The philosophy of physiognomy


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May 14, 2008

The philosophy of physiognomy

Hairy thighs, thick feet and other ways in which the Greeks judged character

What do George W. Bush and Hillary Rodham Clinton have in common? Their higher education began with posture photos, in the nude or underclothes. Both will have been required on first arriving – the one at Yale, the other at Wellesley – to strip for three snaps: front, back and side views. It was standard practice in the East Coast colleges of their time, confirmed to me by three distinguished United States academic friends of the relevant age. Yes, they all had to submit.

Officially, the idea was that the pictures would reveal which students needed remedial treatment for poor posture. In reality, the project was to correlate the students' undergraduate posture with their success or failure in later life. As the evidence accumulated, it would become possible to predict the Presidential chances of each year's intake. He's got what it takes, has she? All this from a momentary glimpse of the person whose future (together perhaps with all our futures) is at risk if a wrong diagnosis is made. Professor W. H. Sheldon of Columbia University, the éminence grise behind these programmes, was eventually disgraced and his research project abandoned. The ultimate inspiration had been Francis Galton, the eugenicist founder of Social Darwinism, who proposed a similar photo archive for the entire British population. We should be grateful to our present masters for confining their identity card scheme to mug shots with our clothes on.

It is an ancient dream, this idea of an instant diagnosis of someone's character or skills:

"Black hair announces cowardice and great craftiness, excessively yellow and pale white hair, such as the Scythians and Celts have, reveals ignorance and clumsiness and wildness, and that which is gently yellow points towards an aptitude for learning, gentleness, and skill in art. Unmixed fiery hair like the flower of a pomegranate is not good, since for the most part their characters are beastlike and shameless and greedy. Legs which are very hairy with thick black hair indicate slowness at learning and wildness. Those whose loins and thighs have lots of hair separately from the other parts of the body are very lascivious."

Tosh, you may say – and rightly. A good half of Seeing the Face, Seeing the Soul, edited by Simon Swain, some 332 pages, is filled with the stuff, in ancient Greek and Latin, medieval Arabic, and modern English translation. A huge effort (and considerable Leverhulme funding) has gone into this beautifully produced, collaborative project on ancient Greek physiognomy and its reception in medieval Islamic society. Does the other half, on the history and interpretation of this massive repository of tosh, redeem the enterprise?

In part it does – but how large a part may depend on your interests. The index, a paltry eight and a half pages, has no entry for "hair" to help a curious reader discover why lots of hair on their loins and thighs would signify lasciviousness: the reason, to be found in an Arabic version of the Greek treatise just quoted, is that it matches the hair distribution found in billygoats. Those 332 pages are largely taken up by different versions, or partial versions, of the same lost treatise: one Greek version, one Latin, and two Arabic (both newly edited for this volume), all of it translated into English for the first time. The centre of attention, the writer of the lost treatise and so the ultimate originator of most of the material under study, is Polemon of Laodicea (cad 88–144), a leading figure in the politics and literature of the period known as "the Second Sophistic".

What survives of Polemon's original Greek is just one sentence: "Eyes that are moist and shine like pools reveal good characters". This fragment is neither indexed nor quoted as such anywhere in Swain's massive tome. It does occur, almost verbatim, in one of the texts printed, a later Greek adaptation of Polemon's book by Adamantius the Sophist (third or fourth century ad), where it is followed by the explanation "For such are the eyes of children". A tiny footnote, easy to overlook, is the only indication readers are given that this is the Master's voice. The index does have an entry "Polemon's Physiognomy, general: eye, importance of", but no contributor to the volume wonders about the destructive implications for physiognomy of the Rousseauesque thought that children might start life innately good. Physiognomy, by the very meaning of the word, claims to be the art of discerning the underlying and unalterable "nature" (in Greek, the physis) one is born with. So if the eyes of children reveal good character, all those nasty traits which physiognomy loves to discern in grown-ups must have been acquired some time after birth. In which case, physiognomy is impossible!

The other, complementary half of the book consists of six interpretative essays, three on Antiquity (around 200 pages) and three on Islam (less than 100). All are impressive, especially the longest: 105 wonderfully acute and original pages by George Boys-Stones on the ancient philosophers' dealings with physiognomy. My focus here is on the editor's contribution, which aims to situate Polemon and his Physiognomy in its original historical context.

Swain's opening claim is that physiognomy is placed "firmly within the culture of inspection and moral evaluation that is visible in so much of the literature of Polemon's time and is arguably a product of the competition and rivalry of elite life". He conjures a society in which everyone is constantly watching and appraising everyone else, and in which there is a "widespread assumption among all classes that physiognomical assessment really worked". Very properly, Swain does not suggest that the social context of the Second Sophistic explains the popularity of physiognomy in Polemon's day. Physiognomy in ancient Greece is first firmly attested for the much earlier and quite different society of democratic Athens in the fourth century BC, while the most striking public evidence for physiognomy's appeal and respectability cited in Swain's book is a memorial epigram from the third century BC: "This is the tomb of Eusthenes: he was a professional physiognomist / Adept at knowing the mind from the eye". But Swain does seem to endorse the idea that Polemon's tosh worked well both for him and for others of his day. He writes, for example, "Someone like Polemon needed the assurance of knowing what his colleagues were about" and "Others evidently found Polemon's treatise practical". It is not evident at all. Maybe the book was simply a fun read.

My main worry is that Swain never addresses the point I began from, that the supposed art of physiognomy offers an instant, short-cut diagnosis of character, which is importantly different from the way people ordinarily learn about each other's character and morals – by observing and interacting with them over time.

To bring out the difference, here are two more passages from the book. The first is a late Latin version of Polemon on the subject of feet, the second an extract from near the end of the so-called Leiden Polemon, a manuscript which is our best witness to the original Arabic translation of his treatise:

"If the bottoms of the feet have distinctive tendons and clear joints, they reveal a noble and manly character. Soft feet which are surrounded with ample flesh show a soft and feminine character. Thick and short feet indicate a very wild character. Excessively long feet show a man who is intent upon many forms of deceit and who contemplates destruction."

That is tosh, like the stuff about hair already quoted. Soles are no guide to souls, any more than body hair is. Contrast this narrative of a "physiognomical insight" (so says the English translation of the Arabic) at a wedding in Smyrna:

"I said to a group of those around me that this bride would be abducted that night and married before she reached her husband. So we set off with the bride until she entered the house of her husband, and in it were the men lying in wait with whom she had an appointment. I will mention to you the signs by which I made the judgement. I saw a young man from the people of that town walking with the husband of that bride. I looked at his face and saw that his eyes were green. I listened to his speech, and I looked at his walk, build, and his personality. I perceived he was disguising a deed he wanted to do, and he was like one overcome by the object of his intent. He was supple of limb and quick in movement and speech, as if he was about to do something. When he looked at the husband of the bride, he looked with anger. I looked at the bride, and she laughed without laughter, the action of a sad person, who feigns joy but is not joyful. When I saw that in his face, I looked at those young men around him to see if there was one of them similar to him in appearance and build. I did not see anything of that in any of them, whereupon I judged what I judged."

That is not tosh (except for the sneer about green eyes). But neither is it physiognomy in the original sense: the supposed art of inferring innate character traits from the soles of the feet, a hairy back, or other bodily features which are fixed from the day we are born, or, as we would say, by our genes. In this sense, if physiognomy is possible, character is similarly determined by inheritance. What this passage describes is something quite else, an inference to a young man's intention to abduct the bride who loves him, not the husband she is pledged to marry. That is neither an inference from inherited bodily features nor an inference to the young man's character. It is an inference from expressive bodily behaviour to his present mood and intended future action. Which is not physiognomy at all.

True, it may come under the Arabic term firãsa. As Robert Hoyland explains and illustrates in his chapter on the Islamic background to Polemon's treatise, the Arabic has much wider scope than the corresponding Greek. Yet, the anonymous Latin Physiognomy (third or fourth century ad, translated here by Ian Repath) reports that not only Polemon, but also an earlier Peripatetic physiognomist called Loxus, expressly affirmed that physiognomy "can even predict some things in the future". The claim is ambiguous. It is obvious that knowing someone's character enables one to predict in a general way what sorts of things they are likely or liable to do. That's just what it is to know someone's character, whether the knowledge derives from physiognomic diagnosis of their bodily parts or normal acquaintance with their habitual behaviour. But the Smyrna wedding story has Polemon claim to predict quite particular actions on that very day. Readers should be amazed at the sophist's perspicuity. And that, no doubt, was the effect his book was chiefly aiming at.

Simon Swain, editor
Polemon's "Physiognomy" from classical antiquity to medieval Islam
699pp. Oxford University Press. £95.
978 0 19 929153 3

M. F. Burnyeat is Senior Research Fellow in Philosophy at All Souls College, Oxford. He is the author of Aristotle's Divine Intellect, 2008, and The "Theaetetus" of Plato, 1990.

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