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The Church Fathers on the Manliness of Beards

Posted by Steve Turley ● Mar 1, 2016 2:15:00 PM

In May of 2014, Sean Hannity interviewed Phil Robertson, the patriarch of the A&E TV series, Duck Dynasty, in view of the release of his book. unPHILtered: The Way I See it. Throughout the interview, Phil shared his "Phil-o-sophy" on life, culture, politics.... and beards.

Well, I figure the Almighty, I'm a male, and you're a male... Now right now, you've gone basically the route, God gave you your whiskers to be scraped off every day. I'm thinking he gave them to us ... because they are supposed to be there... You looked at your whiskers when you got about 14 or 15 and said, mom, my hair is coming out of my face, what do I do? She said cut it off. That's why you have it there. You're supposed to shave it off. But Sean, that's not even logical.

Phil's comments on beards are not incidental to life, culture, and politics. According to A. Edward Siecienski, “Holy Hair: Beards in the Patristic Tradition,” there was a general consensus among the Church Fathers on the matter of facial hair, one which overwhelmingly supported the beard. With few exceptions, the Fathers spoke of beards in an exhortative and positive light.

1. Beards are a part of the natural order. 

It has been generally recognized: those who don’t have beards are women and children, and men are neither. The Church Fathers tended to see passages such as Leviticus 19:27 (“Do not cut the hair at the sides of your head or clip off the edges of your beard”) as a Mosaic outworking of this natural law. According to Clement of Alexandria, in his extended discussion of beards, men are distinctively characterized by their hairiness:

This, then, the mark of the man, the beard, by which he is seen to be a man, is older than Eve, and is the token of the superior nature. In this God deemed it right that he should excel, and dispersed hair over man's whole body. Whatever smoothness and softness was in him He abstracted from his side when He formed the woman Eve, physically receptive, his partner in parentage, his help in household management, while he (for he had parted with all smoothness) remained a man, and shows himself man. And to him has been assigned action, as to her suffering; for what is shaggy is drier and warmer than what is smooth. Wherefore males have both more hair and more heat than females ... (Paidagogus III.3)

Clement contrasts this natural male body with the significance of its deliberate interruption: if smoothness is ordained by God to attract men, then male shaving can amount to an effeminate act. We have to remember that in the Greco-Roman world, smooth skin was considered a sign of youthfulness, either in the guise of women or young boys. And so pederasty was considered an acceptable practice among older men. Thus, the purposeful shaving of facial hair could easily be interpreted as an effeminate sexual gesture on the part of the man. In this sense, then, beardlessness was rejected on the grounds of its implications for Christian sexual morality.

2. The beard signifies manly virtues.

Not only do beards affirm natural masculinity and guard against effeminacy, but they promote manly virtues as well. Augustine saw beards as a sign of courage:  “The beard signifies the courageous; the beard distinguishes the grown men, the earnest, the active, the vigorous. So that when we describe such, we say, he is a bearded man.” (Exposition on Psalm 133, 6) Lactantius, writing in the third- to fourth-centuries, saw beards as signs of manliness and strength : “[T]he nature of the beard contributes in an incredible degree to distinguish the maturity of bodies, or to the distinction of sex, or to the beauty of manliness and strength.” (On the Workmanship of God, Chapter 7) Ambrose, bishop of Milan, saw the maintenance of gender distinction a necessary impediment to the loss of chastity: "How unsightly it is for a man to act like a woman! Let those who curl their hair like women also conceive and bear childdren ... [for] it is to be expected that chastity will be lost where the distinction of the sexes is not observed."

3. The beard is a sign of wisdom.

Cassiodorus, writing in the sixth-century, provided advise on how to recognize a good man. Among other characteristics, a good man is “made reverend by a long beard.” (De Anima 2.13) This appears to be a reference to what is called the philosopher's beard in the Greco-Roman world, which symbolized one's search and acquisition of wisdom. Cassiodrus associates this symbol of the pursuit of wisdom with contemplation of Christian truth.

And so, as it turns out, Phil Robertson is far more than just a reality TV star. According to the consensus of the Church Fathers, with his long white beard, Phil -- the philosopher -- is a true man.


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Topics: blog, church and society, Patristic theology, Patristics

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