I recently grew my hair out a little differently.
Yeah, I know that’s a weird thing to start an article with, but I promise this isn’t as self-indulgent as it sounds.
Still, I can’t seem to bring myself to put the product in it that the style suggest. I know it’s what a lot of people do. I know it would be easy. I know it would probably look good. I even bought the stuff. But I haven’t put anything in my hair since I was a teenager.
I keep asking myself, “Is this really something I wanted to waste time and money on day in and day out? Is that a habit I want to start?”
It’s funny, because this is actually a discussion that goes way, way back in history. The philosopher Epictetus thought that beards were integral to being a philosopher. Not only because facial hair was natural, but because he felt that taking the time to shave yourself every day–purely to impress other people and look “respectable”–was incongruent with philosophical principles.
In fact, he said he’d rather be executed than go bare faced. This is the famous exchange he hypothesized:
“Come now, Epictetus, shave your beard,” he feared the Emperor might demand.
“If I am a philosopher,” was his reply, “I will not shave it off.”
“Then I will have you beheaded.
“If it will do you any good, behead me.”
All that over a beard. It seems a little crazy, but I get it. Think of the vanity we put into our appearances–all for what? The approval of people we mostly don’t care about. Meanwhile, so many other areas in our lives languish.
Of course, their position was not totally consistent. It doesn’t say anything about never trimming or cutting your facial hair at all, and one would imagine that if Epictetus and other philosophers had utterly unruly and unkempt hair, that description would have been passed down to us. But they didn’t. They care about this stuff, but apparently only to a point.
I suppose my position holds the same inconsistencies. I deliberately sought out this new haircut because I thought it would be cool and I liked how it looked. Like everyone else, I paid a decent amount of money to get it done, when it would obviously be cheaper, easier and completely without such complications to simply buzz it all off myself every couple weeks.
We’re all like this in many parts of our lives. With few exceptions, we do our best to not be vain, to not be superficial. To focus on the real ethical dilemmas. To make sure we have our priorities in place. Yet…
Me personally, I like nice clothes (mostly American Apparel naturally, and of course, Frigo), but I like Thoreau’s line about being wary of any enterprises that require shopping for more or news ones. I like nice things, but I’d rather spend my money on books or experiences. I’ve traveled, but as far as I can tell, never as an escape. I drive a nice car, but I bought it ten years old. Less money, more or less the same luxury.
The sweaters Steve Jobs wore every day were probably expensive, probably designer–which is not the point. The point is that he picked something and then cut that daily decision out of his life. That’s the best way to do it I think: find the things that you like–looking towards functionality as much as form–and stick with them.
You only have so much life, do you want to spend it ceaselessly chasing “cool?” At the same time, you only have so much life, do you want to be an outsider because you look, act and seem like a slob? How can you make any sort of contribution if you’re at either extreme?
This argument too has its philosophical and historical precedent.
There is another insight from Seneca, that I think about a lot. A wise man, on the outside, will appear the same as everyone else. On the inside, everything will be different. Here he was specifically referring to trends, dress and social practices. “Let our aim be a way of life not diametrically opposed to,” he said, but simply “better than that of the mob.”
Though there is also a funny story about the orator Demosthenes–who shaved half his head so he’d be too embarrassed to go outside. He wanted to look different externally so he could focus on improving himself internally. But then you know what, he grew his hair back like everyone else. He didn’t deliver his Philippics looking like a weirdo.
You don’t need to be a kook. There is no inherent value in radical aesthetic minimalism. Is some Tibetan monk better than you because he wears a robe while you spend money on jeans? Who knows? He could be a total asshole. Is an Orthodox Jew more pious than you because he wears a tzitzit and has his hair in payot? Maybe he treats his wife poorly or is obsessed with work. Maybe he’s not–but the clothes have little to do with it.
These are superficial things at best. Perhaps like in Epictetus’s case, they symbolize an active conviction. But just as likely they are superficial. They mask what is underneath. They pump up our egos, but deplete it where it matters.
You’re not a philosopher because you have a beard. You can care about your hair, or not. The point is to simply find the right balance. The important thing is to figure out what you need to achieve a basic level of comfort, get it, and get out, so you can move on to the important things, like your work and your relationships and yourself. Practical philosophy can help here, it guides us and gives us some answers.
But so does common sense.
Don’t be vain. But don’t be vain about vanity either. It’s a pointless road.