Parenting basics

Vanity

Should I buy the anti-aging face cream? I’ve been browsing facial moisturizers on Amazon and trying to decide what the Stoic approach is to face lotions. I know that sounds silly–after all, what do moisturizers have to do with the serious business of Stoic philosophy? But it’s part of a larger question I’ve been asking myself lately: as a practicing Stoic, how do I manage my appearance? I know that appearance is not really important, since it’s not related to virtue. But seeing as I’m not ready to cast aside all my worldly possessions and live in a bathtub in the street, I still have to fit into society. So it’s a balancing act. How far do I appease social convention (and make an effort to look nice), and how far do I disregard social convention to focus on virtue?

To start with, I can eliminate the extremes. I’m not going to be an ascetic, living on bread crusts and wearing threadbare rags. I’m not going to be a fashionista who keeps up with the latest beauty news and spends thousands of dollars on shoes. If I had a paying job (as opposed to staying home with my kids), I would certainly need to meet my employer’s expectations, whatever those might be. So those are the easy decisions to make.

But that still leaves a wide range of options. Should I shop at thrift stores? At department stores? At high-end boutiques? How much of my budget should go toward clothes and accessories? What about for my kids? Should I get my nails done every week? How much time should I spend doing my hair every morning? Should I use cheap shampoo or expensive shampoo? Can Stoicism provide any guidance on this at all?

Not surprisingly, Seneca has some useful advice on this topic (in his fifth letter to Lucilius):

Philosophy demands thrift, not self-punishment, and thrift need not be unadorned. This is the measure I choose, that our life should be a compromise between virtuous behavior and public practice: let everyone admire our life, but also see it as familiar. ‘What shall we do then? Behave like everyone else? Will there be no difference between us and them?’ Yes, a great difference. Let the man who examines us more closely recognize that we are not like the common crowd. Let the man who enters our house admire us rather than our furnishings.

So according to Seneca, we should not make a great show of being different from other people just because we are Stoics. That is really its own sort of vanity–it’s done just to attract attention and show that you are superior to others. If you make a big show of austerity, it’s off-putting to others and distracts from the true business of virtue. For example, if you’re with friends and you pull out a flip-phone from 2001, your phone is bound to receive a lot of notice. In a way, you’re making a statement about yourself (in a retro geek kind of way). Of course you don’t need to have the latest model iphone, but you don’t want to go too far in the other direction. It’s really about intention. If you find yourself doing anything to stand out, you’ve probably lost your sense of balance.

In other words, we should make a reasonable effort to blend in to the people around us. We’re not trying to keep up with the Joneses or follow the crowds; we’re just trying not to draw attention to ourselves in the wrong ways. We should stand out because of our virtuous behavior, not because of conspicuous non-consumption.

I don’t think we can say that physical appearance is completely removed from virtue, because really everything you do in your life is a component of virtue. You have a body, so you have to take care of it, and you can do that in a virtuous or non-virtuous way. But like so many other things, it’s about using your practical wisdom to balance competing priorities. Even though Stoics don’t care about appearance, most other people do. We have to make certain concessions to social expectations.

So now, as I make decisions about what to buy, I try to keep Seneca’s advice in mind. (“Our toga should not dazzle, nor should it be drab.”) I buy the anti-wrinkle cream, but I try not to obsess over wrinkles. I shop at mid-range stores, but I try to stick with non-trendy classics that will last for a long time. I have a simple haircut that is easy to take care of but doesn’t look that different from other people’s haircuts. (And the same for my kids.) My goal is not to worry too much about either fitting in or standing out–we just make a reasonable effort to look nice and move on to thinking about more important things.