is beautiful in a specific way? For example, a dog is born for one thing and a horse for another, and a nightingale for yet another. Each one is beautiful when it fulfils its function, its own nature. But the nature of each is different, so each must be beautiful in a different way. Do you agree?”
“I suppose so.”
“I imagine that what makes a pentathlete look good would not make a wrestler look good. It may even make a runner look absurd. The qualities that make a pentathlete look beautiful may make a wrestler look ugly.”
“Then, is what makes a man beautiful the same as what makes a dog or a horse beautiful in its kind?”
“Then, what makes a dog beautiful?”
“Its excellence as a dog.”
“What makes a horse beautiful?”
“Its excellence as a horse.”
“What makes a human being beautiful? Shouldn’t it be the excellence of a human being? So, young man, if you want to appear beautiful, you should strive for the excellence of a human being. ”
“And what might that be?”
“When you praise people in an unbiased way, who do you praise: the just or the unjust?”
“The moderate or those who indulge in excess?”
“The restrained or the unrestrained?”
“If you make yourself such a person, you can be sure that you make yourself beautiful. If you neglect these things, no matter what you do to make yourself appear beautiful, you will necessarily be ugly.”
Beyond that, I don’t know what I can tell you. If I say anything more, I will hurt your feelings, and you will go away, perhaps never to return. But if I don’t say anything, consider my behaviour: You come to me hoping you would gain some improvement and I bring you none. You come to me as a philosopher and I don’t act like one. Besides how is it not cruel on my part not to correct you? Should you come to your senses sometime in the future, you’ll have good reason to accuse me:
“Epictetus saw me in such a disgraceful condition and yet didn’t say a word. What did he observe in me that he left me as I was? Did he despair of me so much? Was I not young? Was I not ready to listen to reason? Aren’t there many other young people who make many such mistakes at their age? I have heard of one Polemo who was depraved in his youth and yet changed totally later. Maybe Epictetus didn’t think I could be a Polemo; but he could at least have straightened my hair, stripped me of my ornaments, and prevented me from plucking my hairs from my body. Even though he saw me looking like – what shall I say? – he kept quiet.”
Exceptional beings are different from the rest
For my part, I won’t say what you look like. But, when you come to your senses, you will realize what it is and what kind of people behave this way. If you accuse me someday, how will I defend myself? Yes, but what if I speak and you don’t pay any attention? Did Laius pay any attention to Apollo? [Apollo told Laius, who fathered Oedipus, that, if he had a son, the son would kill his father and marry his mother.] Did he not go away, get drunk, and dismiss the oracle from his mind? That did not stop Apollo telling him the truth. While I may have no idea if you would listen to me or not, Apollo knew perfectly well that Laius would pay no attention to him and yet he spoke anyway.
“Why did he speak?”
Did Socrates succeed in persuading all who came to see him to take care of their character? No, not one in a thousand. Yet, as he has been appointed to this post by God (as he himself says), he never abandoned the post. What did he say to the judges?
“If you release me on condition that I should no longer act as I do now, I won’t accept your offer. I won’t stop acting the way I do now. I’ll go up to the young and old – that is everyone I meet – and ask them the same questions I ask now. Above all, I will question you, my fellow citizens, because you are most closely related to me.”
“Why are you so inquisitive and meddlesome, Socrates? What does it matter to you how we behave?”
“What are you saying? You are my companion and my relative. Yet you neglect yourself, provide the city a bad citizen, your relatives with a bad relative, and your neighbours with a bad neighbour.”
“Why, who are you?”
“I am he whose duty it is to take care of human beings.”
It is no small thing to be in a position to reply this way. When a lion comes along, no small ox dares to confront him. But if a bull comes forward to confront him, say to the bull – if you think fit – “Who are you?” or, “Why do you care?” Man, in every species nature produces an exceptional being. Among cattle, among dogs, among bees, among horses. Don’t ask that exceptional being, “Why, who are you?” If you do, it will, one way or another, find a voice that will tell you, “I am like the purple in the robe. Don’t expect me to be like the rest. Don’t find fault with my nature that made me different from the rest.”
What then? Am I that kind of person? How could I be? How about you? Are you the kind of person who can listen to the truth? I wish you were.
Your superiority lies in your ability to reason
Nevertheless, because I am somehow condemned to wear a grey beard and rough cloak [philosopher’s symbols], and because you came to me as to a philosopher, I will not treat you cruelly or act as though I am despaired of you. Instead, I will ask you: “Young man, whom do you wish to make beautiful?”
First learn who you are and then adorn yourself accordingly.” You are a human being, a mortal animal, capable of using reason to evaluate impressions. What does it mean to use reason? In accordance with nature, and perfectly.
“In what way are you superior? Is it the animal in you?”
“Is it your mortality?”
“The ability to deal with impressions?”
“What makes you superior is your ability to reason. Decorate and beautify that aspect of you. Leave your hair to the creator to fashion the way he sees fit. What else? Are you a man or a woman?”
“Then adorn yourself as man and not as a woman.”
Adorn yourself appropriately
A woman is by nature smooth-skinned and delicate. If she’s covered with hair she would be exhibited as an omen [according to the then prevailing customs]. The same applies to a man. A man devoid of hair would also be considered an omen. But if a man deliberately cuts it off or pulls it out, what can we make of him? How would we exhibit him? What can be we say about him: “A man who would rather be a woman?” How scandalous! Who would not be shocked by this? I do believe that even the men who pluck their hair do so without realizing that this is what they are doing.
Man, what complaint do you have against nature? That she made you a man? Should she have made everyone a woman? If that is the case, for whom would you make yourself beautiful? Does the whole thing displease you? Then go back and make a thorough job of it. Remove – how shall I put it – the cause of all this hairiness? Turn yourself completely into a woman, so we may have no doubt instead of this half-man half-woman thing.
“Who do you want to please? The women? Then please them as a man.”
“But they like men with smooth bodies.”
Go hang yourself. If they liked sexual perverts, would you become one? Is this your business in life? Is this what you were brought into this world for – to make yourself appealing to licentious women? Shall we make a man like you a citizen of Corinth, perhaps a city warden, or superintendent of young men, or army commander, or president of the games? Tell me, will you pluck your hair even when you’re married? For whom? For what purpose? When you become a father, will you introduce your boys to the community with their hair plucked? Oh, what a fine citizen, what a fine senator, what a fine orator!
Is it young men of this kind that we should have born and raised among us? No, young man, by the gods let it not be your fate. Once you have heard these words, go home and tell yourself:
“It wasn’t Epictetus who told me all this. How could he have come up with this? It must be some benevolent god, speaking through him. It would have never entered his mind to say such things, because he is not in the habit of speaking to anyone. Well, let’s obey God then and not incur his anger.”
If a raven gives you a sign through croaking, it isn’t the raven but the god speaking through him. If the god gives a sign through a human voice, will you pretend that it is simply a human being who is saying this to you and fail to recognize the divine voice? Will you not recognize that he gives signs to some people one way, and to other people another way? And, when it comes to the highest and most important matters, he gives the sign through his noblest messenger? What else does the poet mean when he says:
…since we ourselves warned him,
By sending keen-sighted Hermes, the slayer of Argus,
Neither to murder the man, nor make love to his wife.
[Translation by Chris Gill/Robin Hard]
Just as Hermes came down to tell these things to Odysseus, so now the god is telling you the same by sending Hermes [in the form of Epictetus] not to distort what is already right: Let a man be a man, let a woman be a woman, let a beautiful human being be beautiful as a human being, and an ugly human being be ugly as a human being. You are not flesh or hair but what you choose. If you make that beautiful, then you will be beautiful.
Your beauty comes from the nature of your choices
So far I haven’t had the courage to tell you that you are ugly since I believe that you’d rather not hear it. But consider what Socrates said to the most beautiful and attractive of all men, Alcibiades: “Try, then, be beautiful.” What did he mean by it? “Curl your locks and pluck hair from your legs?” Heaven forbid! No, he meant “Make your choices beautiful. Get rid of wrong judgments.”
“How to treat the poor body, then?”
“Leave it to nature. Someone else takes care of that. Leave it to them.”
“Let my body be dirty, then?“
“By no means. Clean your body in accordance with your nature so that a man is clean as a man, a woman as a woman, and a child as a child. Otherwise, we might pluck out a lion’s mane so he may not be left ‘dirty.’ And the cock’s comb as well, since he too needs to be ‘clean.’ Yes he should be, but a cock as a cock, a lion as a lion and the hound as a hound.”