On Why A Slovenly Appearance Is A Form Of Muted Hostility

The Roman writer Aulus Gellius, in his Attic Nights (XIII.22), records the following anecdote.  Gellius was once conversing with his teacher, one Titus Castricius, whom he describes in glowing terms as “a man of the greatest prestige and dignity.” 

Castricius, an instructor of rhetoric in Rome, even found an admirer in the emperor Hadrian; to win the respect of a man such as Hadrian tells us all we need to know about Castricius’s character, learning, and personal merits.  As teacher and pupil were conversing, Castricius noticed a few of his former students—who were now senators—stroll by.  They were on a holiday, and outfitted in open cloaks, tunics, and Gallic shoes (die feriato tunicis et lacernis indutos et gallicis calciatos).  We should mention that in those days, as it has been for most of history, a man’s dress immediately marked his social class and standing.  Male citizens who held office were expected to conform to established customs of dress; senators, for example, were supposed to wear a red-bordered toga praetexta, along with the red or black senatorial shoe (calceus).      

The decidedly un-senatorial appearance of his former students aroused Castricius’s contempt.  According to Gellius, the old man said, “I would rather you had worn togas.  If that bothers you, then at least use girdles and a weatherproof cloak.  But if this clothing of yours is excusable as a result of much use, still by no means is it appropriate decorum for you—senators of the Roman people—to stroll through the city streets in sandals.  By Hercules!  Nor is this less wrong for you than it was for that man whom Cicero condemned for a similarly disgraceful appearance.” 

The “man whom Cicero condemned” referred to by Castricius was in fact Mark Antony, whom Cicero berated in his second Philippic (II.76) for his cavalier, disrespectful attire.  But this is beside the point.  What matters in the anecdote is the fact that the coarse and indecorous appearance of his former students was something old Castricius found deeply offensive.  He just could not stomach it. The fact that these were senators—men of high social rank who should have known better—must have made the wound that much more painful for the elderly scholar. 

Hearing this story reminded of similar sights we see today on a daily basis.  You see people—both men and women—strolling about in a heedless daze, looking as if they just rolled out of bed thirty minutes before.  Wrapped in polyester rags, nylon shorts, sweatpants, yoga pants, or pajamas, they shuffle about in a trance.  Their unkempt, slovenly appearance causes affront.  Worse still, they have allowed their bodies to deteriorate into a state of ghastly corpulence; and this combination of untidy dress, together with a self-satisfied obesity, presents a truly unnerving scene. Those over the age of fifty will recall that these are new developments; before the 1990s, things were quite different. There has been a precipitous decline of standards that has either influenced, or been influenced by, questionable personal conceptions of health, pride, social duties, and responsibilities. To pretend otherwise does no good; to avert our eyes and deny this is happening only perpetuates the problem.

Now you may say that this does not matter; or that I have no right to comment on another’s appearance, and that clothing and hygiene are a matter of personal choice.  This is true only to a certain extent.  When I look at photographs from previous eras, I am struck by how much personal appearance has deteriorated.  Obesity was once relatively uncommon; now it is the rule, rather than the exception.  Clothing has become degraded in function, appearance, and quality. 

But these waters run deeper still.  There is a psychological dynamic at work here, something that few are willing to address.  Cultivating a slovenly physique and appearance is, as I see it, a form of muted aggression against one’s fellow citizens.  In the modern world, no one can claim not to know how to dress, or how to lose weight.  These things are common knowledge.  If someone is not taking action to address these things, it is a deliberate and hostile act.  The hostility runs inward (towards one’s own body and dignity) and outward (towards the rest of society). It is a way of expressing contempt for normative standards of appearance; it is a way of thumbing one’s nose at fellow citizens.  It is antisocial behavior.  It tells society that you are not willing to do your part for the good of the collective whole, and that you expect others to carry your weight, so to speak.  This is why, I think, old Castricius was so offended when he saw his former students thumbing their noses at correct standards of dress and appearance.  One can only shudder what he would have thought had he suddenly been transported to the streets of any major American city in 2023. 

In December of 1960, President John F. Kennedy published an article entitled “The Soft American” in the magazine Sports Illustrated. It contained the following observations:

Beginning more than 2,500 years ago, from all quarters of the Greek world men thronged every four years to the sacred grove of Olympia, under the shadow of Mount Cronus, to compete in the most famous athletic contests of history—the Olympian games. During the contest a sacred truce was observed among all the states of Greece as the best athletes of the Western world competed in boxing and foot races, wrestling and chariot races for the wreath of wild olive which was the prize of victory. When the winners returned to their home cities to lay the Olympian crown in the chief temples they were greeted as heroes and received rich rewards.

For the Greeks prized physical excellence and athletic skills among man’s greatest goals and among the prime foundations of a vigorous state. Thus the same civilizations which produced some of our highest achievements of philosophy and drama, government and art, also gave us a belief in the importance of physical soundness which has become a part of Western tradition; from the mens sana in corpore sano of the Romans to the British belief that the playing fields of Eaton brought victory on the battlefields of Europe. This knowledge, the knowledge that the physical well-being of the citizen is an important foundation for the vigor and vitality of all the activities of the nation, is as old as Western civilization itself. But it is a knowledge which today, in America, we are in danger of forgetting.

It is well known that President Kennedy made great efforts to improve the health and physical fitness of the youth during his limited tenure in office. But after his death, his vision and his programs were allowed to fade away. It would be almost unthinkable now for a modern president even to speak about physical fitness and discipline, for fear of being accused of being insensitive or cruel.

I am not saying that people should walk around dressed like fashion models, or that men and women should be Olympic athletes.  This needs to be said, of course, since there are always people who read extremes into everything, and dive off into tangential irrelevancies of rebuttal.  There are, of course, always going to be variations in health, appearance, and dress, and we have to make reasonable allowances for this.  But they key qualifier here is reasonable.  By any reasonable standard, personal appearances (in dress and physiques) have declined shockingly from the 1980s to the present day.  One has only to look at photos and movies from previous eras to see the truth of this.

Of course, the opposite extreme is equally bad:  here I refer to excessively ostentatious or expensive dress.  It reeks of arrogance, and is another form of muted hostility towards one’s fellow citizens.  Sumptuary laws—that is, laws designed to limit excessive luxury or expenditure in dress—were originally intended to curb just this sort of thing.  It is customary to ridicule these old laws today, of course.  They may have been difficult to enforce, but they at least represented an effort to establish normative standards of dress and decorum.  However imperfect they may have been, these laws recognized that social order and stability is served by codifying what is, and what is not, acceptable.    

The smug, haughty individual who walks around flashing his opulence is just as antisocial and worthy of condemnation, as I see it, as the grossly obese, ungroomed, polyester clad dunce who thumbs his nose at minimum standards of dress and appearance.  Both express, in different forms, their muted aggression and repressed hostility towards their fellow citizens.  We are not isolated islands unto ourselves; we are part of a collective whole, to which we owe obligations and duties.    




Read about the lives and deeds of great leaders of antiquity in the new translation of Cornelius Nepos’s Lives of the Great Commanders: