The Philosopher’s Cloak, (MK-II)


This entry is a continuation of the previous:  The Philosopher’s Cloak.

““Socrates, I supposed that philosophy must add to one’s store of happiness. But the fruits you have reaped from philosophy are apparently very different. For example, you are living a life that would drive even a slave to desert his master. Your meat and drink are of the poorest: the cloak you wear is not only a poor thing, but is never changed summer or winter; and you never wear shoes or tunic.” ”

— Xenophon, Memorabilia 1.6.2

The philosopher’s cloak (pallium, or tribōn/τρίβωνcontinues to be of interest to me.  Since the writing of the first iteration of The Philosopher’s Cloak, I’ve done some more reading and some practical experimentation.  My core questions at the end of the last post (SPOILER ALERT!) was whether for a modern philosopher (specifically a Stoic) should a philosophical uniform be adopted, and if so, should it cause one stand out, or blend in

A version of a uniform which blends in might be like Steve Job’s outfit, of a black shirt and jeans.  He could, and did, wear this almost anywhere, and most folks unless they saw him often wouldn’t be aware of the intentionality of his practice.steve_jobs

This is what’s often called a capsule wardrobe, a term I learned from The Cynic TubCast co-host Telma Larman.  Telma sent me this link, to a site which argues for a capsule wardrobe of 33 total items.  Now, the motivations for Steve Jobs, and for many of the minimalist folks overlap in a part, but not in total, to those of a philosopher.  But, frankly, we’re not concerned about their motivations here, we’re concerned about our own, to which we will return shortly.

A person’s clothing is by definition an indifferent in Stoicism, no question.  But we as prokoptontes are training ourselves towards virtue:  we’re “making progress.”  We do this, in part, by manipulating externals/indifferents, and organizing our lives in a way which is conducive to the study and acquisition of virtue, whereby we seek to attain eudaimonia.  I don’t think any of the previous two sentences is overly controversial, but I do want to draw attention to, and explicitly state that,

“we [train for virtue], in part, by manipulating externals/indifferents.”

The philosopher’s cloak is argued for several times in Classical texts.  This tells me a few things.

1)  The tribōn was not common enough to escape notice.
2)  The wearing of the tribōn was distasteful enough that arguments had to be made to convince others to adopt it.
3)  The tribōn carried culturally dependent messages to those who viewed it.
4)  The tribōn carried specific messages to the wearers of it.
5)  The tribōn carries some (likely a different) message to modern viewers.

Tertullian was one who discarded the toga (a symbol of affluence, power, luxury, and wealth), in favor of the humble tribōn, and he explains his reasons in the above linked piece.  The philosopher’s cloak, then, is a symbol of poverty, and also of severity of manners.  In many ways, then, it bears striking similarities to the dress of monks, ascetics, holy men, and others of many traditions the world over.

It seems to me, then, that the tribōn had “negative social capital” at the time of the Classical Stoics.  It was a poor person’s last resort to modesty and protection.  It was the sign of those who were living in a very different way from the wider culture.  It made one stand out.  If we look at Buddhist monks, and the reasoning behind their wearing of the kasaya,we see a striking similarity in intention.  To take something of low social standing, to take something of minimum protection, to take the minimum required for modesty, and make use of it for more noble purposes.Portrait_statue_of_an_old_man_wearing_a_himation

It is a funny twist that now that we are approximately 2,500 years removed from those reasons, that they carry a very different message.  Monks are respected, and their robes are treated and reacted to as such by the laity.  We westerners dress up our near-modern figures in the tribōn as symbols of wisdom, democracy, and intellectual authority.  How interesting that these symbols of poverty and privation have instead become symbols of the highest human aspirations to reason and spiritual progress.

I mentioned my experiment in the opening of this piece, and as of the writing, I have been wearing a philosophical uniform daily for about six weeks.  I have learned some interesting things even in that short time.  My current chosen uniform is a sand-colored cotton shirt, woven, and in the Indian style often called a kurta.  It is collarless, has a few buttons to allow the head to pass through, and very little adorning.  It’s a very simple garment.  I wear either jeans or shorts (depending on work or at leisure), and sandals.

At first, when I thought about wearing my uniform, I thought people would notice, since it stands out just a little (but not much).  I even had a (vicious) impression that such attention might not be all bad:  a bit of rebel vanity, as it were.  No one mentioned it.  Some folks looked, and I suspect some of my co-workers noticed, but it was not a problem.  Those feelings passed quickly, and after two or three weeks, a new thing arose.

One day, I was getting ready for work, and I grabbed my uniform automatically, on auto-pilot as it were.  And I thought to myself, “Man, I’d really like to wear something else today.”  Ah ha!  The regular sort of vanity was cropping up.  While no one ever mentioned my uniform to me, it did occasionally garner me some sideways glances.  Now, the attention was a little uncomfortable.  I didn’t like it.  I wanted to be looked at a certain way, but not this one.

I was treating an indifferent, social feedback, as a good.  I desired it.

In realizing this, I pulled on my uniform and went to work per the usual.  At this point, wearing the uniform became (occasionally) an act of self-discipline.  My short-lived infatuation with it had passed, and it had become a spiritual exercise (read:  the original intent of it).

Which brings me to final point:  I’m sold on the idea of a philosophical uniform, and I think the somewhat negative social feedback is actually a useful tool whereby such exercise and progress is made.

The purpose of the tribōn was to provide minimal protection, adopt simplicity, and meet the expectations of modesty.

“Modesty is about a person, male or female, choosing to foster an inner spirit of humility and dignity, and communicating that in outward, culturally contextualized symbols of dress and behavior.’

Toward a New Understanding of Modesty

While my current uniform half-way blends in:  I suspect there is some benefit to the classical garment.  The tribōn at the time was not a privileged garment, we today value it solely in art.  I suspect a person who adopted the tribōn  as his or her daily dress would be in a similar position of a classical philosopher.  If I could get away with wearing one, I would give it a shot.

Since the wearing of the tribōn is not a divine obligation:  it’s no sin for a Stoic not to wear one, I do not think we’re obliged to wear the actual article that Musonius, Epictetus, et al praise so highly.  We should be able to re-locate the message and the intent of the tribōn into a modern context, however.

How we do that is up for discussion, but I’ve come to a position that I’m willing to firmly state:

I think there is a value in Stoics and Stoic students devising and agreeing upon a philosophical uniform for daily wear: and they should wear it.

It would need to be motivated to several points:
– It needs to culturally relevant to west, (i.e. one shouldn’t expect to be fired for wearing it).
– It needs to meet the minimum protection from the weather.
– It needs to meet the minimum protection for modesty for both men and women. (we might choose two styles)
– It needs to be inexpensive, and either acquirable (or able to be made) in most western countries.
– It should be simple, and set the wearer apart as a Stoic philosopher.

I’d like to open up the discussion for what should be (a voluntary) uniform of the Stoic Philosopher.
What say you?

2 thoughts on “The Philosopher’s Cloak, (MK-II)

  1. Pingback: The Philosopher’s Cloak | Mountain Stoic

  2. Although not a Stoic philosopher I try to dress as simply as possible in muted grays, blacks and browns. I have also tried to scale down the sheer number of clothes I possess.

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