Physiognomy (Gk. physis, nature and gnomon, judge, interpreter) is the assessment of a person’s character or personality from their outer appearance, especially the face. The term physiognomy can also refer to the general appearance of a person, object or terrain, without reference to its implied characteristics.
The credence of such study has varied from time to time. The practise was well-accepted by the ancient Greek philosophers but fell into disrepute in the Middle Ages when practised by vagabonds and mountebanks. It was then revived and popularised by Johann Kaspar Lavater before falling from favour again in the 20th century. It is now being revived again as some new research indicates that people’s faces can indicate such traits as trustworthiness, social dominance and aggression. The latter trait seems to be determined by the level of the hormone testosterone during puberty which affects the ratio between the height and width of the face – aggressive individuals are found to have wider faces.
Notions of the relationship between an individual’s outward appearance and inner character are historically ancient, and occasionally appear in early Greek poetry. The first indications of a developed physiognomic theory appear in fifth century Athens, where one Zopyrus was said to be expert in the art. By the fourth century, the philosopher Aristotle makes frequent reference to theory and literature concerning the relationship of appearance to character. Aristotle was apparently receptive to such an idea, as evidenced by a passage in his Prior Analytics (2.27).
It is possible to infer character from features, if it is granted that the body and the soul are changed together by the natural affections: I say ‘natural’, for though perhaps by learning music a man has made some change in his soul, this is not one of those affections which are natural to us; rather I refer to passions and desires when I speak of natural emotions. If then this were granted and also that for each change there is a corresponding sign, and we could state the affection and sign proper to each kind of animal, we shall be able to infer character from features.
— Trans. A. J. Jenkinson
Koala eating eucalyptus — has it affected his physiognomy?
The Greek here is quite hard to express, but Aristotle seems to be referring to characteristics in the nature of each kind of animal thought to be present in their faces, that he suggests might be analysed for correspondences — for example, the koala’s fondness for eucalyptus leaves.
The first systematic physiognomic treatise to survive to the present day is a slim volume, Physiognomica (English: Physiognomics), ascribed to Aristotle (but probably of his “school” rather than created by the philosopher himself). The volume is divided into two parts, conjectured to have been originally two separate works. The first section discusses arguments drawn from nature or other races, and concentrates on the concept of human behavior. The second section focuses on animal behavior, dividing the animal kingdom into male and female types. From these are deduced correspondences between human form and character.
After Aristotle, the major extant works in physiognomy are:
* Polemo of Laodicea, de Physiognomonia (2c. A.D.), in Greek
* Adamantius the Sophist, Physiognomonica (4c. A.D.), in Greek
* An anonymous Latin author de Phsiognomonia (ca. 4c. A.D.)
Ancient Greek mathematician, astronomer and scientist Pythagoras, believed by some to be the originator of physiognomics, once rejected a prospective follower named Cylon simply because of his appearance, which Pythagoras deemed indicative of bad character
The term was common in Middle English, often written as fisnamy or visnomy (as in the Tale of Beryn, a 15th Century sequel to the Canterbury Tales: “I knowe wele by thy fisnamy, thy kynd it were to stele”). Physiognomy’s validity was once widely accepted, and it was taught in universities until the time of Henry VIII of England, who outlawed it (along with “Palmestrye”) in 1531. Around this time, scholastic leaders settled on the more erudite Greek form ‘physiognomy’ and began to discourage the whole concept of ‘fisnamy’.
Johann Kaspar Lavater
The principal promoter of physiognomy in modern times was the Swiss pastor Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741–1801) who was briefly a friend of Goethe. Lavater’s essays on physiognomy were first published in German in 1772 and gained great popularity. These influential essays were translated into French and English. The two principal sources from which Lavater found ‘confirmation’ of his ideas were the writings of the Italian Giambattista della Porta (1535–1615) and the English physician-philosopher Sir Thomas Browne (1605–1682), whose Religio Medici discusses the possibility of the discernment of inner qualities from the outer appearance of the face, thus:
there is surely a Physiognomy, which those experienced and Master Mendicants observe… For there are mystically in our faces certain Characters which carry in them the motto of our Souls, wherein he that cannot read A.B.C. may read our natures.
— R.M. part 2:2
Late in his life Browne affirmed his physiognomical beliefs, writing in his Christian Morals (circa 1675):
Sir Thomas Browne
Since the Brow speaks often true, since Eyes and Noses have Tongues, and the countenance proclaims the heart and inclinations; let observation so far instruct thee in Physiognomical lines….we often observe that Men do most act those Creatures, whose constitution, parts, and complexion do most predominate in their mixtures. This is a corner-stone in Physiognomy… there are therefore Provincial Faces, National Lips and Noses, which testify not only the Natures of those Countries, but of those which have them elsewhere.
— C.M. Part 2 section 9
Sir Thomas Browne is also credited with the first usage of the word caricature in the English language, whence much of physiognomy movement’s pseudo-learning attempted to entrench itself by illustrative means.
Browne possessed several of the writings of the Italian Giambattista della Porta including his Of Celestial Physiognomy which argued that it was not the stars but a person’s temperament which influences facial appearance and character. In his book De humana physiognomia (1586), Porta used woodcuts of animals to illustrate human characteristics. His works are well represented in the Library of Sir Thomas Browne; both men sustained a belief in the doctrine of signatures — that is, the belief that the physical structures of nature such as a plant’s roots, stem and flower, were indicative keys (or signatures) to their medicinal potentials.
Even the great inventor, scientist and artist, Leonardo Da Vinci, was an avid researcher of physiognomy in the early 16th century.
The popularity of physiognomy grew throughout the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth century. It influenced the descriptive abilities of many European novelists, notably Balzac, and portrait artists, such as Joseph Ducreux; meanwhile, the ‘Norwich connection’ to physiognomy developed in the writings of Amelia Opie and travelling linguist George Borrow. A host of other nineteenth century English authors were influenced by the idea, notably evident in the detailed physiognomic descriptions of characters in the novels of Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and Charlotte Brontë. Physiognomy is a central, implicit assumption underlying the plot of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray. In 19th century American literature, physiognomy figures prominently in the short stories of Edgar Allan Poe
Phrenology was also considered a form of physiognomy. It was created around 1800 by German physician Franz Joseph Gall and Johann Spurzheim, and was widely popular in the 19th century in Europe and the United States.
A physiognomist named Yoshito Mizuno was employed from 1936 to 1945 by the Imperial Japanese Naval Aeronautics Department, examining candidates for the Naval Air Corps, after – to their surprise – Admiral Yamamoto’s staff discovered that he could predict with over 80% accuracy the qualifications of candidates to become successful pilots.
Practitioners of the personality type theory socionics use physiognomy as a personality identification technique. Noted teacher and trainer H.C. Linguere is known to say “Physiognomics provides a great tactical advantage in achieving objectives. The body never lies.”