Philosophers and Beards

"Come, then, Epictetus, shave yourself." If I am a philosopher, I will not shave myself." "But I will take off your head?" If that will do you any good, take it off.

Epictetus asks himself rhetorically why he does not shave off his beard. In ancient Rome a beard was a sign that a man was a practicing philosopher. As the Emperor had banished all philosophers from Rome, Epictetus might have made his life easier by pretending not to be a philosopher.

Epictetus, as the other examples before him, did not even consider such an option. Based on his principles, he chose banishment.

A student asked, "How then shall every man among us perceive what is suitable to his character?" How does the bull alone, when the lion has attacked, discover his own powers and put himself forward in defense of the whole herd? It is plain that those with powers perceive them within themselves. Therefore, whoever of us has such powers will not be ignorant of them. Now a bull is not made suddenly, nor a brave man. But we must discipline ourselves in the winter for the summer campaign and not rashly run upon that which does not concern us.

Understanding what is principle or what roll is appropriate for each person is the question that Epictetus now considers. For "what fits one's character" is how Epictetus defines morality. He says that a person will know when he or she has the power to do what is right.

But acting morally is not something that necessarily comes natural to the human animal, especially in a state of nature. It is an activity that is acquired through training, practice and study.

This is one great reason to study the Bible as well as stoic philosophy. Not only does it help us to understand what is right, it also gives us the strength (along with repetitious practice) to actually do what is right and correct once we recognize what that is.

Chapter 2:

  1. How to Maintain Proper Character
  2. Chamber Pots and Character (2a)
  3. Examples of Character (2b)
  4. Philosophers and Beards (2c)
  5. A Soul's Worth (2d)
Stoicism and Christianity Index

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This is a translation and explanation of the first book of the Discourses of Epictetus. His words are in regular text, comments are in bold.

Biographical Information on Epictetus

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