The Virtuous Life: Cleanliness

by Brett & Kate McKay on May 4, 2008 · 23 comments

in A Man's Life, On Virtue, The Virtuous Life

This a 10th post in a series about the Benjamin Franklin’s 13 virtues.

CLEANLINESS. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.

A common stereotype that society places on males is that of the sloppy and unkempt man. We see it all the time on television. A man sitting in his man chair with potato chip crumbs all over himself.

Beer cans and old pizza cartons are stacked throughout the room. The fellow is usually wearing a crummy t-shirt with food stains all over it. This sad image is what some would say represents manliness.

They couldn’t be more wrong.

While many think that only effeminate men would take the time to care about cleanliness; manly men understand that taking pride in cleanliness develops one’s attention to detail, work ethic, and self confidence. Moreover, cleanliness facilitates the orderly development of one’s life.

The History of Cleanliness

While the meaning of all the virtues has changed overtime, the application of the virtue of cleanliness has perhaps fluctuated the most. We would probably be grossed out by Franklin’s standard of cleanliness, and today’s standard would likely have disturbed him. Historically and up through the present day, ideas of what constitutes “cleanliness” has varied greatly.

For an ancient Egyptian or Babylonian, cleanliness meant showering with water from aqueducts or simply from servants pouring water on you. A soap made from ashes and animal fat was used. The Greeks created the first plumbed-in showers, and citizens showered outside at various spigots scattered throughout their cities.

For an ancient Roman cleanliness meant rubbing his body with oil and dust and then adding a layer of perspiration from a day of work or play. After he had built up a sufficient patina of bodily soil, he’d have someone scrape it off with a rake-like instrument. Next he would take a series of baths-first lukewarm, then hot, then cold. This would all occur in public at a local bathhouse, a swinging place where he’d hang out for several hours. Soap was not typically involved in any part of the process.

For early Christians, cleanliness was not next to godliness. In fact, the dirtier you were, the more virtuous you were assumed to be. Cleanliness was considered a sinful luxury and thus monks and nuns who cared more for God than their earthly tabernacles avoided bathing to show their dedication to a holy life.

For Europeans in the centuries after the coming of the Black Death, cleanliness meant anything but a bath. To observers during the plague, it seemed that people often became stricken with the disease after using the bathhouse. The theory was advanced that bathing opened your pores and thus let in disease. A layer of dirt and odor was thought to stave off infection. Bathing became avoided like, well, the plague. It would not be until the 17th century when bathing would slowly come back into vogue.

Even then, for a gentlemen in 17th century France, cleanliness meant the frequent changing of his linen shirt. It was believed that linen had a special wicking power that pulled dirt and impurities from the body like a magnet. Changing one’s shirt was thought to be as effective as a good scrubbing in the bath.

Frequent bathing and showering would not become popular until the mid-1800′s when the discovery of germs was coupled with advancements in indoor plumbing and shower technology.

But it would really be the purveyors of hygienic products that would continually up the ante of what cleanliness truly meant. As advertising became more prevalent in the early 1900′s, the producers of soap, deodorant, and toothpaste set out to convince a new generation of Americans of problems they never knew existed. For example, it was Listerine’s advertising team, not dentists, who came up with the term “chronic halitosis” to describe bad breath. Whereas as bad breath had previously been thought of as a part of life, it then became a dangerous disease to be cured and eradicated. Likewise, toothpaste manufacturers made the frightening discovery of “film on teeth,” a phenomenon that had once gone completely unnoticed. The cure of course was daily and religious tooth brushing. Advertisements warned potential customers that any kind of bodily odor could spell a premature social death.

Why is Cleanliness a Virtue?

Can such a changing, and sometimes advertiser driven concept really be a virtue? Yes. While the standard of cleanliness may vary from time period to time period, and from culture to culture, meeting the standard of your time and place is not without merit.

Cleanliness makes your feel good. Regardless of whether the feeling is inherent, or created by social conditioning, keeping your body, clothes, and home clean feels undeniably great. A hot shower, your favorite clean shirt, and a well organized house make you feel ready to take on the world.

Cleanliness keeps your mind clear and your life organized. If your house is a total disaster, your thinking is going to feel similarly disorganized. There is something to be said for the concept of Feng Shui. There is an natural connection between the order of your environment and the state of your mind. Clutter will weigh you down and stress you out. A clean, well-organized environment will lift your spirits.

Cleanliness gives you a good image. How you present yourself in life is paramount. If you, your clothes, or your house looks like a disheveled mess, people are inevitably going to judge part of your character and personality on such evidence. Perhaps that is unfair, but it is how the world works. When you present a neat and clean appearance to others, they will respect and think highly of you.

Cleanliness leads to beauty. That which is neat, well-proportioned, and symmetrical creates beauty and appeals to the eye. As we transform our lives to be orderly and clean, we increase the amount of beauty in our lives.

Finding Balance in Cleanliness

The key to the virtue of cleanliness, as with all the virtues, is moderation. Don’t be a clean freak. Don’t be a germ phobe. It is amazing how many new ways companies have come up with to enable us to kill germs. We can now spray the air to rid it of scary particles and zap our toothbrush with UV rays to keep it hyper-hygienic. Every news show cannot resist doing a program revealing the many creepy crawly bacteria lurking on telephones and toilets. Most of these scaremonger attempts, designed to frighten you into hygienic overdrive, can be disregarded. Our great grandparents worked up a far greater sweat than we do, and yet didn’t tote around hand sanitizer, shower twice a day, or Lysol the hell out of every touchable surface.

In fact, modern society’s unhealthy obsession with cleanliness is actually making us sicker. Our immune system is like a muscle. It needs to come into contact with dirt and germs so it can develop the strength it needs to fight the sicknesses that come along with dirt and germs. If your immune system lacks experience in taking on bacteria, when it finally encounters some, the bacteria will triumph.

Also remember, there’s nothing wrong with smelling like a human being, like a man. Seneca, Roman orator and writer, rebuked bathe lovers for not smelling “of the army, of farm work, and of manliness.” While the purveyors of Axe body spray and the like attempt to sell the idea that coating your body with an artificial aerosol scent is the way to attract the ladies, my personal anecdotal experience doesn’t bear this out. My wife loves to smell my armpits’ mixture of deodorant and man scent. And she likes my man scent in general. Other women have told me the same thing about the men in their lives. Women like the natural scent of a man.

Cleanliness in Practice

Don’t Live like a Slob. Our society, a vacuum of true manliness, pushes the idea that all men are slobs. Yet there is nothing inherently manly about slovenly living. Everyone, men and women alike, have a natural tendency to take the the path of least resistance when it comes to cleanliness. Cleanliness takes work. But our culture often gives men a pass to revel in their sloppy tendencies. Don’t drop things on the floor, don’t leave dishes in the sink, don’t leave your clutter all around the house. You’ll not only create a more pleasant environment, you’ll stop creating extra work for your wife.

Establish a Daily Cleaning Regimen. The problem many men have with keeping their home clean is that they let the clutter and dirt build up until cleaning seems like an insurmountable task. Instead of waiting for this to happen, establish a 10 minute cleaning routine and resolve to perform it daily. Here’s my recommended regimen:

  • When you get out of the shower, spray it down with a mold and mildew prevention spray. This will keep your shower clean and increase the time between deep cleanings.
  • Keep disposable cleaning wipes on the sink. When you are done brushing your teeth and shaving, wipe down the sink and mirror with one of the wipes.
  • Spend 5 minutes before you go to bed picking up any clutter than has arisen during the day.

Don’t Dress Like a Slob. Take some pride in your appearance. Don’t be a metrosexual, but don’t be slovenly mess either. The other day I was out to eat and I was amazed at how slobby everyone was dressed. Men and boys were in mesh basketball shorts, wind pants, and sleeveless shirts, wearing their baseball cap backwards. Don’t get me wrong. The I’m not saying that a place like Chili’s is the paragon of fancy dining and thus necessitates formal attire. But would it hurt to put on at least a pair nice khaki pants and t-shirt that covers your arms?

  • If your shirt needs ironing, iron it. And don’t try to convince yourself that by not ironing it, you’re capturing a sort of rugged New England-I-spent-the-day-sailing look. No, you look like a tool who didn’t iron their shirt.
  • Don’t use your dirty clothes basket or the floor as your closet. If it’s still clean, put it back in your dresser or on a hanger. If you put something in the hamper, it means it needs to be washed. Wash your clothes frequently enough that you don’t have to rummage through your dirty clothes to find something to wear. Whatever you pick out of your hamper is going to be wrinkly and smell bad.

Basic Grooming. To present a neat and clean appearance (and to please the woman in your life) here are the hygiene basics every man should adhere to. You’d think this stuff would be common sense, but I’m constantly surprised by the number of men who seem clueless about the basics of cleanliness.

  • Use a Q-tip in your ears every now and then. Nothing grosses out the ladies like orange waxy ear build up.
  • Trim any excessive nose and ear hair. Nobody wants to see daddy long legs coming out of your nostrils. Keep them neat.
  • Trim your unibrow. While men should NOT pluck or wax their eyebrows, there should be a clear separation between each one.
  • Trim your toenails and fingernails. Some men let their toenails grow to sloth size. Nothing will kill passion in the bedroom like a your gross sloth toenail scraping your wife’s leg. First, you could cut her leg. Second, it’s just going to gross her out. Unless you’re a guitar player, keep your nails short.
  • Shower regularly. You would think it wouldn’t have to be said, but I know plenty of women who complain about the frequency, or lack thereof of their man’s showering. It doesn’t have to be every day, but don’t think people don’t notice when you’re greasy and stinky. Always shower after working out.

The Best Personal Cleanliness Tip That You’re Not Doing. Men are somewhat notorious for having bad breath. It grosses out your wife and your co-workers. If you are taking women on dates, it can ruin your first kiss, and all the kisses thereafter. A lot of men try to cure their bad breath with toothbrushing, flossing, and mints. While these all have their place, the best way to clean your mouth us by using a tongue scraper.

The majority of bad breath is not caused by the food that you eat, but rather originates from the back of your tongue. There, bacteria, decaying food particles, and even discharge from your nasal cavities, breeds and emits a foul odor. Brushing your teeth won’t get rid of it. Even brushing your tongue with your tooth brush won’t get it all. And breath mints and gum don’t remove it either. Your tongue is like a lush carpet and the germs hide in the nooks and crannies. You need a tongue scraper to sweep them out. A mouth post-tongue scrape is remarkably clean, and the results are instantaneous. You can tell the difference right after you scrape.

If you are afraid of waking up to your significant other with monstrous morning breath, just make sure you scrape your tongue before bed. Your morning breath will be significantly tamed. And you won’t have to employ the old back of the hand sniff test.

{ 22 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Joe Ossenmacher-Bedford May 5, 2008 at 5:06 am

I disagree with the cotton swab in the ear routine. This only packs down the earwax, and can even lead to a clog that a doctor will have to remove. If left alone, earwax will take care of itself just fine.

2 Hayden Tompkins May 5, 2008 at 6:51 am

It’s amazing people still managed to reproduce.

“The theory was advanced that bathing opened your pores and thus let in disease. A layer of dirt and odor was thought to stave off infection. ”


3 Paul May 5, 2008 at 7:29 am

I disagree with the Q-tip part as well. They indeed only push the ear wax further into the ear. Wash your ears with soap and you won’t need to use the Q-tip.

4 Santa May 5, 2008 at 9:18 am

Right on. I live in the south and I’m amazed to see these big bellied, beer drinking men in my town who burp and fart around ladies and smell like armpits and they think it’s just being a normal guy… but really it’s just being a slob. I’m glad to read that someone else out there believes that men shouldn’t pluck their eyebrows either. In fact the only reason a man should even use tweezers would be to take a splinter out.

5 Sean May 5, 2008 at 9:25 am

I have a bold unibrow and been told to shave it. I am feeling fine and try to ignore some of smiles I get from some people. I do not see any reason behind having seperated eye brows.

6 Rage Kage May 5, 2008 at 1:10 pm

While I concur with most of these points, I think you may be a bit off regarding smelling like a human being. It’s true that many women say that they enjoy the smell of a man, but I’ve known an equal number that enjoy the so-called ‘artificial aerosol scent ‘.

The key, of course, is moderation. There’s no need to smell like you bathed in musk, but a little spray here and there or a body wash indicates that you’re at least somewhat conscious of your own odor. The perfect balance is when the scent can only be smelled in extremely close proximity.

7 amy May 5, 2008 at 7:48 pm

i loved this post, ironically, as i have always had a notorious disregard for cleanliness myself and don’t notice my husband’s disregard until it has reached a profound level. but, let’s face it, the post started with ben franklin and finished with tongue scrapers- what more could anyone ask for?

despite my unconventional feelings about “hygiene” and how often one should “shower” in order to be considered “socially acceptable”, i do derive great satisfaction from plucking my husband’s eyebrows; not in a this-will-make-him-good-looking kind of way but more like i-have-a-latent-mental-illness kind of way.

i have heard different things about the q-tips, but i will say this. if you employ a gentle hand and take effort to avoid cramming the earwax into your ear canal (not rocket science, people, i’ve been doing it my whole life) you are less likely to have impacted earwax which, in my opinion, blows a week without showering out of the gross-water.

i particularly liked the dose of history major here. it’s fun when we get to flex our B.A. alter ego, isn’t it?

nice post, y’all. i dugg it, if’n ya know what i mean…

8 gautam May 5, 2008 at 10:27 pm

initially i had a mindset that we men need to strive for success and rest of things are immaterial.
even in our busy life ,we will have to give priority to cleanliness ,care for every thing from hair to toe.
an unkempt person has higher probability of facing an unstable career,short lasting relationship.
his personality tends to get repulsive,which makes him fall in to a dark pit of loneliness.

9 Achilles May 6, 2008 at 12:11 am

No offense, but the fact that you have an entire post about CLEANLINESS puts into question the sincerity of your message. Manliness is entirely unrelated to cleanliness, this is a fact. I will not go so far as to say that to be clean is unManly, only that to be Manly does not require that one is clean. A Man living out of a cave, shooting dear and fighting bears for his sustenance may be very dirty; he is nonetheless more Manly than most. I will review the rest of your material to see if this is an aberration, or if your message about Manliness is a true deviation from the truth.

10 Brett May 6, 2008 at 7:27 am

@Achilles-When we started the blog, we decided to go through the 13 virtues Benjamin Franklin created and listed to help him live the virtuous life. Every Monday we cover the next virtue. This is Ben’s number 10, and he came up with “cleanliness” not us. It’s not the sexiest virtue, but I do think it’s manly to be neat, clean, and organized. It’s part of becoming the whole package,

You may want to check the previous posts in the series:

Or the original post about Franklin that kicked it off:

11 Achilles May 6, 2008 at 1:55 pm

@Brett, I see what you/Ben are saying. I think that if a Man can be clean, he should, but there are plenty of Manly situations where cleanliness is really not possible (ie eating ribs). The rest of the list is excellent though.

12 Joshua Badger May 8, 2008 at 2:10 am

I discovered the Art of Manliness a few days ago, and it has had a profound effect on me. I’m currently nineteen years old and a university student in England, and am aware that I do a lot of the things critisised in these pages, I drink and go to bars/pubs and parties too much, I spend far too long watching television and playing video games and am often apathetic when it comes to the news and the world around me (which is even worse considering I’m a Geography student!). While I believe I do carry some of the qualities you champion, this site, and in particular these articles about Franklin’s virtues, have forced me to stand up and take a serious look at my life, and what i can do to better myself. Thank you!

13 Wrathbone May 9, 2008 at 12:15 am

“Trim your unibrow. While men should NOT pluck or wax their eyebrows, there should be a clear separation between each one.”

I HAVE to wax in between and underneath my eyebrows…seriously, they look like two giant caterpillars squaring off above my eyes. Sometimes cleanliness means going that extra cosmetic mile if it’s really needed…

14 Brett May 9, 2008 at 5:04 am

@Wrathbone-There’s definitely exceptions to every rule. I was just thinking of guys who wax their brows to look super defined and arched. It makes them look feminine. But exterminating caterpillars is a worthy reason.

15 Sean May 10, 2008 at 12:27 pm

# Sean on May 5th, 2008 9:25 am

I have a bold unibrow and been told to shave it. I am feeling fine and try to ignore some of smiles I get from some people. I do not see any reason behind having seperated eye brows.

Ironically, my name is also Sean and I use the same logic.

16 William Shears May 14, 2008 at 10:39 pm

I agree in principle but must differ in part.

I pluck my eyebrows. Not to a finely contoured line like women, but I remove the ridiculous strays. For you see, a solid line of brow hair diverts the sweat from my forehead far better than a sparse forest covering my forehead.

Consider also that it was custom for a Samurai of feudal Japan to shave his forehead every morning. A custom of the time, but I think it is a reasonable thing to take from. Besides, theres no reason to have super bushy eyebrows unless you have been hunting bears or terrorists for months on end, in either case it is required.

Shaving between eyebrows is imprecise and a bad idea. Pluck that trash, it will look far manlier. Well groomed hair makes you look like a stud. Overgroomed hair makes you look more androgynous than is attractive.

As said, Q-tipping the ear is a medically unsound practice. If you have a lot of problems, drop some mineral oil in to soften it and irrigate with a water syringe or a morning swim. By the same token, trim, don’t pluck, nose and ear hair. You have hair there for good reasons.

And last but not least, smelling like a man. It’s true that most women find the smell of a a man who has just finished building a footbridge over the creek for the neighborhood children incredibly sexy, but that’s not the same as wearing soiled shirts. An honest sweat combined with the lingering smell of soap/deodorant (that you should be wearing) should be the norm after any exertion, unless of course you have been hunting terrorists or wrangling cattle. Trim your armpit hair to a reasonable length and it will cut down on the stench too.

17 summeraine August 8, 2008 at 6:56 am

personally, i think a good rule of thumb is to shower every day. if you miss a day when you’re camping or something, well, ok. as a woman, i do like a natural man scent and dislike anything perfumy or artificial, but you really have to be clean. every morning, men. again before bed if you were sweaty during the day. please.

18 Xyzzy Elzix November 16, 2008 at 2:36 pm

@Joe Ossenmacher-Bedford – The idea is to *not* “cram” the q-tip in your ear.

Its purpose is to use it more as a “swab”, no less as you would around an open sore.

If you’re worried about cramming more wax into your head, use a kleenex or tissue, twisted up into a point. That way, it’s a a softer & more gentle way of keeping your hearing crystal.

Cheers! =)


19 samuel lwarence December 31, 2008 at 3:27 am

i’m just having a tough time trying to maintain cleanliness.Actually there are cirtain people who are psycholoigically trying to break down my efforts to keep clean,and therefore i remain in lousy circumstances. I’m literally at a loss as i have used up all my creative options of fighting them.

20 Daniel May 3, 2010 at 9:40 pm

A good way to deal with bad breath is to drink more water. It really works!

21 Austin August 14, 2010 at 9:04 pm

I am trying to utilize Ben’s virtues in my life and I am particularly concerned about cleanliness. I agree that many people think being a man is getting wasted-drunk, sitting on the couch watching football with crumbs, and beer cans lying all over the place. That is NOT I repeat, NOT the art of manliness. True men keep themselves clean, and are not slobs.

22 RUS March 6, 2013 at 4:10 pm

i havnt gone vegetarian in a while, but once when i did for a couple days i did NOT have to wear deodorant!–TRUE STORY. on another not, i must say I dig the way the author assumes the reader already has a woman in his life; its empowering to the reader. I’ve never been the “neatest” person on earth so my dad used to tell me “cleanliness is next to Godliness” and all that acting as if I was soooooo much more disgusting than i actually was which history clearly proves isnt true lol. im gonna send him this article.

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