Facial hair and philosophers

From John Hale’s Lords of the Sea, The Epic Story of the Athenian Navy and the Birth of Democracy (p. 113):

“In Athens haircuts and hairstyles had social and political implications. Aristocratic horsemen still wore long braids and gold hairpins. The common man (and the politicians who spoke for him) preferred a short cut, though not quite a crew cut. The customer sat on a low stool, his body draped in a sheet to catch the shorn locks. The barber then cropped and curled the hair, anointed the head with scented oil, and trimmed the beard to a neat point. (At Athens any man with a long unkempt bead ran the risk of being mistaken for a philosopher).”

The gods forbid.

Notes the Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities: Among the Greeks a beard was a sign of manliness (after all, only women and youths are beardless), and longer beards had become a status symbol of philosophers, giving rise to the common saying “A long beard does not make a philosopher” (πωγωνοτροφία φιλόσοφων οὐ ποιεῖ or Barba non facit philosophum).

The Latin version of the phrase takes us to Rome, where later many Romans shaved their beards in order not to be taken for Greeks, Greek influence sometimes being politically suspect. The paranoid emperor Domitian once ordered philosophers to be banished from Rome, and many shaved their beards to disguise their profession.

epictetus-100x154Stoic philosopher Epictetus wrestled lightly with the dilemma and, in a small act of defiance, refused to shave: “Come, then, Epictetus, shave yourself.” “If I am a philosopher, I will not shave myself” (page 10 of this edition of the Discourses).

Domitian was assassinated in the year 96. Coincidence?

All of which makes one wonder about the true significance of Ockham’s Razor and our professional preoccupation with Bertrand Russell’s Barber Paradox.

A side note: Michael Gilleland has lines from ancient poets making fun of beards, especially philosophers’ beards.

11.156 (Ammianus): “Do you suppose that your beard creates brains and therefore you grow that fly-flapper? Take my advice and shave it off at once; for that beard is a creator of lice and not of brains.”

11.368 (Julian Antecessor): “You have such a heavy crop on your hairy face that you ought to have it cut with scythes and not with scissors.”

11.430 (Lucian): “If you think that to grow a beard is to acquire wisdom, a goat with a fine beard is at once a complete Plato.”

5 thoughts on “Facial hair and philosophers

  • August 22, 2013 at 2:22 am
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    there has to some reason other than manliness. so many religions say about having beard? only answer if you really know the answer , please don’t bullshit.

  • Pingback: La barba no hace al filósofo | Barbudos

  • Pingback: The Philosophy of Facial Hair | Waite's Week

  • August 22, 2015 at 11:04 am
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    Scripturally speaking, we are told not to cut our hair or beards into unnatural shapes as the pagans did. Yahweh wants His People to be set apart from those who worship their own gods. One can look to the ancient Egyptians for hair and beard styles that are not to be imitated. Sun worshipers were notorious for odd hair and beard shapes. I can’t speak for Islamics or anyone else but know they believe in long beards.

    KJ21
    Ye shall not round off the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard.

  • August 22, 2015 at 11:07 am
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    I’m sorry I did not proof read my last comment correctly. the bible passage is Leviticus 19:27.

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