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A Short History of Philosophers’ Haircuts

Sean Gittins informs us of the incontrovertible but hitherto unresearched link between philosophy and hair style.

I believe I have found incontrovertible links between a philosopher’s hairstyle and the philosophical theory they advocate. So, like a literary hen, it’s time to get off my recently laid research, and start showing off my devastating mind egg. Any flaws in my desultory and capricious research will hopefully only be highlighted after this controversial paper has gained me a lucrative publishing contract.

It is fair to say that never has so light and unworthy a topic received such in-depth and rigorous analysis from someone so unqualified to do so. Some may say I have wasted my time. To those I merely respond, what, philosophically, is time? Others may say that I don’t know what I’m talking about. To those I say they should try writing authoritatively about something of which they know nothing, and see how hard it is.

Any lingering doubts you may have about my theory I hope will be muffled by the following illustrative examples.

Philosophical Haircuts of Antiquity

The three most famous philosophers of antiquity, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, all sported a beard with short cropped hair. Socrates, just as he never wrote anything down about his philosophy, so too never wrote down anything about his bodily hair. There is some mention in an early abandoned draft of Plato’s Gorgias that Socrates could not grow his own beard. Gorgias taunts the great philosopher by saying that, instead of growing his own beard, Socrates had to sneak into the local barbershop and steal bits of hair that had fallen on the floor and glue them to his face, with phantasmagorical results. This story would certainly explain why Socrates was widely perceived as ugly, although its historical accuracy may be doubted, due to Gorgias’ reputation as a player of extreme japes and silly pranks.

Plato and Aristotle, as teacher and pupil, used to stay up until late every night arguing the merits of short cropped hair combined with a beard. Plato asserted this was the haircut of the philosopher-kings, and accorded with the ideal, abstract form of Beauty. Aristotle would often respond by saying, “What are you talking about Plato? There are no such thing as abstract forms, only the forms of what we see around us in the real world. You really do make some philosophical howlers sometimes, don’t you?” Despite their disagreements, the two never changed their haircuts and were content with their differing justifications for their chosen styles.

The links between a philosopher’s ideas and the hairstyle he or she chose to adopt were also demonstrated by the great religious philosophers. St Augustine of Hippo, before his conversion to Catholicism, sported long greasy locks much like we would today associate with a Hell’s Angel or a Goth. Refusing to wash his hair, it became unruly and dreadlocked. It was not until Augustine had a personal message from God that he altered his unfashionable and unholy ways. He recollects the moment he was convinced of Catholicism in his autobiography, The Confessions: “I heard a song that told me to read the book of the Lord, that I would findeth much goodness therein, and that for Pete’s sake I should cutteth mine terrible mane of haireth!” Persuaded by this message, he cut his hair in accordance with Holy Orders, believing the ‘hairy ring’ style to be purer and more religious. He never regretted the decision, saying that his hair was much easier to manage at so short a length. To gain maximum precision, he cut his tonsure around his head using a compass. He was severely teased for this by other monks, who nicknamed him ‘Pristine Augustine’. Augustine began to preach the benefits of a Christian way of life, particularly the hair, to the people of Hippo. They were not convinced, and when he died the majority of Hippo’s population still sported afros.

Early Modern Philosophical Haircuts

In what is perhaps the greatest rivalry in philosophy, between the empiricists and rationalists, the differences are symbolised even more accurately by the haircuts than the philosophical ideas. The most famous rationalists, Descartes, Spinoza and Leibniz, all groomed themselves in a similar manner, namely variations on a mullet: long hair with a short fringe. This choice reflected their philosophical preference for certainty, logic, and a reliance on geometrical principles. The defined lines and trims of their fringes, combined with the stringent lines of the rest of their hair, are apt illustrations of this outlook. Of course, there was room for disagreement between the three; Spinoza copied Descartes, but shied away from Descartes’ ostentatious, puckish fringe. Leibniz, always noted for his arrogance, went a step further in an attempt to outdo his peers, by root-boosting his mullet into a bushy bunch of curls and then proclaiming it to be “the best of all possible haircuts.” Leibniz’s highly publicised falling out with Isaac Newton, who also sported long bushy curls, was not, as most historians claim, over the origination of calculus, but about who had the haircut first. Leibniz was so angry with Newton that he posted a dead bear to Newton’s house to gain revenge. Newton responded by peremptorily sending back the bear, only to learn that it was still alive and ate the postman en route to Leibniz’s house.

The empiricists, on the other hand, did away with such abstract ideals. Locke, the first of the empiricists, had a beautiful head of hair that at its best looked wind-swept and luscious. It maintained throughout Locke’s long life a look that was natural and rooted in the real world. Always ambitious, he was determined to have the best hair amongst any intellectual in the world, and he supported his belief that everyone should have equal hair freedom with an argument stating that the scalp was a blank slate, or tabula rasa, which we can imprint upon as we see fit. He was recently voted the best groomed philosopher of all time by Vague magazine.

Berkeley, however, never showed his hair. Indeed many doubt that it even existed. Even he himself would often jest “Hair today, gone tomorrow!” at his famous after-luncheon parties. Some say he wore a shower cap all year around – others that he was embarrassed by his real hair colour and dare not show it for fear of being teased. The truth is both more obvious and more philosophical. Berkeley didn’t show his hair because of his philosophical belief that if he wasn’t looking at it, then it didn’t exist – an extension of his argument that if a tree falls in the forest but no one sees it fall, then can we say it ever really fell at all? Lumberjacks persecuted Berkeley for this argument throughout his life, often dumping autumn leaves in his back-garden, chuckling as they did so, but although deeply hurt by such actions, he remained true to his philosophical principles.

Hume suffered a mental breakdown after working tirelessly on his argument about hair induction. Just as he could find no reason to believe that the sun will rise tomorrow just because it has risen every day in the past, so too could he find no reason to believe his hair would be stylish tomorrow, even though it had been so every day in the past. Believing his own argument to be irrefutable, he refused to ever brush his hair again, and wore a judge’s wig until his death in 1776.

Kant, just as he attempted an amalgamation of empiricism and rationalism, aimed to reconcile the hairstyles of the two conflicting philosophies. He did this by growing a geometrical mullet in tribute to Descartes, but styling it similar to David Hume’s wig. He called the combination style ‘The Critique of Pure Hair’. Unfortunately, the title, like the style, did not catch on. Kant refused to believe our hair was just styled by our sense perceptions, and felt that human ideas themselves imposed some sort of order on how we trim, comb, condition, and wear our hair. Philosophers have since battled with the most pressing of Kant’s problems; whether we can know hair in itself or only subjectively. Kant’s answer was to deny the former, and say we can only know our follicles subjectively as phenomena, acknowledging that even if we shampooed and brushed our hair daily we would still not know our hair as it truly exists in itself.

Post-Kantian Haircuts

The German philosopher Hegel was recently voted by Vague magazine as having the worst hair of any intellectual in history. It was thin and greasy. His opponent Schopenhauer (who argued that one never need touch one’s hair, only will it to be the shape one desired) even spread rumours that he shampooed it with goose fat. So thin was Hegel’s hair that he felt the need to write thick, grandiose, obfuscating works of philosophy to compensate.

Later in his career, Hegel became sullen and even complained to his pupils about his poor haircut. He tried everything to improve it, from scalp creams and various Eastern medicines, to rubbing a live fox on his head every full moon. He eventually found solace in two ideas. First in the idea of ‘the spirit of the state’, as he termed it, which was a state-funded programme to provide the Prussians with the best hair in Europe. Second, the concept of the ‘dialectic’, where one would take the existing hair style, called the thesis, style it in an opposing way, called the antithesis, and then from the combination would create a new hairstyle, or a synthesis. Practically, this idea was found to be of little help to hairdressers in Prussia, as it usually resulted in an unfathomable mess incorporating conflicting hair designs, due to the difficulty in following Hegel’s incomprehensible instructions for such a bouffant.

No such problem faced Marx. His beard still stands as the bushiest ever to be worn by a philosopher. Marx was inspired to grow his bramble-like facial hair for two reasons: first, after reversing Hegel’s idealism, both in philosophical and in fashion terms; second, after seeing the suffering of the common working man. So appalled was Marx by the working conditions of the proletariat in Europe that he decided to grow a beard in solidarity with the workers. A materialist until the end, Marx never cut off his beard, and taunted the bourgeoisie by walking the streets of London aggressively stroking it in their faces.

Marx’s personal story is a tragedy: he was driven to poverty by the constant shampooing and barbers’ bills that the up-keep of his chin-growth required. He died alone, but with his beard still growing, even in death, in 1883.

Nietzsche is perhaps the one exception in this long list of philosophers, growing his facial hair on purely aesthetic rather than philosophical grounds. He loved his moustache and grew it to socially intolerable lengths. “Are you mad? You look like you have a giant furry slug under your nose!” people would often shout at him in the street. “God is dead! This is my God now!” he would reply, pointing defiantly at his moustache. A man of great pride, he was forced to shave off his moustache for his sister’s fancy dress party (for which he dressed as superman) after another partygoer came as someone with a big moustache and a fight broke out. Nietzsche never recovered from the shock, and so began the long mental decline that ended with his death in 1900.

Philosophical Haircuts of the Modern Age

As the twentieth century dawned, so too did a new wave of hairstyles in philosophy. The groundbreaking work in logic and the philosophy of language of Frege, Russell, and the young Wittgenstein, was accompanied by neat and logical side-partings. However, Wittgenstein renounced his earlier haircut when he renounced his early philosophy, changing his parting from the left to the right side of his head to illustrate the severity of the intellectual break. Russell told him he was mad for doing this, and the two fell out soon after. Despite his failure to find the foundations of hair, Russell never abandoned his own side-parting. He always believed the reason he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950 was because of his slick cut rather than his writing.

© Sean Gittins 2013

Sean Gittins is a comedian and a writer living in London. Please visit www.seangittins.co.uk.

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