Christmas article: The beards of philosophers

Beards can tell you a lot about a man. Their style, their personality, even their financial status, all can be told by a man’s beard. Facial hair is often viewed negatively, particularly after the notorious ‘Hitler tasche’, and is seen as something that must be removed. However, in the time of the Ancient Greeks and Romans, a beard was seen as a common part of most men. They were often an indicator of social and political factors, the common man wore his beard short and well kempt, while kings and notorious fighters would have more elaborate facial hair. A beard also showed manliness, something very important in the patriarchal society of the time. It would separate them from the beardless women and children, elevating them in a sense.

It is not clear exactly how or why philosophers became synonymous with long, straggly beards but today it is one of the first things that come to the minds of non-philosophers when the subject is mentioned. Perhaps it is because they were so intensely preoccupied with setting the foundations of philosophy that they didn’t have the time or the will to shave. Or maybe it is because some of the early greats, such as Pythagoras and Socrates, established it as a style, copied by later philosophers who wanted to reach such high levels of esteem. In fact, shaving was not that common in the early periods of Greek civilisation, so most men had what is now deemed to be a philosopher’s beard. While they didn’t necessarily distinguish the philosophers from your average citizen, members of different schools of philosophy had their own styles of facial hair.

According to a Wikipedia contributor, the link between philosophers and beards began when three Greek philosophers arrived in Rome, all of whom were bearded, in 155 BCE. At this time, it had become common culture for Romans to shave their beards, so when these mysterious, bearded men arrived, they captivated locals. In fact, many Romans had decided to shave their beards so they were not mistaken for Greeks as this could potentially have led to racial persecution. When the Roman Emperor Domitian banned all philosophers from Rome, many shaved their beard to hide their profession or to avoid being mistake as one. In fact it led to many famous figures emigrating from Rome, simply because of a mad Emperor’s paranoia.

While beards are widely associated with intellect, there is certainly no correlation between the two. For every Plato or Aristotle, there are thousands of bearded men of average or below average intelligence. There is a common saying that goes ‘A long beard does not make you a philosopher’. In fact, a lot of poems and phrases mock suggestions of links between the two. Lucian wrote ‘If you think that to grow a beard is to acquire wisdom, a goat with a fine beard is at once a complete Plato’. Although there is no link between intelligence and beards, The modern day ‘Trustworthiness of beards’ scale puts the philosophers beard at number 2, being very trustworthy (see dig.).  In short, a philosopher beard will not make you smart, but you will become a trusted character.

Contributed by James Axton

3 thoughts on “Christmas article: The beards of philosophers

  1. Very interesting article, while it lacks much substance of a philosophical nature, it is full of juicy content. Keep it up!

  2. Wow! After reading this exquisite article I embarked on a quest to grow some facial hair. However, much to my disappointment I failed miserably. Oh woe is the man without a beard to protect him from the harsh scrutiny of society! Still, at least I tried! I will keep you updated on my blog,, I look forward to hearing from you internet!

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