Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Epictetus on the Face of a Young Man

Sagely advice from a Stoic philosopher:

Come, let us leave the chief works of nature, and consider merely what she does in passing. Can anything be more useless than the hairs on the chin?  Well, what then?  Has not nature used even these in the most suitable way possible?  Has she not by these means distinguished between the male and the female?  Does not the nature of each one among us cry aloud forthwith from afar, “I am a man; on this understanding approach me; ask for nothing further; behold the signs?”  Again, in the case of women, just as nature has mingled in their voice a certain softer note, so likewise she has taken the hair from their chins.  Not so, you say; on the contrary the human animal ought to have been left without distinguishing features, and each of us ought to proclaim by word of mouth, “I am a man.”  Nay, but how fair and becoming and dignified the sign is!  How much more fair than the cock’s comb, how much more magnificent than the lion’s mane!  Wherefore, we ought to preserve the signs which God has given; we ought not to throw them away; we ought not, so far as in us lies, to confuse the sexes which have been distinguished in this fashion….

Young man, whom do you wish to make beautiful?  First 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 “rationality”? 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 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 plucked out their own hairs do what they do without realizing what it means.  Man, what reason have you to complain against your nature?  Because it brought you into the world as a man?  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 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?... [W]omankind?  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, and perchance a warden of the city…or general, or superintendent of the games?  Well, 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.”

--Epictetus, Discourses of Epictetus written by the Roman historian Lucius Flavius Arrian, 108 A.D (Book I. 16; Book III I.16;24-36).

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