Epictetus, the Discourses as reported by Arrian, the Manual, and Fragments/Book 4/Chapter 11

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Of cleanliness

Some people raise the question whether the social instinct is a necessary element in the nature of man; nevertheless, even these people, as it seems to me, would not question that the instinct of cleanliness is most assuredly a necessary element, and that man is distinguished from the animals by this quality if by anything.[1] When, therefore, we see some other animal cleaning itself, we are in the habit of saying in surprise that it is acting "like a human being." And again, if one finds fault with some beast, we are in the habit of saying immediately, as though in apology, "Well, of course it isn't a human being." So true it is that we consider cleanliness to be a special characteristic of man, deriving it in the first instance from the gods. For since they are by nature pure[2] and undefiled, in so far as men have approached them by virtue of reason, just so far are they attached to purity and cleanliness. But since it is impossible for the nature of men to be altogether pure, seeing that it is composed of such material as it is, the reason which they have received from the gods endeavours to render this material clean as far as is possible.

5Therefore, the prime and highest purity is that which appears in the soul, and the same is true of impurity. But you would not find the same impurity in a soul as you would in a body, and as being soul, what else would you find impure about it than that which makes it dirty for the performance of its own functions? And the functions of a soul are the exercise of choice, of refusal, of desire, of aversion, of preparation, of purpose, and of assent. What, then, can that be which makes the soul dirty and unclean in these functions? Nothing but its erroneous decisions. It follows, therefore, that impurity of a soul consists of bad judgements, and purification consists in creating within it the proper kind of judgements; and a pure soul is the one which has the proper kind of judgements, for this is the only soul which is secure against confusion and pollution in its own functions.

Now one ought to be eager to achieve, as far as may be, something similar to this in the case of the body also. It was impossible that there should be no discharge of mucus from the nose, since man's body has been composed as it is; for that reason nature made hands, and the nostrils like tubes to discharge the humours. If, therefore, a man snuffs back these discharges of mucus, I say that he is not acting as a human being should. 10It was impossible that the feet should not get muddy, nor dirty at all, when they pass through certain such substances; for that reason nature has provided water, for that hands. It was impossible that some impurity from eating should not remain on the teeth; for that reason nature says, "Wash your teeth." Why? In order that you may be a human being, and not a beast or a pig. It was impossible that something dirty and needing to be cleaned off should not be left on the person from our sweat and the pressure of our clothes; for that reason we have water, oil, hands, a towel, a strigil,[3] nitre, and, on occasion, every other kind of equipment to cleanse the body. Not so you.[4] But the smith will remove the rust from his iron tool, and will have implements made for this purpose, and you yourself will wash your plate when you are going to eat, unless you are utterly unclean and dirty; but will you not wash nor make clean your poor body?—Why? says someone.—Again I will tell you: First, so as to do what befits a man; and second, so as not to offend those whom you meet. 15You are doing something of the sort even here, and do not realize it. You think that you are worthy of the smell.[5] Very well, be worthy of it. Do you think, though, that those who sit by your side, those who recline beside you, those who kiss you, are worthy of it too?[6] Bah, go away into a wilderness somewhere or other, a place worthy of you, and live alone, smelling of yourself! For it is only right that you should enjoy your uncleanliness all by yourself. But since you are living in a city, what kind of character do you fancy you are exhibiting, to behave so thoughtlessly and inconsiderately? If nature had committed to your care a horse, would you have utterly neglected it? And now I would have you think that your body has been entrusted to you like a horse; wash it, rub it down, make it so that nobody will turn his back on you or move aside. But who does not avoid a dirty fellow that smells and has an unsightly skin, even more than a man bespattered with dung? In this latter case the smell is external and acquired, in the other it comes from slovenliness that is internal, and is characteristic of one who has grown rotten through and through.

But Socrates bathed infrequently,[7] says someone.—Why, his body was radiant; why, it was so attractive and sweet that the handsomest and most high-born were in love with him, and yearned to sit by his side rather than beside those who had the prettiest forms and features.[8] He might have neither bathed nor washed,[9] had he so desired; yet even his infrequent bathings were effective.[† 1]20—But Aristophanes says,

The pallid men I mean, who shoeless go.[10]

Oh, yes, but then he says also that Socrates "trod the air," and stole people's clothes from the wrestling school.[11] And yet all who have written about Socrates unite in bearing testimony to the precise opposite of this; that he was not merely pleasant to hear, but also to see. Again, men write the same thing about Diogenes. For a man ought not to drive away the multitude from philosophy, even by the appearance of his body, but as in everything else, so also on the side of the body, he ought to show himself cheerful and free from perturbation. "See, O men, that I have nothing, and need nothing. See how, although I am without a house, and without a city, and an exile, if it so chance, and without a hearth, I still live a life more tranquil and serene than that of all the noble and the rich. Yes, and you see that even my paltry body is not disfigured by my hard way of living." But if I am told this by a person who has the bearing and face of a condemned man, what one of all the gods shall persuade me to approach philosophy, if she makes people like that? Far be it from me! I shouldn't be willing to do so, not even if it would make me a wise man.

25As for me, by the gods, I should rather have the young man who was experiencing the first stirrings towards philosophy come to me with his hair carefully dressed, than with it in a state of desperate neglect and dirty. For the first case shows that there exists in the young man a sort of imaging of beauty, and an aiming at comeliness, and where he fancies it to be, there also he devotes his efforts. With that as a starting-point, all that it is necessary to do is to show him the way, and say, "Young man, you are seeking the beautiful, and you do well. Know, then, that it arises in that part of you where you have your reason; seek it there where you have your choices and your refusals, where you have your desires and your aversions. For this part is something of a special kind which you have within you, but your paltry body is by nature only clay. Why do you toil for it to no purpose? If you learn nothing else, time at least will teach you that it is nothing." But if he comes to me bespattered with dung, dirty, his moustache reaching down to his knees, what have I to say to him, from what point of resemblance can I start so as to prevail upon him? For what is there to which he is devoted, that bears any resemblance to the beautiful, so that I may turn him about and say, "Beauty is not there, but here"? Do you want me to say to him, "Beauty does not consist in being bespattered with dung, but in reason"? For is he aiming at beauty? Has he any manifestation of it? Go and talk to a pig, that he may wallow no more in mud! 30That is why the words of Xenocrates laid hold even of a Polemo,[12] because he was a young man who loved beauty. For he came to Xenocrates with glimmerings of a zeal for the beautiful, but was looking for it in the wrong place.[13]

Why, look you, nature has not made dirty even the animals which associate with man. A horse doesn't roll around in the mud, does he? or a highly bred dog? No, but the hog, and the miserable rotten geese, and worms, and spiders, the creatures farthest removed from association with human beings. Do you, then, who are a human being, wish to be not even an animal of the kind that associates with men, but rather a worm, or a spider?[14] Will you not take a bath somewhere, some time, in any form you please? Will you not wash yourself? If you don't care to bathe in hot water, then use cold. Will you not come to us clean, that your companions may be glad? What, and do you in such a state go with us even into the temples, where it is forbidden by custom to spit or blow the nose, yourself being nothing but a mass of spit and drivel?

Well, what then? Is anyone demanding that you beautify yourself? Heaven forbid! except you beautify that which is our true nature[15]—the reason, its judgements, its activities; but your body only so far as to keep it cleanly, only so far as to avoid giving offence. But if you hear that one ought not to wear scarlet, go bespatter your rough cloak with dung—or tear it to pieces![16] Yet where am I to get a rough cloak that looks well?—Man, you have water, wash it! 35See, here is a lovable young man, here an elderly man worthy to love and to be loved in return, to whom a person will entrust the education of his son, to whom daughters and young men will come, if it so chance—all for the purpose of having him deliver his lectures sitting on a dunghill? Good Lord, no! Every eccentricity arises from some human trait, but this trait comes close to being non-human.


  1. The generalization is somewhat hasty. Many animals, like cats (and the felidae in general), moles, most birds, snakes, etc., are distinctly more cleanly than any but the most civilized men. Epictetus was clearly not strong in natural history. Cf. notes on II. 24, 16; IV. 8, 39; IV. 11, 32, and Ench. 33, 16.
  2. Our idiom requires us to use both "clean" and "pure," and their derivatives, for what in the Greek is expressed by a single word.
  3. A sort of scraper, generally of metal, much used by athletes.
  4. The excesses, probably Oriental in origin, to which Christian aseetism soon went in regard to despising cleanliness, seem to have begun to manifest themselves already in the early second century among enthusiastic young Stoics and would-be Cynics. It is interesting to see how Epictetus, simple and austere as he was, vigorously maintained the validity of older Greek and Roman feeling in this regard.
  5. That is, so good that his smell makes no real difference.
  6. That is, bad enough to deserve such treatment (ἄξιος meaning both "good enough" and "bad enough").
  7. Plato, Symposium, 174 A.
  8. Ibid., 217-18.
  9. λούεσθαι is properly of "bathing," as in the public baths, especially, in this passage, the warm baths of Roman times, which are clearly in mind; πλύνεσθαι is properly of cleaning clothes, as in a laundry, which was generally done in ancient Greece, as in modern, and in the Orient, with cold water. All that is meant, as far as Socrates is concerned, is that he generally washed at home in cold water, and very seldom used public baths or hot baths.
  10. Clouds, 103, slightly modified.
  11. Ibid., 179 and 225. The argument is that the evidence of Aristophanes is worthless anyway, because he also made these two preposterously false statements about Socrates.
  12. See III. 1, 14, and note.
  13. Much as Suetonius so admirably says of Nero (c. 55): Erat illi aeternitatis perpetuaeque famae cupido, sed inconsulta.
  14. Of course a spider is not ordinarily a dirty animal in its personal habits; the most that can be said is that it is frequently found in quiet and hence dusty spots. Cf. note on § 1.
  15. i.e. a man really is not body which he has in common with other animals, but mind, reason, or moral purpose. Cf. such passages as I. 1, 23; III. 1, 25-6; 13, 17; IV. 5, 12 and 23; 7, 31 f.; and § 27 above.
  16. That is, the young man carries the precept to extremes, the command being ironical.

Select critical notes

  1. The words κἂν θερμῷ μὴ θέλῃς, ψυχρῷ, here, I have transferred to § 32, where, as Schweighäuser saw, they clearly belong.