The Discourses

Author: Epictetus  | Date: 101 AD


About Purity

Some persons raise a question whether the social feeling is contained in the nature of man; and yet I think that these same persons would have no doubt that love of purity is certainly contained in it, and that, if man is distinguished from other animals by anything, he is distinguished by this. When, then, we see any other animal cleaning itself, we are accustomed to speak of the act with surprise, and to add that the animal is acting like a man: and, on the other hand, if a man blames an animal for being dirty, straightway as if we were making an excuse for it, we say that of course the animal is not a human creature. So we suppose that there is something superior in man, and that we first receive it from the Gods. For since the Gods by their nature are pure and free from corruption, so far as men approach them by reason, so far do they cling to purity and to a love of purity. But since it is impossible that man’s nature can be altogether pure being mixed of such materials, reason is applied, as far as it is possible, and reason endeavours to make human nature love

The first, then, and highest purity is that which is in the soul; and we say the same of impurity. Now you could not discover the impurity of the soul as you could discover that of the body: but as to the soul, what else could you find in it than that which makes it filthy in respect to the acts which are her own? Now the acts of the soul are movement toward an object or movement from it, desire, aversion, preparation, design, assent. What, then, is it which in these acts makes the soul filthy and impure? Nothing else than her own bad judgements. Consequently, the impurity of the soul is the soul’s bad opinions; and the purification of the soul is the planting in it of proper opinions; and the soul is pure which has proper opinions, for the soul alone in her own acts is free from perturbation and pollution.

Now we ought to work at something like this in the body also, as far as we can. It was impossible for the defluxions of the nose not to run when man has such a mixture in his body. For this reason, nature has made hands and the nostrils themselves as channels for carrying off the humours. If, then, a man sucks up the defluxions, I say that he is not doing the act of a man. It was impossible for a man’s feet not to be made muddy and not be soiled at all when he passes through dirty places. For this reason, nature has made water and hands. It was impossible that some impurity should not remain in the teeth from eating: for this reason, she says, wash the teeth. Why? In order that you may be a man and not a wild beast or a hog. It was impossible that from the sweat and the pressing of the clothes there should not remain some impurity about the body which requires to be cleaned away. For this reason water, oil, hands, towels, scrapers, nitre, sometimes all other kinds of means are necessary for cleaning the body. You do not act so: but the smith will take off the rust from the iron, and be will have tools prepared for this purpose, and you yourself wash the platter when you are going to eat, if you are not completely impure and dirty: but will you not wash the body nor make it clean? "Why?" he replies. I will tell you again; in the first place, that you may do the acts of a man; then, that you may not be disagreeable to those with whom you associate. You do something of this kind even in this matter, and you do not perceive it: you think that you deserve to stink. Let it be so: deserve to stink. Do you think that also those who sit by you, those who recline at table with you, that those who kiss you deserve the same? Either go into a desert, where you deserve to go, or live by yourself, and smell yourself. For it is just that you alone should enjoy your own impurity. But when you are in a city, to behave so inconsiderately and foolishly, to what character do you think that it belongs? If nature had entrusted to you a horse, would you have overlooked and neglected him? And now think that you have been intrusted with your own body as with a horse; wash it, wipe it, take care that no man turns away from it, that no one gets out of the way for it. But who does not get out of the way of a dirty man, of a stinking man, of a man whose skin is foul, more than he does out of the way of a man who is daubed with muck? That smell is from without, it is put upon him; but the other smell is from want of care, from within, and in a manner from a body in putrefaction.

"But Socrates washed himself seldom." Yes, but his body was clean and fair: and it was so agreeable and sweet that the most beautiful and the most noble loved him, and desired to sit by him rather than by the side of those who had the handsomest forms. It was in his power neither to use the bath nor to wash himself, if he chose; and yet the rare use of water had an effect. If you do not choose to wash with warm water, wash with cold. But Aristophanes says:

Those who are pale, unshod, ’tis those I mean.

For Aristophanes says of Socrates that he also walked the air and stole clothes from the palaestra. But all who have written about Socrates bear exactly the contrary evidence in his favour; they say that he was pleasant not only to hear, but also to see. On the other hand they write the same about Diogenes. For we ought not even by the appearance of the body to deter the multitude from philosophy; but as in other things, a philosopher should show himself cheerful and tranquil, so also he should in the things that relate to the body: "See, ye men, that I have nothing, that I want nothing: see how I am without a house, and without a city, and an exile, if it happens to be so, and without a hearth I live more free from trouble and more happily than all of noble birth and than the rich. But look at my poor body also and observe that it is not injured by my hard way of living." But if a man says this to me, who has the appearance and face of a condemned man, what God shall persuade me to approach philosophy, if it makes men such persons? Far from it; I would not choose to do so, even if I were going to become a wise man. I indeed would rather that a young man, who is making his first movements toward philosophy, should come to me with his hair carefully trimmed than with it dirty and rough, for there is seen in him a certain notion of beauty and a desire of that which is becoming; and where he supposes it to be, there also he strives that it shall be. It is only necessary to show him, and to say: "Young man, you seek beauty, and you do well: you must know then that it grows in that part of you where you have the rational faculty: seek it there where you have the movements toward and the movements from things, where you have the desire toward, ind the aversion from things: for this is what you have in yourself of a superior kind; but the poor body is naturally only earth: why do you labour about it to no purpose? if you shall learn nothing else, you will learn from time that the body is nothing." But if a man comes to me daubed with filth, dirty, with a mustache down to his knees, what can I say to him, by what kind of resemblance can I lead him on? For about what has he busied himself which resembles beauty, that I may be able to change him and "Beauty is not in this, but in that?" Would you have me to tell him, that beauty consists not in being daubed with muck, but that it lies in the rational part? Has he any desire of beauty? has he any form of it in his mind? Go and talk to a hog, and tell him not to roll in the mud.

For this reason the words of Xenocrates touched Polemon also; since he was a lover of beauty, for he entered, having in him certain incitements to love of beauty, but he looked for it in the wrong place. For nature has not made even the animals dirty which live with man. Does a horse ever wallow in the mud or a well-bred dog? But the hog, and the dirty geese, and worms and spiders do, which are banished furthest from human intercourse. Do you, then, being a man, choose to be not as one of the animals which live with man, but rather a worm, or a spider? Will you not wash yourself somewhere some time in such manner as you choose? Will you not wash off the dirt from your body? Will you not come clean that those with whom you keep company may have pleasure in being with you? But do you go with us even into the temples in such a state, where it is not permitted to spit or blow the nose, being a heap of spittle and of snot?

When then? does any man require you to ornament yourself? Far from it; except to ornament that which we really are by nature, the rational faculty, the opinions, the actions; but as to the body only so far as purity, only so far as not to give offense. But if you are told that you ought not to wear garments dyed with purple, go and daub your cloak with muck or tear it. "But how shall I have a neat cloak?" Man, you have water; wash it. Here is a youth worthy of being loved, here is an old man worthy of loving and being loved in return, a fit person for a man to intrust to him a son’s instruction, to whom daughters and young men shall come, if opportunity shall so happen, that the teacher shall deliver his lessons to them on a dunghill. Let this not be so: every deviation comes from something which is in man’s nature; but this is near being something not in man’s nature.


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Chicago: Epictetus, "Chapter 11," The Discourses Original Sources, accessed November 29, 2022,

MLA: Epictetus. "Chapter 11." The Discourses, Original Sources. 29 Nov. 2022.

Harvard: Epictetus, 'Chapter 11' in The Discourses. Original Sources, retrieved 29 November 2022, from