Camp Seneca: Day 10 – The Fifth Precept

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“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 I.6.2



The fifth of the precepts in the Rule of Musonius is:

5.  To cut not the beard, and the hair only to remove what is useless.

We men take it upon ourselves to leave the beard, nature’s symbol of the male as it is formed by Nature. All of the προκόπτωντες take it upon ourselves to only cut the other hair as necessity and utility may demand, not for fashion nor to appear beautiful in the eyes of others. We take it upon ourselves to follow the prescriptions laid out in Musonius’ Lecture XXI in regards to the cutting of hair.

I’ve discussed beards before in this post.  Surprisingly to me, the thing in the Rule of Musonius that gets the most criticism is this precept on beards.  Which is strange to me, because there’s a much larger criticism that could be levied that we’ll talk about towards the end of these daily precept posts.

The issue about hair might at first seem to be about vanity, or about culture, or some other issue which we generally class as vicious at worst, or indifferent at best.  So why should this be something the Stoic προκόπτων concerns him- or herself with?  Female προκόπτωντες do not need to worry about the prescription regarding the beard, but the cutting of hair matters to both.  We’ll address each in turn.

Epictetus’ reasoning is that the beard is placed by nature as the symbol of the male, like the rooster’s comb, or lion’s mane, to which Musonius also agrees.  To keep the beard, is κατὰ φύσιν, or in accordance with the nature of things.  For Epictetus, the beard is a matter of piety, so important that he would accept death rather than to go against nature.

“Come now, Epictetus, shave off your beard,”
        If I am a philosopher, I answer, I will not shave it off.

“Then I will have you beheaded,”
        It if will do you any good, behead me.

— Epictetus, Discourses I.2.29

Hair is not burdensome, Musonius tells us, like feathers to a bird unless there is some illness.  To trim or cut the hairs of the head for utility is as in accord with nature as letting it grow, this comes from Zeno, but it shouldn’t be for fashion.

There’s even a section of this lecture where Musonius attacks a specific hairstyle, examples of which can be seen at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles.

“For they, you know, plait some parts of their hair, some they let fall free, and some they arrange in some other way in order to appear more beautiful.”

If we took a very close look, we might even then restrict ourselves to hair cuts of a single length, either letting it grow, or more a short buzz-cut.  If I’m correct, the statues that Dillon mentions which I’ve included above would be these, but views from the side and back are not available:

Pair of Portrait Busts of Youths and Two Marble Eyes

Pair of Portrait Busts of Youths and Two Marble Eyes, at Getty Museum.

So for the Musonius and Epictetus, they’re clearly of one mind on this issue, the beard and hair is worthy of attention.  It’s important to remember that while these external things are externals, how we handle them is a matter of virtue or vice.

For Epictetus, the beard is a matter of piety, so important that he would accept death rather than to go against nature.

“Come now, Epictetus, shave off your beard,”
        If I am a philosopher, I answer, I will not shave it off.

“Then I will have you beheaded,”
        It if will do you any good, behead me.

— Epictetus, Discourses I.2.29

 


This is part of the 2016 iteration of Camp Seneca.

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