Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Philosopher's Beard: On Being a Man, A Stoic and A Modern

These things come in cycles. Perhaps it's a pendulum, swinging from one extreme to the other, or maybe a spiral, revisiting the same sector as we pass through. It could be that the inherent (or is it apparent) duality of it all forces the switch of emphasis, back and forth eternally.

I am speaking of the gender question. Man, Woman. Male, Female. Him, Her. Stoic... Stoic?

I'm in my 50's now. I am Father, Brother, Son, Husband, Uncle. These titles alone imply my gender. I am also Teacher, Friend, Employee, Author, and Stoic. These say nothing about my gender, and I don't think they should.

It's a bit of a contentious issue, especially in 2017 (or has it never been any different?). The Stoics, ancient and modern, have been debating this point without any clear resolution. Cut to the chase, but I figure that gender has little (or nothing) to do with being a Stoic. How we express that Stoicism will of course be coloured by our gender, as it will by our age or geo-political-economic situation. But these things are incidental.

Socrates' Beard
(along with the rest of his face)
Musonius Rufus, often lauded for being the most 'feminist' of the ancient Stoics, if not ancient philosophers, is part of where the trouble starts. His lectures "That women too should study philosophy" and "Should daughters receive the same training as sons?", and especially "What is the chief end of marriage?" (parts of which I read at my daughter's wedding) are actually quite an interesting read, given their ancient Roman context. But they aren't all that interesting given our present context (western, democratic, twenty-first century). We read that and think, "Of course! Why is this even a question?"

The very same Rufus though, also said in "On cutting the hair" that men who cut their hair and shave their cheeks "have become slaves of luxurious living and are completely enervated, men who can endure being seen as womanish creatures, hermaphrodites, something which real men would avoid at all costs." (Even in his time, the question of a beard was contentious in the discussion of Greek and Roman manliness and philosophy.)

He is echoed by that most admired of ancient Stoics, Epictetus, who when (hypothetically) threatened with a beheading for refusing to shave his beard, preferred to keep the facial hair, perhaps in spite of his face. [NOTE: I understand that it was perceived as a Badge of the philosopher, but as modern Stoics, is anything but our Behaviour a badge?]

Why all this talk of beards? Because we are men, Men, MEN I TELL YOU! But wait. We are male incidentally (in most cases). With a respectful nod to those who struggle with their gender identity in the face of modern attitudes (how is this still a thing?), their isn't much we have done to be male that we can justifiably take credit for.

Now I hear some say that "Live in accordance with Nature" is THE Stoic guide to life and, they argue, what is more natural than our gender. This is, however, a simplistic interpretation of the Stoic dictum, and a simplistic understanding of human gender. (Think Again - Globe and Mail)

Groups, support and otherwise, are popping up to support being a man, being manly, being a Stoic man. These are great, in their place, and may provide a side entrance to the main point. It isn't that being a man, or even a manly man with unique 21st century manly man problems, is a problem, but it simply isn't the point. It isn't the point of life, let alone Stoicism.

Stoicism is simply this: become the most excellent you. That may, or may not, involve getting into gender issues, but it is definitely about being courageous, just, wise, and temperate. Being Stoic is about exploring and expressing our connection and interconnections with each other and with the world around us. We need to be careful, cautious, and considerate when it comes to questions of gender. We need to be focused on virtue when it comes to the question of how live the best life. We need to be Stoic.