1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Physiognomy

PHYSIOGNOMY, the English form of the middle Greek φυσιογνωμία, a contraction of the classical φυσιογνωμονία (from φύσις, nature, and γνώμων, an interpreter), (1) a term which denotes a supposed science for the “discovery of the disposition of the mind by the lineaments of the body” (Bacon); (2) is also used colloquially as a synonym for the face or outward appearance, being variously spelled by the old writers: fysenamy by Lydgate, phisnomi in Udall’s translation of Erasmus on Mark iv., physnomie in Bale’s English Votaries (i. 2. p. 44), and fisnomie in All’s well that ends well, iv. 5 (first folio).

Physiognomy was regarded by those who cultivated it as a twofold science: (1) a mode of discriminating character by the outward appearance, and (2) a method of divination from form and feature. On account of the abuses of the latter aspect of the subject its practice was forbidden by the English law. By the act of parliament 17 George II. c. 5 (1743) all persons pretending to have skill in physiognomy were deemed rogues and vagabonds, and were liable to be publicly whipped, or sent to the house of correction until next sessions.[1] The pursuit thus stigmatized as unlawful is one of great antiquity, and one which in ancient and medieval times had an extensive though now almost forgotten literature. It was very early noticed that the good and evil passions by their continual exercise stamp their impress on the face, and that each particular passion has its own expression. Thus far physiognomy is a branch of physiology. But in its second aspect it touched divination and astrology, of which Galen[2] says that the physiognomical part is the greater, and this aspect of the subject bulked largely in the fanciful literature of the middle ages. There is evidence in the earliest classical literature that physiognomy formed part of the most ancient practical philosophy. Homer was a close observer of expression and of appearance as correlated with character, as is shown by his description of Thersites[3] and elsewhere. Hippocrates, writing about 4 50 B.C., expresses his belief in the influence of environment in determining disposition, and in the reaction of these upon feature,[4] a view in which he is supported later by Trogus. Galen, in his work Περί τών τής ψυχής ήθών, having discussed the nature and immortality of the soul, proceeds in ch. vii. to a brief study of physiognomy (ed. Kuhn iv. 795). In this passage he deprecates current physiognomical speculations, saying that he might criticize them but feared to waste time and become tedious over them. In chapter viii. he quotes with approbation the Hippocratic doctrine referred to above; and in a later work, Περί κατακλίσεως προγνωστικά, he speaks of the advantage of a knowledge of physiognomy to the physician.[5] We learn both from Iamblichus[6] and Porphyry[7] that Pythagoras practised the diagnosis of the characters of candidates for pupilage before admitting them, although he seems to have discredited the current physiognomy of the schools, as he rejected Cylo, the Crotonian, on account of his professing these doctrines, and thereby was brought into some trouble.[8] Plato also tells us that Socrates predicted the promotion of Alcibiades from his appearance; and Apuleius[9] speaks of Socrates recognizing the abilities of Plato at first view. On the other hand, it has been recorded by Cicero[10] that a certain physiognomist, Zopyrus, who professed to know the habits and manners of men from their bodies, eyes, face and forehead, characterized Socrates as stupid, sensual and dull (bardus), “in quo Alcibiades cachinnum dicitur sustulisse.” Alexander Aphrodisiensis adds that, when his disciples laughed at the judgment, Socrates said it was true, for such had been his nature before the study of philosophy had modified it. Zopyrus is also referred to by Maximus Tyrius[11] as making his recognitions “intuitu solo.”

That one’s occupation stamps its impress on the outward appearance was also noticed at an early period. In the curious poem in the Sallier papyrus (II.), written about 1800 B.C., Duan, son of Khertu, expatiates on the effects of divers handicrafts on the workmen as compared with the elevating influences of a literary life.[12] Josephus tells us that Caesar detected the pretence of the spurious Alexander by his rough hands and surface.[13]

The first systematic treatise which has come down to us is that attributed to Aristotle,[14] in which he devotes six chapters to the consideration of the method of study, the general signs of character, the particular appearances characteristic of the dispositions, of strength and weakness, of genius and stupidity, of timidity, impudence, anger, and their opposites, &c. Then he studies the physiognomy of the sexes, and the characters derived from the different features, and from colour, hair, body, limbs, gait and voice. He compares the varieties of mankind to animals, the male to the lion, the female to the leopard. The general character of the work may be gathered from the following specimen. While discussing noses, he says that those with thick bulbous ends belong to persons who are insensitive, swinish; sharp-tipped belong to the irascible, those easily provoked, like dogs; rounded, large, obtuse noses to the magnanimous, the lion-like; slender hooked noses to the eagle-like, the noble but grasping; round-tipped retroussé noses to the luxurious, like barndoor fowl; noses with a very slight notch at the root belong to the impudent, the crow-like; while snub noses belong to persons of luxurious habits, whom he compares to deer; open nostrils are signs of passion, &c.

The practice of physiognomy is alluded to in many of the Greek classics[15] Apion speaks of the metoposcopists, who judge by the appearance of the face, and Cleanthes the Stoic says it is possible to tell habits from the aspect (cf. Ecclus. xix. 29, 30). Polemon (c. A.D. 150) compiled a treatise (published 1534, in Latin) on the subject, similar in character to that of Aristotle; but he excels in graphic descriptions of different dispositions, and differs only from Aristotle in some of his animal comparisons. A more important work was written by a converted Jew, Adamantius, about A.D. 415. This is in two books, the first on the expression of the eye, the second on physiognomy in general, mostly Aristotehan in character.

Among the Latin classical authors Juvenal, Suetonius and Pliny in well-known passages refer to the practice of physiognomy, and numerous allusions occur in the works of the Christian Fathers, especially Clement of Alexandria and Origen (for example, the familiar passage in his work against Celsus, i. 33).[16] While the earlier classical physiognomy was chiefly descriptive, the later medieval authors particularly developed the predictive and astrological side, their treatises often digressing into chiromancy, onychomancy, clidomancy, podoscopy, spasmatomancy, and other branches of prophetic folk-lore and magic.

Along with the medical science of the period the Arabians contributed to the literature of physiognomy; 'Ali b. Ragel wrote a book on naevi; Rhazes (1040) devoted several chapters to it; and Averroes (1165) made many references to it in his De sanitate, p. 82 (Leiden, 1537). Avicenna also makes some acute physiognomical remarks in his De animalibus, which was translated by Michael Scot about 1270. Among medieval writers Albertus Magnus (born 1205) devotes much of the second section of his De animalibus to physiognomy; but this chiefly consists of extracts from Aristotle, Polemon and Loxus. He does not enter into the animal comparisons of his predecessors, but occupies himself chiefly with simple descriptive physiognomy as indicative of character; and the same is true of the scattered references in the writings of Duns Scotus and Thomas Aquinas. The famous sage of Balwearie, Michael Scot, while court astrologer to the emperor Frederick II., wrote his treatise De hominis phisiognomia, much of which is physiological and of curious interest. It was probably composed about 1272, but not printed until 1477. This was the first printed work on the subject. Physiognomy also forms the third part of his work De secretis naturae. In 1335 Pietro d'Abano of Padua delivered in Paris a course of lectures on this subject (afterwards edited by Blondus, 1544), a few years before he was burned for heresy.

The 16th century was rich in publications on physiognomy. The works of the classical authors before mentioned were printed, and other treatises were published by John de Indagine, Cocles, Andreas Corvus, Michael Blondus, Janus Cornaro, Anselm Douxciel, Pompeius Ronnseus, Gratarolus, Lucas Gauricus, Tricassus, Cardanus, Taisnierus, Magnus Hund, Rothman, Johannes Padovanus, and, greatest of all, Giambattista della Porta The earliest English works were anonymous: On the Art of Foretelling Future Events by Inspection of the Hand (1504), and A Pleasant Introduction to the Art of Chiromancie and Physiognomie (1588). Dr Thomas Hill's work, The Contemplation of Mankynde, containing a singular Discourse after the Art of Physiognomie, published in 1571, is a quaintly written adaptation from the Italian authors of the day. The undated book on moles and naevi by “Merlin Britannicus,” after the model of 'Ali ibn Ragel, is of about the same date.

The development of a more accurate anatomy in the 17th century seems to have diminished the interest in physiognomy, by substituting fact for fiction; and consequently the literature, though as great in quantity, became less valuable in quality. The principal writers of this age were T. Campanella, R Coclenius, Clement, Timpler, J. E. Gallimard, Moldenarius, Septalius, Saunders, C. Lebrun (a precursor of Charles Bell), Elsholz, de la Belliere, J. Evelyn (in the appendix to Numismata), Baldus, Bulwer (in his Pathomyotomia), Fuchs, Spontoni, Ghiradelli, Chiaramonti, A. Ingegneri, Finella, De la Chambre, Zanardus, R. Fludd, and others of less importance.

The 18th century shows a still greater decline of interest in physiognomy. Historians of philosophy, like J. Meursius and Franz, re-edited some of the classical works, and G. G. Fulleborn reviewed the relation of physiognomy to philosophy. Indeed, the only name worthy of note is that of J. K. Lavater (q.v.). The other authors of this century are Peuschel, Spon, Schutz, Wegelin, J. Pernetti, Girtanner, Grohmann, and several anonymous writers, and from the anatomical side G. M. Lancisi, J. Parsons and Peter Camper. The popular style, good illustrations and pious spirit pervading the writings of Lavater have given to them a popularity they little deserved, as there is no system in his work, which chiefly consists of rhapsodical comments upon the several portraits. Having a happy knack of estimating character, especially when acquainted with the histories of the persons in question, the good pastor contrived to write a graphic and readable book, but one much inferior to Porta's or Aristotle's as a systematic treatise. The treatises of Nicolai and of Lichtenberg were written to refute his theory. With Lavater the descriptive school of physiognomists may be said to have ended, as the astrological physiognomy expired with de la Belliere. The few works which have since appeared, before the rise of the physiological school of Sir Charles Bell and Charles Darwin, are undeserving of notice, the development of phrenology having given to pure physiognomy the coup de grâce by taking into itself whatever was likely to live of the older science. The writers of the 19th century are Hörstig, Maas, Rainer, Thoné, A. Stohr, Sehler, Dr Rubels, Polli, Cardona, Mastriani, Diez, Carus, Piderit, Burgess and P. Gratiolet.

The physiological school of physiognomy was foreshadowed by Parsons and founded by Sir Charles Bell, whose Essay on the Anatomy of the Expression, published in 1806, was the first scientific study of the physical manifestation of emotions in the terms of the muscles which produce these manifestations. In the later editions of this essay the thesis is elaborated with greater detail. Moreau's edition of Lavater, in 1807, was somewhat along the same lines. In 1817 Dr Cross of Glasgow wrote his defence of a scientific physiognomy based on general physiological principles. The experiments of G. B. A. Duchenne (Mécanisme de la physiognomies humaine, Paris, 1862) showed that by the use of electricity the action of the separate muscles could be studied and by the aid of photography accurately represented. These observations confirmed by experimental demonstration the hypothetical conclusions of Bell. The machinery of expression having thus been indicated, the connexion of the physical actions and the psychical state was made the subject of speculation by Herbert Spencer (Psychology, 1855). These speculations were reduced to a system by Darwin (Expression of Emotions, 1872), who formulated and illustrated the following as fundamental physiognomical principles:—

(1) Certain complex acts are of direct or indirect service, under certain conditions of the mind, in order to relieve or gratify certain sensations or desires; and whenever the same states of mind are induced the same sets of actions tend to be performed, even when they have ceased to be of use. (2) When a directly opposite state of mind is induced to one with which a definite action is correlated, there is a strong and involuntary tendency to perform a reverse action. (3) When the sensorium is strongly excited nerve-force is generated in excess, and is transmitted in definite directions, depending on the connexions of nerve-cells and on habit.

The last of these propositions is adversely criticized by P. Mantegazza as a truism, but it may be allowed to stand with the qualification that we are ignorant concerning the nature of the influence called “nerve-force.” It follows from these propositions that the expression of emotion is, for the most part, not under control of the will, and that those striped muscles are the most expressive which are the least voluntary. To the foregoing may be added the following three additional propositions, so as to form a more complete expression of a physiognomical philosophy:—

(4) Certain muscles concerned in producing these skin-folds become strengthened by habitual action, and when the skin diminishes in elasticity and fulness with advancing age, the wrinkles at right angles to the course of the muscular fibres become permanent. (5) To some extent habitual muscular action of this kind may, by affecting local nutrition, alter the contour of such bones and cartilages as are related to the muscles of expression. (6) If the mental disposition and proneness to action are inherited by children from their parents, it may be that the facility in, and disposition towards, certain forms of expression are in like manner matters of heredity.

Illustrations of these theoretic propositions are to be found in the works of Bell, Duchenne and Darwin, and in the later publications of Theodor Piderit, Mimike und Physiognomik (1886) and Mantegazza, Physiognomy and Expression (1890) to which the student may be referred for further information.

For information on artistic anatomy as applied to physiognomy see the catalogue of sixty-two authors by Ludwig Choulant, Geschichte und Bibliographie der anatomischen Abbildung, &c. (Leipzig, 1852), and the works of the authors enumerated above, especially those of Aristotle, Franz, Porta, Cardan, Corvus and Bulwer. For physiognomy of disease, besides the usual medical handbooks, see Cabuchet, Essai sur l’expression de la face dans les maladies (Paris, 1801); Mantegazza, Physiology of Pain (1893), and Polli, Saggio di fisiognomomia e potognomomia (1837). For ethnological physiognomy, see amongst older authors Gratarolus, and amongst moderns the writers cited in the various textbooks on anthropology, especially Schadow, Physionomies nationales (1835) and Park Harrison, Journ. Anthrop. Inst. (1883). The study of the physical characteristics of criminals is discussed at great length by Lombroso, L’Uomo deliquente (1897); Ferri, L’Omicidio (1895); von Baer, Der Verbrecher (1893); Laurent, Les Habitués des prisons (1890); and Havelock Ellis, The Criminal (1901). (A. Ma.) 

  1. The Act 39 Elizabeth c. 4 (1597–1598) declared “all persons fayning to have knowledge of Phisiognomie or like Fantasticall Ymaginacious” liable to “be stripped naked from the middle upwards and openly whipped until his body be bloudye.” This was modified by 13 Anne c 26 (1713), still further by 17 George II. c 5, which was re-enacted by the Vagrancy Act 1824. This last act only specifies palmistry.
  2. Galen. Περί κατακλίσεως προγνωστικά (ed. Kühn xix. 530).
  3. Iliad, ii. 214. See also Blackwell’s Inquiry, (2nd ed. 1736), 330. A physiognomical study of the Homeric heroes is given by Mlalalas, Chronogr ed. Dindorf, v. 105.
  4. Περί άέρων ύόάτων, τόπων (ed. Kühn, i. 547).
  5. Op. cit., xix. 530.
  6. Περί βίου Πυθαγορικού λόγος, i. 17 59 (Amsterdam, 1707).
  7. De vita Pythagorae, p. 16 (Amsterdam, 1707). This author tells us that he applied the same rule to his friends. See also Aulus Gellius, i. ix.
  8. Iamblichus, p. 49.
  9. De dogmate Platonis, i. 567, p. 34 (Leiden, 1714).
  10. Tuscul. quaestionum, iv. 37. De fato, v.
  11. Diss., xv. 157 (Cambridge, 1703).
  12. Select Papyri, Pl. xv., xix., and (Anastasi) ibid., cxxviii., cxxxiii.
  13. Ant., xvii. 12, 2.
  14. Authors differ in their views as to its authenticity, but Diogenes Laertius (v. 22) and Stobaeus (Serm. clxxxix.) both believe it to be genuine. The chief difficulty is the reference to a certain sophist, Dionysius, but this is probably an interpolation. There are physiognomic references in other writings of Aristotle (cf. Anal. pr., ii. c. 30; Hist. anim., i. 8, &c.) sufficient to justify the attribution of the treatise to him. On this, see Franz, Preface, p. vi. seq., of his Scriptores physiognomiae veteres (Leipzig, 1780).
  15. See an interesting paper on “Stretching and Yawning as Signs of Madness,” by Professor Ridgeway (Trans. Camb. Phil. Soc., i. 201), which refers to Aristoph. Wasps, 642, with which he compares Plautus, Menaechmi, 279. Other references exist to physiognomy in Cassiodorus, Isidorus, Meletius and Nemesius, but none of any great importance.
  16. For Scriptural allusions to physiognomy see Vecchius, Observationes in div. script. (Naples, 1641). Other classical references are contained in the Prooemium to the 1593 edition of the works of Baptista Portae.