Coolness is the proper way you represent yourself to a human being. – Robert Farris Thompson
A happy life is like neither to a roaring torrent, nor a stagnant pool, but to a placid and crystal stream that flows gently and silently along. – A Few Days in Athens
Coolness (itutu), in Yoruba African aesthetic and spirituality, is associated with the river Goddess Oshun (Aphrodite), who is said to be in charge of “refreshing the world and refreshing all the heads with her sweet river waters“. Beauty is also a part of coolness: it adds to a person’s confidence. This coolness is opposed by gbona (heat, warmth), and is frequently applied to one’s head (as in, keeping a cool head versus being hot-headed) in Yoruba parlance.
The term cool in colloquial English may have been coined by imported Africans to America who were attempting to express ideas peculiar to their worldview. Here, it continued to evolve and, today, coolness is a reincarnation of itutu. We hear expressions such as:
losing one’s cool
keeping one’s cool; cool off (as in, calm down)
chill; chill out (perhaps America’s answer to Danish hygge)
being cool (likeable, sociable, easy to get along with)
We can also think of a cool pose, a cool and confident way of carrying oneself, and therefore of the connection between coolness and popularity.
The aesthetic ideal of itutu is seen in the dignified, collected, untroubled, calm, peaceful demeanor in African statues and masks. We can immediately see a connection with the Epicurean ideal of ataraxia (equanimity, imperturbability), and in fact both notions denote a certain maturity of intellect and character: gentleness, conciliation, an ability to defuse fights and disputes, self-control and diplomacy. All of these are desired traits in an elder, mentor, or role model.
Coolness of head is also a tangible, physical experience that a hedonist can bring about in his body, literally, by refreshing his head with cool water. In my book, I make mention of the Afro-diasporic therapeutic practice of washing one’s head (known as rogación de cabeza or head rogation, lave-tete or head washing, and by other names in various traditions), which is usually done as a ceremony either with cool water or coconut water. It generally involves washing the crown, the sides and the back of the head. It’s a great practice for when we are in a bad mood, confused, exhausted, or sad.
Notice that cool is distinguishable from cold in our language. Expressions like “cold-hearted; cold and calculating; cold as ice” denote apathy or antipathy, or even lack of humaneness, cruelty.
Coolness has always been in danger of being coopted by consumerism. I believe it should be appropriated as part of a specifically American art of living by our street philosophers, by our everyday intellectuals, and reclaimed as an Epicurean virtue. Everyone can benefit from learning to keep a cool head and from associating with people who are cool in the truest sense of the word.