1902 Encyclopedia > Physiognomy


PHYSIOGNOMY. By the Act of Parliament 17 George II. c. 5 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. The pursuit thus stigma-tized as unlawful is one of great antiquity, and one which in ancient and mediaeval times had an extensive though now almost forgotten literature. Physiognomy was re-garded 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. 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, and from a very early age of human thought it attracted philosophic attention. But in its second aspect it touched astrology, of which Galen says that the physiognomical part is the greater, and this aspect of the subject bulked largely in the fanciful literature of the Middle Ages.

The name originated with the Greeks, who called it 4>vrrioyv(D/j,la, <f>vo-toy vaipov la, or <pvo-ioyvo>/xoo-vvr). Accord-ing to Principal Blackwell of Aberdeen, Homer wrote upon the lines of the hand ; but this is not supported by classical authority. That Homer was a close observer of appearance as correlated with character is shown in his description of Thersites and elsewhere. Hippocrates, writing about 450 B.C., refers to this subject, but not in detail. He believed in the influence of environment in determining disposition, and in the reaction of these upon feature,—a view in which he is supported later by Trogus. Galen speaks of it at more length in his work liepl rtov TÍjs ipvxrjí f]9<av, in which, having discussed the nature and immortality of the soul, he proceeds in chapter vii. to a brief study of physiognomy (ed. Kiihn, iv. 795). How-ever, at the end of the chapter he passes over the current physiognomical speculations, saying that he might criticize them but feared to waste time, and become tedious over them. In the eighth chapter he quotes with approbation the Hippocratic doctrine referred to above; and in a later work, Uepl KaTaxAio-eios 7rpoyvojo-Tt/«x, he speaks of its relations to medicine thus: " Hippocrates igitur, et vetustate admodum notus et scientia admirandus, in-quit, ' quocunque exercentes medicinam, physiognomoniae sunt expertes, horum mens in tenebras devoluta tórpida senescit,'" &c. We learn both from Iamblichus and Porphyry8 that Pythagoras was in the habit of diagnos-ing the characters of candidates for pupilage before ad-mitting them. However, he seems to have discredited the current physiognomy of the schools, as he rejected Cylo the Crotonian from his discipleship on account of his professing these doctrines, and thereby was brought into considerable trouble.9 Plato also tells us that Socrates predicted the promotion of Alcibiades from his appearance; and Apuleius 10 speaks of Socrates recognizing the abilities of Plato at first view. On the other hand, it has been recorded by Cicero 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 Aphrodisiensis12 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 13 as making his recognitions "intuitu solo."

That one's occupation stamps its impress on the out-ward appearance was also noticed at an early period. In the curious poem in praise of literature found in the Sallier papyrus (II.) in the British Museum this is ex-patiated on, and the effects of divers handicrafts on the workmen are compared with the elevating influences of a literary life by an Egyptian scribe of the Xllth Dynasty, perhaps 2000 years B.C.14 Josephus tells us that Caesar detected the pretence of the spurious Alexander by his rough hands and surface.15

The first systematic treatise which has come down to us is that attributed to Aristotle,16 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 geniu: 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 retrousse noses to the luxurious, like barn-door fowl; noses with a very slight notch at the rQot 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. Several good editions have been published, and numerous voluminous commentaries written upon it; most subsequent authors have copied from it, with or without acknowledgment. References exist to a work on physiognomy by Theo-phrastus, but it is not extant; and the next important author is Melampus, the Egyptian hierogrammateus, who lived at the court of Ptolemy Philadelphus, and wrote, about 270 B.C., the work Hepl TraXpwv p-avriK-q. This, while descriptive, like that of Aristotle, deals largely in omens, in divination from ntevi and the twitchings of limbs. It was edited by Camillus Peruscus, and published at Rome (1545) along with those of Polemon and Adaman-tius. References to physiognomy are to be found in many of the Greek classics. Apion speaks of the metopo-scopists 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 150 A.D.) is the next in order who has left a treatise 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. The best modern edition of his work is contained in Franz's Scriptores physiognomic veteres. It was trans-lated into Latin and published at Venice by Nicholas Petreius in 1534. This book was referred to by Albertus Magnus, who attributes to its author a second work on the subject. A more important contribution to the literature of physiognomy was added by a converted Jew, Adaman-tius, about 415. This work is in two books, the first on the expression of the eye, the second on physiognomy in general, mostly Aristotelian in character. He professes to have learned much from the Egyptians, and tells us that nature speaks in the forehead and face and in the silence of the mouth. He follows Aristotle in holding rather a low opinion of the intellect of the female sex, whom he makes the subject of some rather depreciating com-parisons. His work was edited with the foregoing by Franz. Artemidorus, Loxus, Philemon, Posidonius, Constantinus, are other early authors frequently quoted by 16th-century writers, while Phemonoe, Antiphon, Helenus of Syracuse, and Eumolpius are mentioned as writers by Porta, Albertus Magnus, and others, but their works are not extant.

The Latin classics occasionally refer to physiognomy : Juvenal (vi. 383) speaks of the examination of forehead and face, but not with much respect; Suetonius (Vita Titi, 2) tells us, " Quo quidem tempore, aiunt, metoposcopum a Narcisso, Claudio liberto, adhibitum, ut Britannicus in-spiceret"; and Pliny also refers to it (H. N., xxxv. 10). References also exist in the writings of Clement of Alexandria; and Origen,s while speaking of the Jewish fable as to the birth of Christ, asks, Is it possible, if therei be any truth in the science taught by Zopyrus, Loxus, and Polemon, that such a soul as Christ's could have been provided with a suitable body in such a way 1 Sir George Wharton quotes the text Job xxxvii. 7, " He impresseth (DinrV) the hand of every man, that all may know His work," as an authority for chiromancy, and other chiro-mantists have followed him in so doing.

Hitherto the physiognomy of the schools had been chiefly descriptive; in the succeeding period the astrological side, whose gradual development may be noted, becomes the most important part. Hence in the sub-sequent or second stage of history chiromancy is specially predictive in character, and attains an importance it had not originally possessed. The treatises also contain occa-sional digressions on onychomancy, alectoromancy, clido-mancy, coscinomancy, podoscopy, spasmatomancy, &c.

Along with the medical science of the period the Arabians took up the study of physiognomy: 'All b. Ragel wrote a book on nsevi; Rhazes (1040) devoted several chapters of his medical work to it; and Averroes (1165) made many references to it in his De Sanitate (p. 82, Leyden, 1537). Avicenna also makes some acute physiognomical remarks in his De Animalibus, which was translated by Michael Scott about 1270, but printed subsequently (without date or place). Albertus Magnus (born 1205) devotes much of the second tract of his De Animalibus to the consideration of physiognomy. There is, however, nothing original in the treatise, which largely consists of extracts from Aristotle, Polemon, and Loxus. He does not enter so much 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 many scattered notes in the writ-ings of Duns Scotus and Thomas Aquinas. The famous sage of Balwearie, Michael Scott, while court astrologer to the emperor Frederick II., wrote his treatise De hominis phisionomia (c. 1272), much of which is physiological and of curious interest. It was not printed until 1477, and the edition was not illustrated. The physiognomical treatise forms the third part of his work De secretis naturae. In 1335 Petrus de 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. Shortly after the introduction of printing in the loth century a large number of works on physiognomy were produced; probably the oldest is the block book by Hartlieb, Die Kunst Ciromantia. This is an exceedingly rare folio, of which one fine copy is extant in Paris; each page bears a figure of a giant hand from 7 to 10 J inches long, inscribed with characteristic words, and with a small amount of description below ; there are twenty-seven such plates. A description of another perfect copy belonging to Earl Spencer occurs in Dibdin's Bibliographical De-cameron (1817), vol. i. p. 143, and four imperfect copies are known to exist elsewhere. The date of Hartlieb's work is probably 1470. This and Michael Scott's books were the first printed works on the subject.

The 16th century was particularly rich in publications on physiognomy. Not only were the classical works printed, but additions were made to the literature by Codes, Corvus, Johannes de Indagine, Cornaro, Blondus, Douxciel, Pompeius Ronnseus, Gratarolus, Niquetius, Pom-ponius Gauricus, Tricassus, Cardan, Tiberius, Thaddaeus ab Hayek, Taisnierus, Rizzacasa, Campanella, Hund, Picci-olus, Rothman, Johannes Padovanus, and, last and greatest of all, Giambattista della Porta. Several works also ap-peared in England, the earliest being the anonymous On the Art of foretelling Future Events by Inspection of the Hand (London, 1504). A second anonymous work, A pleasant Introduction to the Art of Chiromancie andPhysiognomie, was published at the same place in 1558. Neither of these is of any merit. The first English work with the author's name is that of Dr Thomas Hill (1571), The Contemplation of Mankynde, contayning a singular Discourse after the AH of Phisiognomie. This is rather quaintly written, but is simply an adaptation from the Italian writers of the day. Another anonymous author about this period, but whose work has no date, writes, under the name " Merlin Britannicus," upon moles and naevi after the model of 'All b. Ragel. The word " physiognomy " had been introduced into England before this century, and, from analogy with the Greek, had been used in the sense of the outward appearance, or the face: thus in Udall's translation of the paraphrase of Erasmus on Mark iv. it occurs spelt "phisnomi"; the pugnacious bishop of Ossory, Bale, in his English Votaries, spells it " physnomie " (pt. i. ch. ii. p. 44).

The rise of the study of anatomy served largely to bring physiognomy into discredit by substituting real facts for fictions ; hence in the 17th century its literature, while not smaller in quantity, was less important in quality. The principal authors are Goclenius, Fuchs, Timpler, Tischbein, Gallimard, Moldenarius, Septalius, Hertod, Scarlatini, Saunders, Withers, Helvetius, Lebrun, Elsholtius, De la Belliere, Philipp May, Evelyn, Freius, Baldus, Torreblanca, Otto, Bulwer, Rhyne, Merbitzius, Fludd, Zanardus, Finella, Tamburini, Etzler, Vecchius, Praetorius, De la Chambre, and Giraldus.

The 18th century shows a still greater decline of interest in physiognomy. Historians of philosophy, like Meursius and Franz, re-edited some of the classical works, and Fulleborn reviewed the relation of physiognomy to philo-sophy. Indeed the only name worthy of note is that of LAVATEB (q.v.). The other authors of this century are Peuschel, Spon, Lichtenberg, Schutz, Wegelin, Pernetty, Girtanner, Grohmann, and several anonymous writers, and from the anatomical side Lancisi, Parsons, and Peter Cam-per. 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 really no system in his work, which largely 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 con-trived to write a graphic and readable book, but one much inferior to Porta's or Aristotle's as a systematic treatise. With him the descriptive school of physiognomists may be said to have ended, as the astrological physiognomy expired with De la Belliere. The few straggling works which have since appeared are scarcely deserving of notice, the rising attraction of phrenology having given to pure phy-siognomy the coup de grdce by taking into itself whatever was likely to live of the older science. The writers of this century are Hôrstig, Maas, Rainer, Cross, Stôhr, Sehler, Diez, Carus, Piderit, Burgess, and Gratiolet.

The physiological school of physiognomy was foreshadowed by Parsons and founded by Sir Charles Bell, as his Essay on the Anatomy of Expression, published in 1806, was the first really scientific study of expression. He was one of the first who accurately correlated the motions expressive of the passions with the muscles which produce them, and in the later editions of his work these descriptions are much enlarged and improved. Shortly after the appearance of the first edition of Bell's Essay Moreau published his first edition of Lavater along some-what the same lines (1807). The experiments of Duchenne (Mécanisme de la Physionomie Humaine, Paris, 1862) showTed that by the use of electricity the action of the separate muscles could be studied and by the aid of photography accurately represented. These tested and confirmed by experimental demonstration the hypothetic conclusions of Bell. The machinery of expression having thus been clearly followed out, the correlation of the physical actions and the psychical states was made the subject of specula-tion by Spencer (Psychology, 1855), and such speculations were first reduced to a system by Darwin (Expression of Emotions, 1872), who formulated and illustrated the fol-lowing as fundamental 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 state of mind is induced the same set 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.

It follows from these propositions that the expression of emotion is for the most part not under the control of the will, and that those striped muscles are the most expressive which are the least voluntary. The philosophy of phy-siognomy may be formulated upon this definite theoretic basis. (1) The actions we look upon as expressive of emotions are such as at some time were serviceable in relieving or gratifying the desires or sensations accom-panying the emotion. (2) Such actions become habitually-associated with the mental condition and continue even where their utility is lost. (3) Certain muscles which pro-duce these actions become from habitual action strength-ened, and, when the skin diminishes in fulness and elasticity with advancing age, the action of the muscle produces furrows or wrinkles in the skin at right angles to the course of the fibres of the muscle. (4) As the mental disposition and proneness to action are inherited by children from parents, so the facility and proneness to expression are similarly developed under the law of heredity. (5) To some extent habitual muscular action and the habitual flow of nerve-force in certain directions may alter the contour of such bones and cartilages as are thereby acted upon by the muscles of expression. Illustrations of these theoretic propositions are to be found in the works of Bell, Duchenne, and Darwin, 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, Leipsic, 1852, and the works of the authors enumerated above, especially those of Aristotle, Franz, Porta, Cardan, Corvus, and Bulwer. An attempt has been made recently to rehabilitate palmistry by D'Arpentigny and Desbarrolles, for summaries of which see the works of Beamish and Craig. For physiognomy of disease, besides the usual medical handbooks, see Cabuchet, Essai sur l'Expression de la Face dans les Maladies, Paris, 1801. For ethnological physiognomy, see amongst older authors Gratarolus, and amongst moderns the writers cited in the various text-books on anthropology. (A. MA.)


The Act 39 Elizabeth c. 4 declared "all persons fayning to have knowledge of Phisiognomie or like Fantasticall Ymaginacions " 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, still further by 17 George II. c. 5, which was re-enacted by 5 George IV. c. 83. This last Act only specifies palmistry.
Galen, llepi /cara/cXiVcws nrpoyvuiimKa (ed. Kiihn, xix. 530).
s Proofs of the Inquiry into the Life and Writings of Homer,
London, 1747.
i II, ii. 214. See also Blackwell's Inquiry, 2d ed., 1736, p. 330.
A physiognomical study of the Homeric heroes is given by Malalas,
Chronogr,, ed. Dindorf, v. \>. 105.
De fato, Geneva, 1684, iii. p. 303, 1. 25.
12 nepi dfiap/¿év7)s, § 6, London, 1658.
13 Diss., xv., Cambridge, 1703, p. 157.
14 Select Papyri, pi. xv., xix., and (Anastasi) Hid., exxviii.-exxxiii.
15 Ant, xvii. 12, 2.
16 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. sq., of his Scrip-tores physiognomies veteres, Leipsic, 1780.

5 nepi áépav, ÍSCÍTWV, rbiroiv (ed. Kiihn, i. 547).
6 Op, cit., xix. p. 530.
7 IIep¡ j8ioi/ \lv6ayopiKov \6yos, i. 17, Amsterdam, 1707, p. 59.
8 De vita Pytlmgorm, Amsterdam, 1707, p. 16. This author tells
us that he applied the same rule to his friends. See also Aulus
Gellius, i. ix. 9 Iamblichus, p. 49.
10 Philosophi Platonici, i., "De dogmate," Leyden, 1714, p. 34.

Madness," by Professor Ridgeway (Trans. Camb. PKilol. Soc., vol. i. p. 210), which refers to Aristoph., Wasps, 642, with which he compares Plautus, Menseehmi, 279. Other references exist to physiognomy in Cassiodorus, Isidorus, Meletius, and Nemesius, but none of any very great importance.

That of J. G. Franz (Leipsic, 1780) is the best; Andreas Lacuna published a Latin version, Paris, 1535 ; Willichius, another at Wittenberg, 1538.
Fontain's Commentary (Paris. 1611), Camillus Baldus of Bologna (1621), Sanchez of Toulouse (1636).
And later by Franz (op. cit., p. 470).
See an interesting paper on " Stretching and Yawning as Signs of
It was edited by Janus Cornaro at Marburg, 1543, by Bonum of
Paris ten years later, by Camillus Peruscus, by Petreius, and by Sylburg
6 Ilefli iraXpQiv. See Justin Martyr's Qitwst. ad orthodox., xix., vol. ii., Paris, 1742, p. 461.

7 Constantinus Africanus, De humana natura et principalibus membris corporis hnmani, Basel, 1541, folio.
8 Contra Celsum, i. 33.
9 For other references to Scriptural allusions to physiognomy, see Vecchius, Observationes in div. script., Naples, 1641.

7 Constantinus Africanus, De humana natura et principalibus membris corporis hnmani, Basel, 1541, folio.
8 Contra Celsum, i. 33.
9 For other references to Scriptural allusions to physiognomy, see Vecchius, Observationes in div. script., Naples, 1641.

Search the Encyclopedia:

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-17 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries