The Philosopher’s Cloak


So, one of the things I’ve been thinking about quite a bit is socratesthe philosopher’s cloak.  This will be the topic of one of the Episodes of the nascent TubCast, and I’m still working through my thoughts and ideas on the issue.  The philosopher’s cloak is the simplest of garments, really.  The basest protection from the elements, the minimum required for modesty, and requiring very little care and very little to make.

It calls to mind the Spartans, classic philosophers such as Socrates and Diogenes of Sinope, and other fundamental figures in the intellectual history the west.

The philosopher’s cloak has become a symbol of wisdom so powerful in western culture that we apply it to folks who really have no right to it.  washigntonTake this photo of a statue of the first US President George Washington (right).  Here, a man of the late 1700s is depicted in the classical garments which are, truly, as far removed from his period as they are from our own.  Yet, to drape Washington in the mystique, the tradition, and the heritage of the west, of democratic republicanism, one has but to drape him also in the philosopher’s cloak:  and that heritage becomes self-evident to all in the west.

The pallium or tribōn was ubiquitous for Hellenic philosophers, and it had fallen out of fashion in favor of the chitton, and other garments.  (Sidebar:  Musonius mentions the chitton, sort of an extra-long, tunic-like shirt in his lectures; stating folks should wear one, not two.  And better yet, a philosopher’s cloak).  As it had fallen out of fashion amongst the laity, it stands to reason that we can say it made the philosopher stand out.  Diogenes referred to his cloak, small bag, and staff as his uniform, and I think for practicing philosophers that’s an appropriate model of thought for it.

This got me thinking on the ideas of a ‘philosophical uniform,’ and what that means for modern practitioners.  Anciently, the cloak can had several functions, firstly that it meets the barest natural needs of the human creature.  Secondly, it calls out clearly to all who would see it that “this person lives differently.”  It might also have other messages attached to it that a related: this person is wise, this person is studying virtue, this person is religious or holy, etc.  But, It is also a message to one’s own self:  “I chose to discard fashion.”  “I’m focused on other things.”  “I am intentionally living.”  “When I put this on, and take this off, I will do so with virtue in mind.” Of course, there is the ever-present risk of vanity in such things as well: ‘I want to be seen in a certain way.’  ‘I want a certain kind of attention.’  ‘I want to look special.’

If we look at philosophical and religious clothing the world over, generally it causes a person to stand out, but I suspect that in the times these traditions were established, that may not have been the prominent reason.  Instead, rather, it generally hearkens back to an early time viewed as closer to nature, closer to “real living,” and closer to our telos of practice.

From the prayer shawls of the Jews, to the robes of a Buddhist monk, to the Roman collar of the Catholic priest:  all of these set one apart, and say, “I’m doing something important.”  “I’m doing something different.”  “I’m living intentionally.”

Stoicism has had a hiatus of approximately 1500 years.  The traditions which are now accepted as common place for other creeds, schools, and faiths are notably absent for we prokoptontes.  That puts us in a tough position.  We necessarily must interpret, create, and change things which otherwise might have already been handed down.  In the eyes of many, that weakens our claims to legitimacy.  However, we who feel called should not be turned aside by such impressions, but we should take to heart the warning that such things can also carry.

No Stoic that I know of believes unequivocally that he or she is doing things in exactly the way that Epictetus, Marcus, or Musonius did, or suggested.  Such a claim is on the face, silly.  We should, however, be wary of interpretations that change core doctrines to the point that we should call it something else.  There is a hedonic element in much of the conversation we see on online Stoic communities, which is a serious departure from the tradition.  We do have a duty to the tradition to enrich it, while maintaining its core.  Drifting too far away might be the right path for some, Stoicism has never claimed to be the one, only, and true path anywhere, but we should have the integrity to call that, then, something else if that’s what we’re doing.  But I digress…

Should we, if we adopt a philosophical uniform, consider whether or not we would stand out?  Or should we instead focus on blending in.  Should we choose something which sends a message to us, every day, while dressing and undressing “I choose to live my life differently than most,”  and do so in such a way that the passerby is none the wiser?

Is it vanity for us, absent the 2,000 year tradition, to stand out?  Should we be like Diogenes, calling out to the passerby to change his ways by our mere presence?  Or should we quietly work to show how our lives have changed, without ostentation or performance?

What say you?
Should a modern Stoic philosophical uniform stand out, or blend in?

21-Aug-2015:  Please see the continuation of this train of thought:  The Philosopher’s Cloak (MK-II).

3 thoughts on “The Philosopher’s Cloak

  1. Interesting wee article thanks. This topic has been discussed at some length in recent times as you say and there appear to be opinions across the spectrum, from those at one end with Stoic leanings, to those at the other who hold firm to the Stoic core principles and live accordingly. I can say with certainty that the only thing I can say with any certainty is that I don’t know.

    Reason, our own Reason, is all we can hope to know it this aligns us with Nature; but even this is frought with danger, illusion and bias. This is one of the attractions of Stoicism as it sets out from the start that there are no Sage’s among us, but we are all on the journey toward that, Stoic or otherwise, and that in the end we are all dust.

    We all wear a cloak of some description, so I think it is a matter of the style or fashion of the cloak that is being discussed. As to whether we lead by our right action, or by “standing out” by which I take it to mean proactively protecting the core values of Stoicism, it is a matter of personal choice.

    There are dedicated followers of fashion, which changes and is on a continuum, and there are others that find the right “look” for them and stick with it year in, year out. The followers of fashion often do so, only to realise in the end that look from the old days, is back in vogue again, but when they do return they can bring fresh ideas to accessorise the old look. Sometimes this is good and adds value, other times it spoils the look for some.

    I am in danger of waffling here, but in the end it is always a matter of personal choice. The choice should be analysed and examined by the individual and be as true to their own Reason as they can possibly make it. If they do this, then at least they are being true to themselves and Nature in so much as is within their grasp. Some might say that is Stoic enough.

  2. Pingback: The Philosopher’s Cloak, (MK-II) | Mountain Stoic

  3. Interesting, thank you. I think I read somewhere that the philosopher’s cloak evolved into the Monk’s habit.

    I did think, at one stage, of ‘dressing simply’ with off brand ‘supermarket’ clothes; simple, affordable, blending in.

    I do worry about the supply chain though, so now I simply try to get most clothes secondhand

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