Extracts from Lavater ‘On Physiognomy’

Extracts from

Lavater, J. C. (1797). Essays on Physiognomy:
Calculated to Extend the Knowledge and the Love of Mankind.

London: H.D. Symonds.

I adore what is exact, precise, and correct; what is not so, cannot be consistent with truth. In this respect, Nature surpasses all the efforts of art. (vol. III, p. 305) Note: References are from Vol.I unless otherwise stated.


There is signification in every part of the body: in the combined whole, therefore, is that astonishing expression which enables us to form a prompt and unerring judgment of every object. Hence it is, to produce only the most striking instances [38]; hence it is, that, at first sight, no one will scruple to pronounce the elephant a very sagacious animal, and the fish a very stupid one. (quoting ‘From a German manuscript’, pp. 37-38)


A portrait The nose of this face [pictured] is not that of an ordinary man; neither are the eyes ordinary, especially the right one, although it wants the character of greatness which marks the nose. Such eyes, however, and such a nose, promise great services in the cause of humanity [144] and religion, for they announce great things; and one would be tempted to expect a great deal from them: but the rest of the face corresponds not to the expectations which these had raised. Those gatherings above the nose, that half-open mouth, the irregularity and the imbecillity of the under-lip, mark an extreme listlessness, a debility of mind, an incapacity, which is seeking to conceal itself under the cloak of knavery and cunning. (pp. 143-144)


Opposite you may observe the outlines of twelve faces of idiots [below], in neither of which are the eyes or the lineaments marked. Now, which of my readers would seek, or would expect to find, an expression of wisdom in profiles of this kind? Were the originals before us, is there one of whom we would wish to choose for our counsel? Might it not be said of every one of these profiles taken apart, ‘That a painter who should give either of them to a Solon or a Solomon, would expose himself to ridicule and shame?

Twelve faces of idiots

Twelve faces of idiots

It may easily be distinguished by an experienced observer, in this series of faces, some idiots who are naturally such, and others who most likely became so by the effects of disease, or of accident.

The first of these was, perhaps, once judicious; but the third, the fourth, the seventh, the eighth, ninth, and tenth, have they [214] ever been, or it to be supposed, on a slight perusal, they ever could become so? Would it not be the grossest affectation to say, ‘I cannot tell, or how should I know it? Is it impossible that God, who is equal to every thing, should have given such a profile to the philosopher who invented the theory of light?’ (pp. 213-214)


‘Men of learning,’ you say, ‘whose education has been darefully regarded!’ Is it education, allowing it ever so valuable, that can arch the scull of a negro, and make it similar to that of the philosopher who calculates the motions of the heavenly bodies? We talk but of the solid parts; and what concern have they with the education of those ‘born with genius,’ or that of ‘idiots by birth?’ Of men of parts, and changelings who continue such their whole lives (I put aside remarkable casualties), this, I think, is what should be put in opposition, and what I have put in opposition; and subsequent to that it might be necessary to make an accurate choice among the first, since every reasoning head is, in some measure, a chosen head; whereas you may take by accident the country boors, the heads that do not think. Nevertheless, [231] let a party of idiots be picked out, let us view them, let us compare them with respect both to the face and the outlines, only taking care, as I have so often said, to discriminate critically the said parts formed by nature, from those soft and flexible parts, which chance, indisposition, the caprice of fortune, an unhappy attachment, may have disfigured; to particularize what they once were from what they now are; to distinguish idiots by birth, from those who have been reduced to that condition… Let him shew me a congruity between idiots by birth, and persons gifted by Providence with elevated intellect. Let him shew me, if he is able, a changeling, born such, and not lowered to that degree by some chance, whose face is similar to that of Newton or his own. (pp. 230-231)

© Murray K. Simpson, 2002.

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