Lifestyle October 30, 2013

5 Church Fathers on that Most Manly of Traits: the Beard

Men grow beards. Boys don’t, and neither do women - and the Church Fathers thought this was significant.

Brantly Millegan
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Brantly Millegan
October 30, 2013
A&E/ Zach Dilgard
From Gandalf to Duck Dynasty to George Clooney, beards are in. And they even have science on their side.

Despite protests to the contrary from corporations that make money selling razors, a new study released earlier this year found women were generally more attracted to men when they had “heavy stubble” or even “full beards” than when they were clean shaven. The study’s abstract summarized its findings, “Masculinity ratings increased linearly as facial hair increased, and this effect was more pronounced in women in the fertile phase of the menstrual cycle. [...] Our findings confirm that beardedness affects judgments of male socio-sexual attributes and suggest that an intermediate level of beardedness is most attractive while full-bearded men may be perceived as better fathers who could protect and invest in offspring.”

But beards don’t really do anything. They’re just... there. So why do they matter? Because they are a sign of masculinity. Men grow beards. Boys don’t, and neither do women.

And I write that as a man who doesn’t grow great beards. The beards my brothers and I grow are actually more like neck beards unfortunately. But I can still acknowledge that beards are a masculine trait, as is being muscular (I’m not), having a deep voice (I have a relatively high voice for man), and being tall (I’m 6’ 3’’, so I’m doing well with at least one of these traits). Yes, these sorts of traits come in a range, and different men will have them to different degrees, and that’s fine. I’m still a man (married with children no less), and being male obviously cannot be reduced to a list of secondary physical characteristics. But that doesn’t mean these traits don’t matter at all. Secondary sex characteristics are important because they help to signal the nature and complementarity of the sexes.

Backing me up on this are none other than the venerable early Church Fathers. The Church Fathers are subject to the contingencies of their culture just like we are, but their views on beards and the like are still worth reading, if even just to counterbalance our culture’s absurd denial of the objective reality of the two sexes.

Of course, the Church’s Magisterium today has no teachings on whether or not men have to grow beards. In fact, if you scan the portraits on Wikipedia’s list of Popes, you have to go all the way back to to the 17th century to find one with any facial hair. That’s more than three solid centuries of beardless Popes. So if, contra the Church Fathers, you like to be clean shaven, don’t worry, you’re in good company.


1) "The Beard Signifies the Courageous" - St Augustine, 4th - 5th century

“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)


2) "Manliness and Strength" - Lactantius, 3rd - 4th century

“[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)


3) "What a Disgrace" - St. John Chrysostom, 4th century

“Just think now what a disgrace it would be for a man having a flowing beard, and with staff in hand, and cope on shoulders, to go to school with children, and be set the same tasks with them: would it not be above measure ridiculous?” (Homily 10 on the Acts of the Apostles)


4) "Unnaturally Change the Form of a Man" - Apostolic Constitutions, 4th century

“[I]t is not lawful for you, a believer and a man of God, to permit the hair of your head to grow long, and to brush it up together, nor to suffer it to spread abroad, nor to puff it up, nor by nice combing and platting to make it curl and shine; since that is contrary to the law, which says thus, in its additional precepts: You shall not make to yourselves curls and round rasures. Nor may men destroy the hair of their beards, and unnaturally change the form of a man. For the law says: You shall not mar your beards. For God the Creator has made this decent for women, but has determined that it is unsuitable for men. But if you do these things to please men, in contradiction to the law, you will be abominable with God, who created you after His own image. If, therefore, you will be acceptable to God, abstain from all those things which He hates, and do none of those things that are unpleasing to Him.” (Apostolic Constitutions, Book 1, Section 2)


5) "Impious to Desecrate the Symbol of Manhood" - Clement of Alexandria, 2nd - 3rd century

“But for one who is a man to comb himself and shave himself with a razor, for the sake of fine effect, to arrange his hair at the looking-glass, to shave his cheeks, pluck hairs out of them, and smooth them, how womanly! [...] For this is a meretricious and impious form of snare. For God wished women to be smooth, and rejoice in their locks alone growing spontaneously, as a horse in his mane; but has adorned man, like the lions, with a beard, and endowed him, as an attribute of manhood, with a shaggy chest - a sign of strength and rule. [...]

“This, then, the mark of the man, the beard, by which he is seen to be a man, is older than Eve... 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. [...]

“Wherefore males have both more hair and more heat than females… It is therefore impious to desecrate the symbol of manhood, hairiness. But the embellishment of smoothing (for I am warned by the Word), if it is to attract men, is the act of an effeminate person,— if to attract women, is the act of an adulterer; and both must be driven as far as possible from our society. [...]

“Let the head of men be shaven, unless it has curly hair. But let the chin have the hair. But let not twisted locks hang far down from the head, gliding into womanish ringlets. For an ample beard suffices for men. And if one, too, shave a part of his beard, it must not be made entirely bare, for this is a disgraceful sight. The shaving of the chin to the skin is reprehensible, approaching to plucking out the hair and smoothing. For instance, thus the Psalmist, delighted with the hair of the beard, says, ‘As the ointment that descends on the beard, the beard of Aaron.’ Having celebrated the beauty of the beard by a repetition, he made the face to shine with the ointment of the Lord.” (The Instructor, Book 3, Chapters 3, 11)
From Gandalf to Duck Dynasty to George Clooney, beards are in. And they even have science on their side.

Despite protests to the contrary from corporations that make money selling razors, a new study released earlier this year found women were generally more attracted to men when they had “heavy stubble” or even “full beards” than when they were clean shaven. The study’s abstract summarized its findings, “Masculinity ratings increased linearly as facial hair increased, and this effect was more pronounced in women in the fertile phase of the menstrual cycle. [...] Our findings confirm that beardedness affects judgments of male socio-sexual attributes and suggest that an intermediate level of beardedness is most attractive while full-bearded men may be perceived as better fathers who could protect and invest in offspring.”

But beards don’t really do anything. They’re just... there. So why do they matter? Because they are a sign of masculinity. Men grow beards. Boys don’t, and neither do women.

And I write that as a man who doesn’t grow great beards. The beards my brothers and I grow are actually more like neck beards unfortunately. But I can still acknowledge that beards are a masculine trait, as is being muscular (I’m not), having a deep voice (I have a relatively high voice for man), and being tall (I’m 6’ 3’’, so I’m doing well with at least one of these traits). Yes, these sorts of traits come in a range, and different men will have them to different degrees, and that’s fine. I’m still a man (married with children no less), and being male obviously cannot be reduced to a list of secondary physical characteristics. But that doesn’t mean these traits don’t matter at all. Secondary sex characteristics are important because they help to signal the nature and complementarity of the sexes.

Backing me up on this are none other than the venerable early Church Fathers. The Church Fathers are subject to the contingencies of their culture just like we are, but their views on beards and the like are still worth reading, if even just to counterbalance our culture’s absurd denial of the objective reality of the two sexes.

Of course, the Church’s Magisterium today has no teachings on whether or not men have to grow beards. In fact, if you scan the portraits on Wikipedia’s list of Popes, you have to go all the way back to to the 17th century to find one with any facial hair. That’s more than three solid centuries of beardless Popes. So if, contra the Church Fathers, you like to be clean shaven, don’t worry, you’re in good company.


1) "The Beard Signifies the Courageous" - St Augustine, 4th - 5th century

“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)


2) "Manliness and Strength" - Lactantius, 3rd - 4th century

“[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)


3) "What a Disgrace" - St. John Chrysostom, 4th century

“Just think now what a disgrace it would be for a man having a flowing beard, and with staff in hand, and cope on shoulders, to go to school with children, and be set the same tasks with them: would it not be above measure ridiculous?” (Homily 10 on the Acts of the Apostles)


4) "Unnaturally Change the Form of a Man" - Apostolic Constitutions, 4th century

“[I]t is not lawful for you, a believer and a man of God, to permit the hair of your head to grow long, and to brush it up together, nor to suffer it to spread abroad, nor to puff it up, nor by nice combing and platting to make it curl and shine; since that is contrary to the law, which says thus, in its additional precepts: You shall not make to yourselves curls and round rasures. Nor may men destroy the hair of their beards, and unnaturally change the form of a man. For the law says: You shall not mar your beards. For God the Creator has made this decent for women, but has determined that it is unsuitable for men. But if you do these things to please men, in contradiction to the law, you will be abominable with God, who created you after His own image. If, therefore, you will be acceptable to God, abstain from all those things which He hates, and do none of those things that are unpleasing to Him.” (Apostolic Constitutions, Book 1, Section 2)


5) "Impious to Desecrate the Symbol of Manhood" - Clement of Alexandria, 2nd - 3rd century

“But for one who is a man to comb himself and shave himself with a razor, for the sake of fine effect, to arrange his hair at the looking-glass, to shave his cheeks, pluck hairs out of them, and smooth them, how womanly! [...] For this is a meretricious and impious form of snare. For God wished women to be smooth, and rejoice in their locks alone growing spontaneously, as a horse in his mane; but has adorned man, like the lions, with a beard, and endowed him, as an attribute of manhood, with a shaggy chest - a sign of strength and rule. [...]

“This, then, the mark of the man, the beard, by which he is seen to be a man, is older than Eve... 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. [...]

“Wherefore males have both more hair and more heat than females… It is therefore impious to desecrate the symbol of manhood, hairiness. But the embellishment of smoothing (for I am warned by the Word), if it is to attract men, is the act of an effeminate person,— if to attract women, is the act of an adulterer; and both must be driven as far as possible from our society. [...]

“Let the head of men be shaven, unless it has curly hair. But let the chin have the hair. But let not twisted locks hang far down from the head, gliding into womanish ringlets. For an ample beard suffices for men. And if one, too, shave a part of his beard, it must not be made entirely bare, for this is a disgraceful sight. The shaving of the chin to the skin is reprehensible, approaching to plucking out the hair and smoothing. For instance, thus the Psalmist, delighted with the hair of the beard, says, ‘As the ointment that descends on the beard, the beard of Aaron.’ Having celebrated the beauty of the beard by a repetition, he made the face to shine with the ointment of the Lord.” (The Instructor, Book 3, Chapters 3, 11)
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