The classical Stoics and the beard.


Today is apparently National Beard Day, or some such thing.  There’s a hashtag to that effect currently overwhelming Twitter.  While the beard’s fashion waxes and wanes periodically, it has remained a powerful symbol in the West for quite a bit longer than the current trend.

Indeed, the beard came to symbolize many things to the classic philosophers that became the foundation for western intellectualism and spirituality. The classical Stoics generally took the position that men should not cut off the beard.  Some viewed the cutting off of the beard as religious impiety.  Others, as simply against the natural course, which might actually be one and the same, come to think of it.

Let’s look at the sources, and see why the beard was a focus for the Hellenic and Roman Stoics.

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But what is it, Epicurus, which pronounces this, which wrote about “The End of our Being,” which wrote on “The Nature of Things,” which wrote about the Canon, which led you to wear a beard, which wrote when it was dying that it was spending the last and a happy day? Was this the flesh or the will? Then do you admit that you possess anything superior to this? and are you not mad? are you in fact so blind and deaf?

— Epictetus, The Discourses II.23

The broader context for this excerpt is that Epictetus is speaking against some of the doctrines of Epicurus.  While the two Schools, the Stoics and Epicureans, were contemporaries and generally opposed on many philosophical precepts, it’s important to recognize that each believed the other to be philosophers, and not impostors, pretenders, nor sophists.  The beard, then, is already a cultural symbol of philosophy, ignoring the divisions of the Schools.

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And are you such a man as can listen to the truth? I wish you were. But however since in a manner I have been condemned to wear a white beard and a cloak, and you come to me as to a philosopher, I will not treat you in a cruel way nor yet as if I despaired of you, but I will say: Young man, whom do you wish to make beautiful? In the first place, know who you are and then adorn yourself appropriately. You are a human being…

— Epictetus, The Discourses III.1

Here, Epictetus is addressing a man who pays a conspicuous amount of attention to bodily pomp, coifing, and style.  It is Epictetus’ opinion that he is trying to make himself beautiful for the appreciation of others.  The injunction to know thyself, and the live (adorn yourself) appropriately is not a new one to any Greek or Roman who would have heard him.  Epictetus will go on to tell the young man, that while he dresses up this paltry body nicely, it can only dress up a corpse and a bit of breath.  Then, what will make a person beautiful is the refinement of his reason and social character, what’s up to him.  It’s a call away from vanities of the flesh, and to the higher realms of reason.

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‘What then? Is the body to be unclean?’
God forbid! but cleanse your true, natural self: let man be clean as man, woman as woman, child as child.
Nay, let us pluck out the lion’s mane, lest it be unclean, and the cock’s comb, for he too must be clean!
Clean? yes, but clean as a cock, and the lion as a lion, and the hound of the chase as such a hound should be.

— Epictetus, The Discourses III.1

Apparently, one of the challenges to men not cutting of their beards in Epictetus’ day is one we still see today, that it is somehow unclean or barbaric.  Epictetus first attacks the position by suggesting that the standard being used is inappropriate, let man be clean as man, he says.  He shows how such a position, that the man would have to be plucked for cleanliness, is on the face silly when the same rule is applied to other creatures like the lion and the rooster.

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What, then, is the material of the philosopher? Is it a cloak? No, but reason. What is his end? is it to wear a cloak? No, but to possess the reason in a right state. Of what kind are his theorems? Are they those about the way in which the beard becomes great or the hair long?

But even the philosophers themselves as they are called pursue the thing by beginning with things which are common to them and others: as soon as they have assumed a cloak and grown a beard, they say, “I am a philosopher.” But no man will say, “I am a musician,” if he has bought a plectrum and a lute: nor will he say, “I am a smith,” if he has put on a cap and apron.

— Epictetus, The Discourses IV.8

Here, we’re given the careful and poignant reminder that it is not the beard and cloak which make a philosopher.  Ultimately, these are mere symbols.  We do no call a man in jeans and work shirt, with tool belt and tools a carpenter because he’s dressed like one, we say that only when he can do the work of carpentry to a certain and specific degree.  The same is true for our profession. 

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Neither should the beard be cut from the chin (for it is not superfluous), but it too has been provided for us by nature as a kind of cover or protection. Moreover, the beard is nature’s symbol of the male just as is the crest of the cock and the mane of the lion; so one ought to remove the growth of hair that becomes burdensome, but nothing of the beard; for the beard is no burden so long as the body is healthy and not afflicted with any disease for which it is necessary to cut the hair from the chin.

Nowadays there are even men who cut their hair to free themselves of the weight of it and they also shave their cheeks. Clearly such men have become slaves of luxurious living and are completely enervated, men who can endure being seen as womanish creatures, hermaphrodites, something which real men would avoid at all costs. How could hair be a burden to men? Unless, of course, one should say that feathers are a burden to birds also.

— Musonius Rufus, Lecture XXI

Musonius is an interesting figure, in that he argues women too should study philosophy, and that girl-children ought to be educated right alongside of sons.  While this stands out a testament to Stoic reason, Musonius does hold to a fairly traditional (and to his mind) natural division of gender roles.  This might displease some, but it’s my intent to present the classical sources as closely as I can, and not cover over politically incorrect beliefs.

All that being said, in the vast majority of humans, there is present, biologically, certain secondary sex characteristics and sexual dimorphism.  It is then, entirely appropriate to say that the beard is in fact nature’s symbol of the male.  This can even be tested, in a way, by the giving of androgenic hormones like testosterone to humans with XX chromosomal make ups.  The increased growth of facial hair will usually be the result.

Musonius would argue it’s inappropriate for the male to attempt to make himself like a female.  My reading of this is not that Musonius would say a person who can’t grow a beard is less manly, grow what you’re given, but the intentional modification of the body as such is not suggested.

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I heard a speaker from India once in response to a woman who asked why holy men and gurus have beards give a fantastic answer.  He said, as best I can remember, “Ma’am, I hate to be the one to tell you this.  You’ve lived 42 years on this earth and just now are learning this thing.  All men have beards.  Some of them cut it off.  I am as God made me.  Do not ask me then why I have a beard.  Ask them why they cut theirs off!”

Edit:  Found the video.

2 thoughts on “The classical Stoics and the beard.

  1. Pingback: Stoicism, homosexuality, trans persons, and “effeminate men.” | Mountain Stoic

  2. Beards seem to have a long history of being associated with academics and scholars. The stereotypical professor has a beard, medieval monks often had them, and they were the mark of a philosopher in Rome. I suppose that a withdrawn life of contemplation led to a disregard for personal appearance, Stoic arguments notwithstanding.

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