The meaning of facial hair, from ‘patriarchal’ beards to commitment-phobic stubble

Unthinkable: Is it time to lose the lockdown beard? To shave that noncommital stubble?

Peter Sarsgaard, as hotshot intellectual Professor Hardy, with Jessie Buckley, playing Leda, in The Lost Daughter. Photograph: Yannis Drakoulidis/Netflix

The Covid pandemic has given us many cultural phenomena: the elbow bump, the Zoom meeting, plastic-wrapped breads. For many, there is a personal addition: Lockdown beard.

Facial hair enjoyed a renaissance during the past 24 months. But, as we return to the new normal, is there an onus on those lax shavers among us to restore order to the jawline? You may think this a rather frivolous consideration but the ethics of beard-wearing has been matter of some debate since the Socratean look took off in ancient Athens.

According to Victorian writer Thomas S Gowing, 'the absence of Beard is usually a sign of physical and moral weakness'

For much of human history, beardy propaganda has had the upper hand. “Not having a beard is not dishonourable for a man who is not yet supposed to have a beard, but once he ought to have a beard, it is unbecoming for him not to have one,” said Saint Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century. His logic that the beard is natural and therefore good was an article of faith for generations of men.

According to Victorian writer Thomas S Gowing, “the absence of Beard is usually a sign of physical and moral weakness”. Letting it grow is “reverencing the Creator’s laws as above the dictates of man”.

French mathematician, philosopher and pre-hipster René Descartes. Photograph: Getty Images

Gowing’s 1854 essay on the subject was recently republished by the British Library under the title The Philosophy of Beards. A timely production it is too, not only adding some spark to the lockdown beard debate but also peddling a line of pseudo-science that is ripe for exploitation by today’s conspiracy theorists.

“The hair does not merely act as an external sign,” he writes. It helps to protect the wearer from disease. Who needs a mask when “the moustache… not merely warms the inspired air, but filters it from superfluous moisture, dirt, dust, and smoke”.

Joking aside, the traditional association of beards with manliness is problematic. The unshaven today must acknowledge that whiskers have a history, and when you wear a beard you bring that history with it.

Emblem of exclusion

For as much as half the population, the beard may be considered an emblem of exclusion. After all, who has the top jobs?

God – beard.

Child of god – beard.

Santa – beard.

In one particular field of work, beards are so ubiquitous it is a cliché. “Barba non facit philosophum” goes an old Latin phrase: “A beard does not constitute a philosopher.” There was a time, however, no philosopher would be without a beard.

Millennial stubble: Sinn Féin TD Eoin Ó Broin. Photograph: Eric Luke

Still today the association between beards and wisdom lingers. In the Oscar-nominated movie The Lost Daughter, Jessie Buckley’s character Leda falls for hotshot intellectual Professor Hardy, played by Peter Sarsgaard, and surprise, surprise, he has a terrific beard.

The gendered aspect of pogonotrophy – or cultivating facial hair – has been explored by Henry Pratt, a New York-based philosophy professor. In a paper entitled “To Beard or Not to Beard: Ethical and Aesthetic Obligations and Facial Hair”, he argues that the beard is not only a symbol of manliness, “it’s a symbol of patriarchy”. Though Pratt himself likes to play around with different styles – from a hipster goatee to a Ringo Starr moustache – he feels conflicted about it. “Growing beautiful facial hair might be the equivalent of creating a beautiful painting that’s oppressive towards women.”

Two competing principles are at stake, he believes: on the one hand, an obligation to create something aesthetically pleasing, and, on the other, a duty to take “feminist concerns” seriously. Either principle can be challenged: you may think beauty has no moral value (despite the pleadings of romantic poets) and/or you may think growing a beard has nothing to do with toxic masculinity.

Pratt sees both inquiries as open-ended. “Just as it’s a bad idea to tell other parents they’re raising their kids wrong, I think it’s a bad idea to tell others that their beards are wrong.” However, he does come up with an intriguing proposal – to “strategically reframe facial hair as symbolic of something other than patriarchal power structures, e.g., by encouraging its growth by women and feminist men”.

Resisting the demands of the beauty industry and celebrating subversive acts, such as the Eurovision-winning Conchita’s pairing of a beard with a ball gown, can help to redefine hairiness. Recent cases of women with congenital general hypertrichosis, or “bearded lady syndrome”, speaking positively about the condition can be applauded in this context too.

Seeking some enlightenment on what the beard represents today, Unthinkable sought the view of a professional philosopher. Trinity College Dublin researcher Dr Clare Moriarty sportingly replied. “I’m far from an expert here but there are some phases of history and culture in which wearing a beard – like, say, having a tattoo – might be seen as counter-cultural and rebellious,” she says.

“In other cultures and times, it could be associated with a freedom not to have to conform to the whims of employers, and in others it may be best read as a very natural consequence of very commonplace religious habits/observances. So, I think the extent to which people’s reasons for having beards varies makes saying anything very profound about beards per se quite tricky.”

Stubborn refusal

Talking about beards in a specific context is more fruitful. You may ask, for example, if someone’s retention of a lockdown beard represents either stubborn refusal to move on, or commendable resistance to the idea of business as usual.

Up to very recently, having stubble was the equivalent of going to a job interview with bed-head, or wearing shorts to Mass

A more fundamental question centres on the rise of stubble. “Five o’clock shadow” and its big brother “three-day scruff” have become not just acceptable but fashionable thanks to exemplars such as Northern Ireland actor Jamie Dornan.

This is something of a revolution in men’s grooming. Up to very recently, having stubble was the equivalent of going to a job interview with bed-head, or wearing shorts to Mass.

Does the rising acceptability of this interim form of beard speak to a greater playfulness today around identities? Or an inability of modern man to commit?

Philosophers on “the logic of vagueness” could have a contribution to make here, given their exploration of how things transition from one state to another. “They are always saying ‘is bald’ is a vague predicate – because it’s hard to say at what specific point in hair loss it becomes true of a person that they are bald,” Moriarty explains. “You certainly don’t need to have absolutely no hair at all [to be bald]... So many hairs? seven? forty?”

A similar question can be applied to stubble. When does facial hair move from clean-shaven to evening shadow? And when does it become a fully fledged beard?

The definitions are fuzzy even if the categories are clear to the naked eye. In my own case, the unshaven state (or grey-flecked Jamie Dornan tribute act) can last a few weeks but inevitably the day comes when I look in the mirror and see Gerry Adams staring back.

At this point, I should have something profound to say to round off the discussion, but indeterminacy itself seems like the right conclusion. The ethical implications of beards seem slight – discomfort for an intimate partner is probably the primary consideration – and, yes, there are bigger moral issues out there. But if Socrates was right that no life should go unexamined, it is appropriate to ask what exactly the state of your chin says about you.

A philosophical taxonomy of beards:

The Aristotle:

Full-boded: The wearer gives an aura of being above common concerns but is perhaps secretly hoping to be mistaken for Slavoj Žižek.

The René Decartes:

Goatee or mini-beard: Once fashionable among left-wingers in a nod to Che Guevara. Now more likely to be seen on hipster baristas.

Millennial stubble:

Relatable look for key voting demographic, although it didn’t work out for ex-minister for housing Eoghan Murphy. The Sinn Féin TD after his old job, Eoin Ó Broin, now has the most famous evening shadow in the Dáil.

The full Foucault:

French philosopher Michel Foucault achieves a hairless look of terrifying intensity.

Clean-shaven: Conveys seriousness and, when combined with thin-rimmed spectacles, black polo neck and baldness (à la French philosopher Michel Foucault), terrifying intensity.