Friday 6 January 2012

The patriarchal beard versus the anti-patriarchal beard


I have always been clean shaven (and short-haired - even before it started to recede and thin) - a typical Roundhead Puritan in fact - and this description probably fits fairly well with my natural disposition.

But it has always seemed surprising that to be clean shaven has been the norm for the past several generations.


Surprising, too, that beards fall into two main categories: the patriarchal and the anti-patriarchal (or Leftist) beard: these seem to be perennials.

(I leave aside temporary fashions for sculpted facial hair - moustaches, goatees, long sideburns etc - I focus on the full beard in its natural more-or-less natural form.)


It is notable that the full beard is worn by patriarchs such as Orthodox Jews, Muslim clerics, Eastern Orthodox Priests, Amish (well, this shaggy rim-beard is a bit more of a tribal symbol) - the beard apparently signifies maleness and authority.

But a similar beard may be sported by beatnicks, hippies, feminist men, communistically-inclined scientists, health food shop owners and the like - where it signifies something near the opposite: gentleness, pacifism, abstraction?...

There are patriarchal religious exceptions. Roman Catholic priests, who are of course not strictly patriarchs, seem never to be bearded (maybe they are forbidden?) and nearly all Mormons seem clean shaven (Orson Scott Card has a goatee).



I accept that men are supposed to be bearded, and there is something a bit warped about the norm of being clean-shaven - it probably signifies some kind of narrow fanaticism (certainly it does in my case...).

But then why the anti-patriarchal beard?

Best guess is subversion. Look like a patriarch, behave like... something very different - hence destroying the power of the beard as masculine symbol.

Any better ideas?



Catherine said...

I have a few ideas:

1. It's a throwback to the origins of the hippie movement, when (I'm guessing) the concept of the patriarchal beard was far less familiar to mainstream America. It was a rebellion against the respectable clean-shaven-ness of the time (perhaps with some anti-military overtones, since being unshaven is like being out of uniform); any resemblance to a patriarchal beard was coincidental.

2. Hipster irony. Lacking even the hippies' ability to believe in anything, hipsters latch on to visual symbols in an attempt to draw some meaning from life, much like shades in Hades thirsting after living blood. Hipster males love "ironic" traditional American masculine symbols (facial hair, flannel shirts, trucker caps, etc) because it gives them a faint taste of masculinity without requiring the courage to actually make any real choices.

3. The anti-patriarchal crowd contains a large group of people who are simply too lazy to shave.

dagezhu said...

For some periods, in most jurisdictions of the Catholic church, it seems that clean-shaven-ness was mandatory for clergy.

Canon 44 of the so-called Fourth of Carthage, which in reality represents the synodal decrees of some council in Southern Gaul in the time of St. C├Žsarius of Arles (c. 503). There it enjoined that a cleric is to allow neither hair nor beard to grow freely (Clericus nec comam nutriat nec barbam) though this prohibition is very probably directed only against beards of excessive length. Still this canon, which was widely quoted and is included in the "Corpus juris" had great influence in creating a precedent.

HIber said...

I grew a beard a while ago which I still have, specifically a goatee (I think) with a mustache, all of it kept very short. Immediately I noticed that people were more respectful to me. I change the shape of my beard from time to time. Anyway, I wont begetting rid of it any time soon due to the better treatment I receive with it.

Proph said...

Also, I cannot seem to find any definite information re: Catholics priests, but the consensus seems to be that it is at least informally prohibited, and perhaps even formally forbidden (but the prohibition is not enforced). It appears there was historically a definite prohibition on beardedness because of its association with manliness and coming-of-age, and thus with noncelibacy.

For myself, I keep my face smooth -- not out of any particular position but because my own patchy and variegated beard makes me look silly!

Anonymous said...

I'm grateful for the norm of clean-shavenness because, like Njal in Njala, I can't grow a beard.


dearieme said...

My beard is fit to command one of Her Majesty's vessels.

Bruce Charlton said...

Like bb and Proph my own beard was pretty feeble, especially the moustache bit - but I think I might *now* be able to grow a decent Santa-style white beard, should the need arise...

buckyinky said...

While clean-shaven is the norm among secular priests, religious orders seem not to be part of this custom within the Roman Catholic Church. Among the Franciscans especially, it is more common to see full-bearded faces than not.

PatrickH said...

Many of the original hippies were surprisingly patriarchal, including (especially?) the back to the land types. Seventies feminists only semi-ironically stated that feminism grew out of women's frustrations at being told to fetch the coffee by "liberated" left-wing warriors.

It is also true that many "feminist" men are among the most misogynistic, manipulative, even abusive men around.

I suspect, however, the leftist beard's appeal was mostly to those in revolt against "Mad Men" America, fifties and early sixties men, who were, I believe, overwhelmingly clean-shaven. Not even mustaches were common then.

The Crow said...

I've had a beard ever since a beard first appeared, unbidden, upon my youthful mug.
I'd shave it away, now, but my wife implores me not to. She likes bearded men, it is clear, and so now I am stuck with it forever.

Kristor said...

No idea if this is really true, but I had always understood that the reason for priestly clean-shavenness in the RC church was to signify that the priest was not a warrior. Warriors, otoh, had whiskers; this was so even up into the 19th century.

So, being clean-shaven set the priest apart, just as the tonsure sets the monk apart.

Matias said...

I think Roman Catholic priests follow the tradition of ancient Romans in preferring to be clean shaven. The Romans' beardlessness I have always associated with militarism and discipline. Romans wore uniforms when going to war, and for a man in a uniform, a beard is probably the only way to really stick out of the crowd, hence it's usually forbidden. Maybe the Roman Catholic Church has considered itself too much a "church militant" to have bearded patriarchs.

I would guess that 19th Century bourgeois patriarchs like Charles Darwin were bearded, because their predecessors, 18th Century aristocrats were seen as feminine.

The anti-patriarchal beard seems to be an American phenomenon, I at least haven't noticed it in continental Europe. It could also be a reaction to American militarism, like Catherine suggested.

Al said...

This is a photo of Eugene Cardinal Tisserant (

Bruce Charlton said...

@Al - not bad - but the Russian Orthodox are surely supreme

(I include this particular photo because of Archbishop Averky.)

JRRT Reader said...

I must disagree with the idea that beards in the US have something to do with anti militarism.

In the 2nd World War, many soldiers did not have frequent opportunities to shave. This was particularly so among the infantry. Search a little online for the cartoon strips of Willie and Joe by Bill Maudlin for a take on this. The soldiers are often depicted as having partial beards.

Further, among some units, there was a superstition against shaving in certain situations

Anonymous said...

From what I've seen the "anti-patriarchal beard" has gone out of style. You see it here and there on the rare day but most modern leftist men are clean-shaven and hairless. A reason for this is that leftism has become "purer" to say the least compared to in the past where there was a mixture of rightism with liberalism. It's almost like the odd "sex-negative feminism" phenomenom of the 1970's where feminism was anti-pornography, anti-prostitution and advocated policies that limited women's sexual liberation (borrowing from patriarchal mores). This started to wither as feminism became more accepted in society and gained power (by then they switched to sex-positive feminism which was more compatible and more purely liberal).

Wm Jas said...

The patriarchal beard was the norm in early Mormonism, but beards are now generally discouraged and are explicitly not allowed for missionaries and church leaders. The change seems to have taken place in the 1950s or thereabout.

Bruce Charlton said...

@WmJas - interesting. I wonder what it signifies?

If it signifies a change of Mormonism from separate development to the current strategy of quiet assimilation then I would expect that this is one of the things that will need to be reversed, and fairly soon.

My sense is that Mormonism will be filleted-out and destroyed by Leftism driven by the federal government unless they revert to the original separatist strategy - which would necessarily involve breaking away from the US (again).

It would be interesting to find out what would happen if Romney becomes President - I would regard it as much more of a threat to Mormons and Mormonism than a benefit.

One threat would be assimilation to the Federal agenda (feeling unable or unwilling to oppose the President and central government); the other would be four years of 24/7 mockery and vilification by the Leftist media, education and showbiz establishment (although that might, in fact, be the kind of wake-up call that Mormons need...?)