Ancient and Modern Physiognomy

In this segment from NPR, Bob Mondello explores the role of social media and snap polls in the U.S. debates. He thinks that reality television shows such as American Idol have conditioned Americans to watch events and cast their votes. Moreover, he states that “the things reality shows have conditioned us to look for — polish, brashness, engagement with the camera — are all surface, not things that have much to do with governing.”

Mondello would prefer that we judge candidates according to the effectiveness of their argumentation rather than to superficial qualities such as body language and style. Yet these features have been a regular part of political life for over two thousand years.  The Greeks and Romans in particular were obsessed with physiognomy, a “science” devoted to scrutinizing a person’s various external features, both permanent (e.g., physical size or skin color) and transitory (e.g., comportment, movement, gestures, and vocal intonation) in order to learn about their inner qualities. The body, in other words, provided observers with important clues about a person’s character: as ps.-Aristotle states at the beginning of his Physiognomy, “minds follow their bodies and are not isolated and unaffected by the changes of the body … and the body is clearly affected along with the affectations of the soul” (805a1). This position allows him to conclude, for instance, that “a brilliant complexion indicates a hot, sanguine temper, whilst a pale, pink complexion signifies a talented nature” (806b1). Similarly, soft hair is the sign of a coward, while coarse hair signals a man of courage (806b1).

Maud Gleason’s Making Men: Sophists and Self-Presentation in Ancient Rome explores this topic among second-century Roman elites, while Mikeal Parsons’s Body and Character in Luke and Acts demonstrates how the author of these texts engages and subverts common physiognomic assumptions. Simon Swain’s Seeing the Face, Seeing the Soul: Polemon’s Physiognomy from Classical to Medieval Islam combines essays from numerous scholars along with valuable translations of Roman and Islamic texts.

While Mondello is surely right that the external features of candidates are unrelated to their ability to govern effectively, the Western intellectual tradition shows that they are nevertheless instrumental in determining which candidates are given this opportunity.

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