Physiognomists by Albany Poyntz

The world and its inhabitants are still exposed to a variety of grievous afflictions and visitations in spite of the infallible nostrums for preventing them, in general use; which appears surprising when we consider the number of able scientific men constantly devoted to the study of our physical nature, and the plausible novel theories which they every now and then unfold to the world. Let those who devote themselves to the study of physiological science persevere in their researches; which if not valuable to others are at least amusing to themselves. According to the Abbé Cottin’s line,

“The pleasure is to learn and not to know.”

Between the successive systems of Lavater and Gall, we give the decided preference to the latter; the studies and experiments upon which are founded on principles equally applicable to all human beings, whatever their condition, sex, age, or habits; whether belonging to an uncultivated or civilised state; while all other systems for promoting the knowledge of human character, gravitate in a sphere more or less exceptional; so that the application could never become general. An eminent magistrate used to pretend that he could capitally convict a man by a sight of his handwriting; and many people affect to pronounce upon the shades and variations of human character on a similar indication.

Considering the number of persons ignorant of the calligraphic art, we almost prefer the system of the barber of Picard, who needed only to shave a man to judge of his disposition!

All the inferential systems that now command our attention were subjects of contemplation to the ancients. Human physiognomy, above all, must have ever presented a subject of powerful interest. It is a daily object of reflection to all men, though unperceived by ourselves. A countenance pleases or displeases us at first sight; yet we know not whether it be beauty that charms, or the want of it that repels us. A face which charms one man, disgusts another. Such a person is said to have a happy countenance, such another, an unhappy one, on which the former may be felicitated, the latter pitied; but it is most unfair to deduce from such evidence the existence of good qualities in the one, or vices and defects in the other. Such, however, is the elementary study of Physiognomy, and such the delusion which our antipathies often create.

Dimension and proportion first attracted the attention of the philosophers. Aristotle compares a man whose head possesses extraordinary volume to an owl; while Albertus Magnus looks upon him as an idiot; and the physician, Porta, significantly informs us that Vitellius had an immense head. If, on the contrary, a man possess a cerebrum of the usual circumference, but exceeding by a little the volume of ordinary heads, the same authors regard him as a man of superior intelligence, endowed with a noble soul, a brilliant and fertile imagination; and, as an example, adduce the head of Plato which exceeded in proportion the remainder of his body. Alexander the Great had a small head, compared even with his person, which as is well known was diminutive.

The quality and colour of the hair was likewise a subject of speculative theory for the ancients. Lank hair was considered indicative of pusillanimity and cowardice; yet the head of Napoleon was guiltless of a curl! Frizzly hair was thought an indication of coarseness and clumsiness. The hair most in esteem, was that terminating in ringlets. Dares, the historian, states that Achilles and Ajax Telamon had curling locks; such also was the hair of Cymon, the Athenian. As to the Emperor Augustus, nature had favoured him with such redundant looks, that no hair-dresser in Rome could produce the like. Auburn or light brown hair was thought the most distinguished, as portending intelligence, industry, a peaceful disposition, as well as great susceptibility to the tender passion. Castor and Pollux had brown hair; so also had Menelaus. Black hair does not appear to have been esteemed by the Romans; but red was an object of aversion. Ages before the time of Judas, red hair was thought a mark of reprobation, both in the case of Typhon, who deprived his brother of the sceptre of Egypt, and Nebuchednezzar who acquired it in expiation of his atrocities. Even the donkey tribe suffered from this ill-omened visitation, according to the proverb of “wicked as a red ass.” Asses of that colour were held in such detestation among the Copths, that every year they sacrificed one by hurling it from a high wall.

Next in importance to the hair, were the ears; the size and shape of which harmless cartilages, supplied important conjectures. According to Aristotle, large ears are indicative of imbecility; while small ones announce madness. Ears which are flat, point out the rustic and brutal man. Those of the fairest promise, are firm and of middling size. Happy the man who boasts of square ears; a sure indication of sublimity of soul and purity of life. Such, according to Suetonius, were the ears of the Emperor Augustus.

Having considered the conformation of the head, the colour and quality of the hair, and the shape of the ears, let us treat of the complexion; of which the most unfavourable is the yellow, livid, or leaden, like those of Caligula, Attila, and the most notorious tyrants of the olden time. The eyes should neither be too large nor too little; the first announcing laziness, like those of the ox. Such were the eyes of Domitian, the vainest, most inert, and cowardly of men. Upon this point, Aristotle is at complete variance with Homer; who is so enraptured with large eyes, that, in order to define the beauty of those of Juno, he names her Boopis or “ox-eyed.” Neither large nor small eyes afford proof of intellect; and no person who is not afflicted with squinting has any right to complain.

It is usual to consider large eyes the finest, a prejudice so universal, that it is commonly said, “She is ugly, certainly; but then she has such fine eyes!”—or, “She is a pretty woman; but her eyes are too small.” Whereas neither form nor dimension constitutes the beauty or influence of eyes; but rather their expression. The colour of eyes is a mere matter of taste; though Aristotle asserts that persons gifted with almond shaped blue eyes, are frank and intelligent; with brown, clever and good; with green, courageous and enterprising. As to black eyes, Aristotle pronounces them to be the sure prognostics of timidity and pusillanimity. Red eyes are indicative of bad temper. The gossips of France have quite as good a theory as that of Aristotle; viz: that “Les yeux bleus vont aux cieux; les yeux gris, en Paradis; les yeux noirs, en purgatoire, les yeux verts, en enfer!”

Bushy eyebrows are indicative of a brutal obstinate and impious character; long eyebrows, of arrogance, and insolence; spare eyebrows, of effeminacy and cowardice. But if they are thick, flexible, and parallel, you may rely on a sound judgment and superior wisdom. Such are ever the brows of Jupiter; attesting the theory of Aristotle.

The question of noses occupies a prominent place in theories of the human physiognomy. The flat nose is indicative of a propensity to pleasure and luxury; the pointed, of ill-temper and frivolity; a deviation from the straight line, of a disposition to malice and repartee. Since the days of Aristotle, this opinion has been permanent; a crooked nose, being the attribute of a satirical mind. The owner of a diminutive nose, is usually cunning and dissimulating; of a large nose, imprudent and discourteous.

Let us here observe, that if there be one feature in the human face more characteristic than another, it is the nose. Examine the head of a skeleton which exhibits trace of human features, save the nasal bone; which though prominent, is an integral part of the cerebral globe. Now if the brain be the seat of intelligence, may not the nose be influenced by its propinquity to the brain? Humbly submitting this question to the consideration of science, we proceed to consider the theories of other speculators.

Amongst Europeans, the Italians rank first for beauty of nose; the Dutch, for the excessive ugliness of that feature. The English nose is apt to be thick and cartilaginous; that of the Jews, somewhat crooked. In France, almost every man of genius has had a well-formed nose. Short and flat noses, so censured by Aristotle, still rank low in the science of physiognomy. Socrates, however, was a singular instance of a hideous nose. Boerhaave and Gibbon possessed one of the same disagreeable form.

The mouth attracted the notice of the ancients as much as the nose. A moderate mouth was, in their estimation, a symbol of courage, capacity, and nobleness of heart. The indication indeed was infallible when accompanied with a square and well-formed chin, an expansive forehead, and firm and rosy cheeks. The Greeks did not confine their observations to the head and face in forming a judgment of the moral and intellectual faculties; but regarded every component part of the human frame. Since, however, we are more discreetly clothed than the Greeks, we decline following their researches. The eyelids, nails, moles, and even teeth, were taken into consideration: more especially the latter, as indicative of the workings of the mind. If authentic, the science of physiognomy would be universally studied, for how useful would it be to detect the good or evil qualities of man or woman by a glance at their faces! As it stands at present, however, many false inferences would be made. For instance, we are told that well shaped blue eyes, portend intelligence and frankness; qualities incompatible with a sound nose. But if found together, as is often the case, what is to be decided between two positive contradictions, the nose rendering impossible the virtues promised by the eyes? The indications of the mouth and eyebrows may be equally at variance; and physiognomy presents a tissue of similar contradictions.

Having established the fallacy of the physiognomical system, we must nevertheless render homage to the sagacity of Lavater, to his ingenious and fascinating system, and conscientious enthusiasm for an art which he has enriched with much valuable observations, and endeavoured to elevate into a science. Lavater was sincerely devoted to his art, which predominated over every other idea, and exalted his imagination to such a degree, that he became rather the poet than the disciple of physiognomy. Gifted with a highly impressionable nature, the countenances of certain persons used to haunt his memory; and in early life, he made such striking inferences from certain physiognomies, that he was induced to persist in his studies.

“My first attempts,” said he, “were pitiful. Required to furnish a discourse to the Society of Sciences at Zurich, I decided upon the theme of physiognomy, and composed it with heedlessness and precipitation.

“I was censured, praised, and laughed at; and could not refrain from smiling, well aware how much of this was undeserved. At this moment, my physiognomical convictions are so strong that I decide upon certain faces with as absolute a certainty as of my existence.”

The sincerity of Lavater is undeniable. But even had we his convictions, we should hesitate to decide in favour of the infallibility or applicability of his system; which is more the result of a peculiar personal sagacity, constantly on the watch, than the efficacy of the art. A man may be born a physiognomist. But to become one by mere force of study, is next to impossible.

Zopirus was doubtless a great physiognomist. One day, on entering the school of Socrates, he pronounced, at a glance, a man who was present to be extremely vicious; and his conjecture was correct. But such sweeping applications of the art of physiognomy would sanction calumny, by allowing the accidents of nature to be made a test of character; when the influence of religion, reason, or education might have successfully subdued them. Were such a verdict held good, a fatal impediment would be placed against all moral improvement. Refinement of intellect is often connected with a coarse exterior; and the most prepossessing physiognomy with the grossest violations of decency. “A pretty woman deficient in sense,” says Madame de Staël, “is a flower without fragrance;” and how many scentless flowers of this kind are to be met with in society!—The face of the esteemed La Fontaine was that of an idiot. Jean Jacques Rousseau was remarkable for a stupid serenity of countenance, wholly at variance with the impetuous and volcanic nature of his mind. The face of Fénélon was devoid of all expression. I have heard of two brothers, one possessing a charming countenance, and yet a rascal; the other, a villainous face, yet a perfectly honest man. Moreover, our features are constantly varying; and if our moral and intellectual faculties are to be inferred from these changes, how are we to establish or follow up any fixed principle, amid such a labyrinth of confusion? A system based upon the general development of the brain is far more rational; because the lobes of the brain are born with us, and if time develop them, it is in manifest proportions.

We admit, therefore, the talents of certain individuals for pronouncing upon the characters of men, according to their physiognomy; and that they may, by constant practice, enhance this personal aptitude. Individuals educated for a diplomatic career, ought not to neglect this study, proficiency in which is essential to their success. To divine, yet never be divined; to read the physiognomy of others, while your own is devoid of expression, formed one of the grand secrets of Monsieur de Talleyrand. Most people who converse with a multiplicity of persons become physiognomists; and if mistaken in their judgments, are less often so than those who have intercourse with few. But the civilized man is so different from the being pure from the hands of his Creator, that any system comprising confusedly the state of nature and of civilization must necessarily be fallacious.

Study Lavater, therefore, and practice his art as a recreation among friends; but make no serious conclusions drawn from physiognomical rules, which abound in contradictions.

Let us now proceed to point out the similitudes of feature betwixt certain men and certain animals. Though we were created after the image of God, many theorists establish physiognomical analogies between man and the animal race. These speculators pretend that every human being had his correspondent beast in this world; just as every good Christian has his patron among the elect of Paradise. Charles Lebrun, the favourite painter of Louis XIV, was a zealous adherent to this theory. Before his time, Porta had devoted his attention to this ancient supposition; and congratulated himself upon having detected a likeness between the face of a setter and that of the divine Plato; an idea which prompted further speculation. That a painter continually watching nature under every aspect should be allured by such a theory, in which his practised eye has compared and approximated objects, and detected similitudes unintelligible to the vulgar, cannot be surprising. A mere hint, or trace suffices him for the composition of a face, just as Cuvier recomposed the Mastodon by merely seeing one of the bones.

After profound studies, Charles Lebrun concluded that every human face had features more or less correspondant with those of the various animal species. His opinion rested upon a diagram, uniting a quantity of designs with an explanatory text. The designs still exist, but the text is not forthcoming; though something is known of it by means of one of his pupils who survived him. Lebrun could distinguish by a glance at an animal’s head, whether it were carnivorous, or herbivorous, timid, or bold, peaceful, or ferocious. To the bump on the higher part of the nose, he assigned the locality of courage. To ascertain this endowment, either in man or animals, therefore, you had only to cast an eye on the nose. “All men of eminence,” said he, “have well proportioned noses, of which the aquiline has ever been esteemed the most distinguished; probably from its similitude to the beak of the king of the air—the eagle. The Persians esteemed the aquiline nose so highly, that supreme power was inaccessible without it. Cyrus, Artaxerxes, and every monarch who ever swayed the eastern world, boasted of this mark of distinction.

Like all new theories, the paradoxes of Lebrun commanded much attention, presenting a subject of inexhaustible controversy, as coming within the scope of every one’s observation. According to the system of Lebrun, the Great Condé enjoyed the distinction of possessing the most heroic nose in the kingdom, which, of course, brought the system into credit. Examine the designs of Lebrun. The analogy between certain men and animals there portrayed, is most striking. But the skill of a clever artist contrives and exaggerates resemblances, like the wit of the caricaturist, whose monstrosities, however absurd, often exhibit a remarkable degree of likeness.

As regards mere physical analogy, nothing can be cleverer than the works of Grandville, whose animals seem to emulate our absurdities, habits, and manners. But Lebrun and his disciples looked upon the thing seriously; instituting pernicious deductions from certain accidents of form, and tending to approximate enlightened man to the brute creation. The materialism thus inculcated, would lead to the most serious moral results.