The Thinking 

In Defense of a Clean Shave and the Chiseled Chin

January 12, 2010


Michael Hegel writes:

I recently discovered your blog and must commend you for not covering day-to-day politics but instead taking the time to address the more interesting social questions that actually impact our daily lives. I can’t say beards are a hot topic, but as your readers appear to have some preference for the look, I’d like to offer a contrary and perhaps ridiculously principled defense of the clean-shaven, Roman way.

Contrary to what has been stated, the basic Western look comes from Rome, not Jerusalem or the Near East. Before we were Christians, we were Romans and Barbarians, not Assyrians or Israelis. The bearded wise man is not entirely foreign to the West but neither is it particular to it. Allow me two examples of what I mean.

Name me one founding father of the United States who sported a beard or whiskers. The fact that the founders were beardless is no accident.. They explicitly rejected the esoteric, gnostic, mystical-magical wisdom of yore, the “wise man,” for the transparency of being thrown back on oneself, held accountable and having to give a coherent logos for the actions of government and citizens. I think history teaches us that a free society will always have more clean-shaven men than bearded ones. [Laura writes: There’s an imteresting assertion.] It is the wisdom of those clean-shaven founders that has stood the assaults from the bearded radicals at the gates, from Marxists, Sixties radicals and Fidel Castro-type revolutionaries, to crazed Mullahs and grungy hipsters today (not sure which is worse).

The fact that Islam mandates beards while Romans (who gave the West law) and George Washington (who gave us our freedom) disliked them is reason enough for all men of the West to shave each morning (or whenever necessary). Neither the Romans nor the men of the eighteenth century were want to bow before bearded sages of the Old Testament or an Orthodox Church, much less Islam. They may not have been the radical atheists Christopher Hitchens makes them out to be, but they clearly rejected the irrational, patriarchal rule of a theocracy. It is only because we have fallen into easy atheism that we feel the need to think of them as deeply religious men. In the context of world history, both the Romans and the founders shared a pronounced secularism and worldliness reflected in the proud, clean faces.

Secondly, you seem very fond of the nineteenth century. [Laura writes: Not true. I began this discussion of men’s fashions with a picture of a Roman general. Others offered pictures of nineteenth century figures by way of contrast with the photo of Bill Gates and his co-executives.] Like other conservatives, you appear to associate that century with virtue because of its sexual mores and its bleak dress codes (it’s in the Renaissance that men really showed their plumage!).[Laura writes: The nineteenth century was more virtuous than our time, but I do not view that period as the height of Western cultural development.]  The reality is that Marxism, socialism, positivism, feminism and Darwinism were the intellectual children of those stuffy bearded men hailed on your blog. This makes perfect sense because those philosophic dispensations, like the mysticism of the Old Testament, is based on the secret wisdom of the chosen few: the Mandarins and Jacobites, the social engineers – the ones who derive their knowledge and claim to rule not from “nature and nature’s god,” not from the way things are (de rerum natura) but rather from the dark, unintelligible (and ultimately incommunicable) wisdom that hides behind the bearded wise man. [Laura writes: The Old Testament is not gnostic.] The horrors of the twentieth century were conjured up and made possible by those very nineteenth century systems of thought.

My point is that beards are natural to both radicals and mystics for the same reason: they indicate a privileged, esoteric understanding of the world that is at heart hostile to republican government and self-legislation. The bearded man stands outside with a pretense to a higher wisdom. As Rome became more autocratic and eventually Christian, emperors started growing beards. Today we have Ben Bernanke. Given how many lawgivers were men with beards, and looking around at the societies they created, count yourself lucky to be the heiress to a clean-shaven set of founders.

On a more practical level, guys understand that facial hair is often associated with a stage of incoherence or introspection in a man’s life. There are good reasons why prisoners and soldiers are forced to shave. After Al Gore withdrew from the election contest with Bush, he disappeared and grew a beard. Most bouts of depression can be cured with an hour at the gym and a good shave.

I will not even mention that any man with a full, chiseled chin would be a fool to grow a beard, or that some men are motivated to sport one for want of such features – or perhaps I will.

                                 — Comments —-

Van Wijk writes:

Michael Hegel said: “Contrary to what has been stated, the basic Western look comes from Rome, not Jerusalem or the Near East. Before we were Christians, we were Romans and Barbarians, not Assyrians or Israelis. The bearded wise man is not entirely foreign to the West but neither is it particular to it.

Gee, Mr. Hegel seems to have forgotten all about the Greeks. Greek influence on Rome was profound, so much so that without Greece, I daresay there would be no Rome. It is the Greeks, not the Romans, who are recognized as the first civilized Western men, and they were predominately bearded.

“Name me one founding father of the United States who sported a beard or whiskers. The fact that the founders were beardless is no accident.”

Fashion trends cannot be totally ignored. The Founders didn’t sport beards because they were not the fashion of the time, and not just in the Colonies, but in the entire Western world. The most despotic of German princes was just as clean-shaven. But the Founders were fond of hair long enough to tie with a ribbon. Nothing Roman about that. Does Mr. Hegel see a correlation between long hair and liberty, I wonder?

Fast-forward eighty plus years to the Civil War, and virtually all American men wore full beards, with nary a pony-tail to be found. Were those men less devoted to republican ideals?

“As Rome became more autocratic and eventually Christian, emperors started growing beards.”

It’s generally accepted that the beard revival in Rome began with the emperor Hadrian. A worldlier man you are not likely to find. He grew his beard because he was such a Hellenophile that he was nicknamed Graeculus (“Greekling”). As far as Christianity and Judaism go, Hadrian built a city on the ruins of Jerusalem and dedicated it to Jupiter Capitolinus. The beard preceded Christianity in Rome by a great many years.

N.W. writes:

Isn’t Mr. Hegel’s logic that clean-shaven is rational and bearded is gnostic just about as irrational as any of “the dark, unintelligible (and ultimately incommunicable) wisdom” that he so abhors?

Michael Hegel responds:

Unfortunately, I did a bad job of conveying the satirical intent of my point, namely that any preference can be made into a principle. I genuinely prefer being clean-shaven (I’m an investment banker, of course I do), but one can always come up with something grand to justify fashion. I realize there is no connection between being clean-shaven and liberty – but neither is there between facial hair and wisdom. I do associate the clean-cut look with speed and the active life and beards with contemplation and a self-conscious seriousness. The lawyers who slow down our deals and turn them into “cases” love to stroke their beards when reading documents, even when they don’t understand what they’re reading. But in the end your commenters are right to point out the absurdity of my claims. Lastly, I did not mean to imply the Old Testament is Gnostic. Obviously, it’s the very opposite in a sense. I was only pointing out that many religions tends to have a thing for facial hair. As I do not care for the Orthodox Church, seeing those pictures hit some nerve.

J. Paige Straley writes:

One thing you might note is the connection between long hair and beards. Many of the heavily bearded nineteenth century guys in your photos have reasonably short hair. They got haircuts. Now, in those days, you shaved with a straight razor. It was difficult and time consuming. Many guys didn’t think it was worth it, or perhaps only shaved once a week. It was much easier to keep short hair than it was to stay clean-shaven. Thus, there were lots of barbered gents with scruffy stubble running around. Which would be preferred? A beard that could be neatly trimmed with scissors twice a month, plus a haircut OR the scruffy stubble look and a haircut OR a daily straight-razor shave and a haircut. What is practical, while still maintaining a look that says you are a respectable gent?

The guy that invented the safety razor, King Gillette, did a lot to make shaving more practical.

I have no doubt that the classical statues showing clean shaven men are a sign of class and conspicuous consumption, as shaving was really difficult and time-consuming in those times.

N.W. writes:

Mr. Hegel wrote, “some men are motivated to sport one for want of such features.” 

Guilty on that count. However, I chose to sport the close-cut clean shaven look primarily to stop people from assuming that I was a pot smoking hippie. Between my longish unkempt hair, untrimmed beard and guitar I had no end of trouble(despite my repertoire of Haggard, Cash, Hank, Jennings, and Owens.)

I started shaving on a regular basis when my old boss, a carpenter, kept on giving me no end of grief over my unprofessional demeanor. He was a retired Master Diver USN and had joined the service in the late sixties so he gave short shrift to such an appearance. Working for UPS during the holiday rush this past year I had to shave again to bring my sideburns to regulation length. The UPS HR guy in charge of hiring said he’s dealt with quite a few folks who’d rather not work then go and shave for the job. Times being what they are, I had no problem complying.

Fitzgerald writes:

Mr. Hegel’s impassioned response in defense of the beardless was amusing and stimulating.

In all seriousness, I think it displayed misunderstanding of the importance of the mystic tradition and its vital role in balancing the interplay of reason and faith.  Eastern Christian mystics are not gnostics, but they do place a pride of prejudice on defending the Christian tradition of contemplating the mystery of God in a profoundly deep sense. Simplistically, I believe it fair to say the West can be said to have focused too much on reason and scholarship, and the East, to be fair, perhaps too much against it.  

On a side note, ultra-Orthodox Jews to this day are the most ardent example of this mysticism’s pre-Christian origins. In a small way, their refusal to ever refer to the creator as Yaweh, I Am Who Am, is meant to prevent our limited cognitive capacities from creating a idol with our imaginations. In doing so they are attempting to maintain a perspective that enshrines the fundamental unknowability of God for finite humans. Eastern Christian tradition holds fast to this ancient viewpoint. Purely within the Western tradition the grappling of followers of the Dominican and Franciscan schools can be said to demonstrate the divide that has developed between East and West on this point. 

Due to the rise of Islam and the consequent decline of Eastern Christian civilization under it’s yoke, and the almost complete lack trade with the East, the rise of Western European Christianity and Civilization occurred without the counterbalance of the ancient mystical tradition as best personified by Eastern Orthodoxy. A proper realignment of both is necessary to arrive at balance as man is  a spiritual and physical being. Too much emphasis on either results in an unhealthy, unbalanced perspective leading to disorder and a lack of harmony. I would be so bold as to say, much of the crackup in our civilization and society today can be understood in the mystical and spiritual atrophy that has set by an over-emphasis on reason and scholarship. Mystery and wonder properly understood are necessary to fire the imagination of men, and women. Beards can serve this purpose, albeit in a small way.

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