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More signs of physiognomy in Aristotle: human heads in HA I 8-11

As I mentioned in my previous post, the best evidence about Aristotle’s theoretical views about physiognomical inferences (if the passage is indeed by Aristotle) can be found at the very end of the Prior Analytics (in II 27, 70b7-38). For the application of these views, we have to turn to his History of Animals[1] – a treatise in which Aristotle collects and organizes his data about the differences of animals in order to prepare for causal explanations at a later stage.

The collection starts by identifying the differences between animal parts (HA I 6, 491a14-16), and first among these the differences between the parts of humans, since those are best known to us (HA I 6, 491a19-23). The exposition starts at the top of the human body, and slowly works its way down. The first couple of chapters (HA I 8-11) discuss the human face and head, and this is where the physiognomical material comes in. I do not have space here to deal with the material extensively, so let me instead note four characteristics of Aristotle’s appeal to the science of physiognomy in these chapters, before ending my post in aporia.

First, Aristotle treats the physiognomical material as one kind of biological fact among many. The chapters list all kinds of information about the differentiations of parts on the head, using the human head as a guideline, including physiological descriptions of the part, the part’s technical name, its differentiations, and how those differentiations correlate with differences in the functionality of that part and with differences in the character of the being with that part. For instance, Aristotle states that, among the various eye-colors found in animals, greenish is ‘a sign of the best character and is strongest with regard to sharpness of vision’ (HA I 10, 492a3-4: ἐνίοις δὲ αἰγωπόν· τοῦτο ἤθους βελτίστου σημεῖον καὶ πρὸς ὀξύτητα ὄψεως κράτιστον). The physiognomical material thus does not receive any special treatment.

Second, most of the correlations that Aristotle notes in these chapters between facial differentiations and differences in character explicitly use the language of signs. For instance, differences in the nicks or corners of the eyes are signs: ‘when these are long, it is a sign of a bad character, when they are like combs[2] and are fleshy, [it is a sign] of wickedness’ (HA I 9, 491b24-26: οἳ ἂν μὲν ὦσι μακροί, κακοηθείας σημεῖον, ἂν δ’ οἷον οἱ ἰκτῖνες κρεῶδες ἔχωσι τὸ πρὸς τῷ μυκτῆρι, πονηρίας). I only found one case where Aristotle does not use the language of signs (in HA I 8, 491b12-14: ‘this [i.e., the forehead] is big in some, and they are slower, small in others, and they are easily moved; and in some it is broad, and they are excitable, in others it is rounded, and they are spirited’). It also appears that Aristotle uses the language critically: about differences in ear-coverings, for instance, he says that ‘the ones in between’ being smooth and hairy ‘are the best with a view to hearing, but they indicate nothing of character’ (HA I 11, 492a32-34; 33-34: βέλτιστα δὲ τὰ μέσα πρὸς ἀκοήν, ἦθος δ’ οὐδὲν σημαίνει). Not every facial differentiation is a physiognomical sign!

Third, there is not one domain from which Aristotle draws his physiognomical signs. Some signs indicate ‘the best character’ in both humans and animals (such as having greenish eyes), suggesting that perhaps the physiognomical theory is of the zoologist kind, but other signs are unique to human beings and therefore cannot be drawn from other animals, suggesting that perhaps his physiognomy draws from the facial expressions of humans. Here his discussion of the differentiations in the position of the ear is interesting, as it identifies – in the language of APr II 27 – an affection that is distinctive of humans, such that the sign cannot be drawn from animals: ‘they [i.e., ears] are large or small or in between, or stick out a lot or stick out nothing or are in between, and the ones in between are a sign of the best character, while the large [ears] and the ones that stick out are [a sign] of a tendency for silly talk and garrulity’ (HA I 11, 492a34-b3: Καὶ ἢ μεγάλα ἢ μικρὰ ἢ μέσα, ἢ ἐπανεστηκότα σφόδρα ἢ οὐδὲν ἢ μέσον· τὰ δὲ μέσα βελτίστου ἤθους σημεῖον, τὰ δὲ μεγάλα καὶ ἐπανεστηκότα μωρολογίας καὶ ἀδολεσχίας).

Fourth, and perhaps most interestingly, Aristotle often describes the differentiations of parts on the head as forming a continuum between two extremes, with the one in the middle always being a sign of the ‘best character’, even it is not always the functional best. For instance, of eyes, Aristotle says that the ones that ‘are the most receding are the sharpest with regard to every animal, while the middle [i.e., the position in between protruding or receding] is a sign of the best character (HA I 10, 492a8-10; 9-10: τούτων οἱ ἐντὸς μάλιστα ὀξυωπέστατοι ἐπὶ παντὸς ζῴου, τὸ δὲ μέσον ἤθους βελτίστου σημεῖον). This language, of course, is strongly reminiscent of Aristotle’s ‘doctrine of the mean’ as presented in his ethical treatises, but what are we to make of this connection – if there is one? Does Aristotle think that having ‘intermediate’ facial features is a valid predictor of how successful one will be in developing virtues and hence in applying the ‘ethical mean’ in one’s feelings and actions? Is that why he tells future lawgivers to ‘look at’ the nations of the world – in order to diagnose (much in Pythagorean fashion) on the basis of their faces which peoples have the best (natural) character? Or is Aristotle just appropriating ‘reputable opinions’ in his own language here, and am I trying to make too much of it?


[1] I have found only two cases outside the History of Animals where Aristotle makes use of language that can perhaps be identified as physiognomical: see GA IV 5, 774a37-b2 and GA V 7, 786b34-787a2.

[2] Reading κτένες instead of ἰκτῖνες in HA I 9, 491b25.

5 Responses to More signs of physiognomy in Aristotle: human heads in HA I 8-11

  1. With thanks to Philip Horky for pointing me towards your interesting post . . .

    On your third point: I wonder if the case you cite could be assimilated into the broader question of whether animals *really* have any of the virtues and vices predicated of human beings at all? If you take the hard line view that this sort of language is purely metaphorical to begin with, then I suppose it will be possible to find zoological analogues for garrulity &c. (chimps vs swans?) just as it possible to find analogues for courage (lions vs deer).

    On the fourth point: I am myself convinced that there is a correlation, underpinned by (e.g.) blood quality as the common cause. The idea would be that if (say) the size of a particular bodily part is a direct function of (say) blood heat, and a particular character trait (e.g. irascibility) is also a direct function of blood heat, then the physical and the psychological mean will coincide. By the way, I think that “valid predictor of how successful one will be” goes too fast for σημεῖον. A slightly more plausible claim would emerge if you gloss it as: “an indicator of how successful one would, ceteris paribus, be . . .” (Also: I assume that the physiognomical mean would be more closely correlated with the default for the mean in character (“feelings”), less with the mean in choice (your “actions”), insofar as the latter has something more to do with education and environment. (The development of the two are not unrelated though, I admit.))

    Best wishes
    George Boys-Stones

    • Thank you for your comments, George!

      These remarks about the physiognomical material in the History of Animals are part of a larger project tracking Aristotle’s views about natural character, and I have been working from the assumption that animals and humans indeed have natural character traits that are the same in kind: while animals do not have virtues in the strict sense, they do possess the same kind of capacities that in humans can be developed into dispositions and moral virtues (see HA VIII 1, 588a18-b3; the differences are differences of the more and the less). This does not necessarily imply, however, that all the natural character traits that are observed to belong to humans are also represented in at least some animals: if Aristotle is careful (and not just being metaphorical) in his attributions of character traits to animals and humans, I would expect there to be some character traits (such as those related to speech) for which there will be no signs to be found in animals. However, as your comment suggests, I still need to do more work on the nature of emotions in Aristotle – if those involve a kind of cognition that cannot be supplied by the perceptive capacity of the soul, than perhaps this language is indeed purely metaphorical…

      And your point about how to make the claim about the relation between having facial features that hold the appropriate middle and ‘moral success’ more plausible is well taken. I agree that there will be many other factors that will have to be taken into account, and that the benefit from having such facial features only pertains to one’s natural dispositions, and not necessarily to one’s actions. It looks like there is a correspondence between ‘having the best character’, that is somehow exhibited through facial features, and the natural character that Aristotle describes (as you suggest) as being due to blood being well-mixed (eukraton), and which puts one ‘in a good condition towards both courage and intelligence (PA II 2, 648a9-11) and which therefore makes it easier for that person to be led to virtue (Pol VII 7, 1327b18-38). After the Holiday break, I’ll probably start looking at other evidence for such a ‘sympathetic’ physiology of body and soul in Aristotle, and perhaps even at his theory of inheritance of material/characterological traits (also outside the biological works: cf. NE VII 7, 1150b12-15 and Rhet II 15, 1390b21-31).

      • George Boys-Stones

        Mariska — thanks! (And I tend to agree with you about animals and virtues.) I have another (potentially related?) question which I have never seen a convincing attempt to address. Do you have any thought on why is it that human beings exhibit the degree of variation (including variation in character) that they do at the level of the individual? Is this something of which a teleological account can be given? Or is it itself a by-product of teleological processes (as I rather assume the individual differences themselves are)?

        All best
        George

        • This is a very interesting – and difficult – question! Below is my (longish…) attempt to formulate a beginning of an answer (I have focused on the variation in character traits in humans, as the causal story for the other variations might well be different for each case). I do not know how convincing you will find it, but my hunch is that the individual variations among character traits in humans, and perhaps even their species-specific character profile, are entirely due to material necessity. Anyway, this is exactly the kind of question I should be thinking about for my project, so thank you for raising it!

          In general, Aristotle seems to be believe that differences of the more and the less, of which I believe individual variations in human character are a sub-kind, are either ‘with a view to what is better or worse’, or ‘with a view to each animal’s functions and substantial being’ (PA II 2, 648a13-19).
          The latter category (at least, this is how I interpret this) represents differentiations that are absolutely necessary for the animal to have and that are teleologically caused. For instance, ‘it is a necessity for [flesh-eating birds] to be able to fly on account of their way of life’, and this is why they have strong wings – this differentiation is conditionally necessary for their survival (PA IV 12, 693b28-694a9).
          The former category represents differentiations that are not necessary for animal and that come to be due to material necessity. If the formal nature can make use of the materials or differentiations produced by material necessity for the functional optimization of a part, then the differentiation is ‘for the better’, because it ends up serving the animal’s well-being. For instance, ‘of necessity’ earthen and warm materials come to be in the bodies of birds during generation, and in some nature uses this material to ‘construct length for the legs’, in others ‘instead of this, it fills in the gaps in their feet’ – both differentiations are ‘for the better with a view to their way of life’ (PA IV 12, 694a22-b11). In this case too, the presence of these differentiations is due to teleology, but their coming to be is due to material necessity, so the teleology in question is what I call ‘secondary’ (the differentiation is not a realization of a pre-existing potential for form, but the result of natures making good use of materials that come to be of material necessity, as accidental by products of teleological processes).
          Now, in some cases, nature cannot make use of the material or differentiation produced by material necessity and also cannot compensate for their detrimental effects: the differentiation is for the worse. For instance, if the fluid in the eyes is hard, this is for the worse in terms of vision, but for the better in terms of protection; if the fluid is soft, this is for the better in terms of vision, but for the worse in terms of protection (GA V 1, passim).

          So the next question is to which category the individual differences in human character traits belong. As far as I can tell from Aristotle’s treatment of natural character in the biological works, he seems to explain natural character entirely ‘bottom up’:

          1) The material nature of an animal determines the qualities of its blood, and the qualities of its blood determine the animal’s natural character traits (PA II 2-4; especially PA II 4, 651a12-17);
          2) Since blood is the last stage of concoction of the incoming nourishment in an animal, individual differences of the more and the less in character traits are therefore presumably primarily to be traced back to differences of the more and the less in (a) the kinds of food the animal digests (i.e., to individual differences in diet; cf. PA II 3, 650a35-b2), which co-varies with the location in which it lives (cf. PA IV 5, 678b4-7 and HA VIII 29) and (b) the way the animal concocts and transforms that food into blood (i.e., to individual differences in the organs involved in the concoction of food). Secondary factors that play a role in causing individual differences are (i) aging and disease and (ii) climate, all of which can cause differences in the internal heat of the animal in question and thereby not only change the ‘temperature’ of the blood, but also its purity.

          In addition, Aristotle seems to treat the species-specific character profile of any given kind of animal – together with the kind of food it processes – as one of the most basic facts about that animal, with a view to which other aspects of its substantial being are teleologically coordinated (cf. HA VIII 1, 588a17-18: ‘the activities and the ways of life differ in accordance with their characters and foods’; see also HA VIII 2, 590a13-18). Together with the focus on material-efficient causation in explaining both the species-specific and the individual differences in character traits in animals, this suggests to me that the kind of character an animal has is not itself a teleological feature (i.e., it is not predetermined by a potential for form, but rather depends on its material nature and its level of internal heat), and that its differentiations belong to the category of differentiations that are for the better or worse.

          As for humans, Aristotle says that character traits are most visible and most developed in humans because they have the ‘most perfected nature’ (τὴν φύσιν ἀποτετελεσμένην), an expression which in GA II 1 refers to the material natures of humans as being the hottest, moistest, and purest (i.e., containing the least amount of earth) of all animals. Presumably, then, humans have the hot, thin, and pure blood that Aristotle identifies as best in PA II 2, 648a9-11 (meaning that humans ‘are at once in a good condition with regard to both courage and intelligence’). The reason why they exhibit the most variation in individual character traits is perhaps due to the fact that they inhabit the most variegated climates (for instance, there are regions that are too cold for some animals to live in, but there are still humans living there: Long 5, 466b22-28; GA II 8, 748a22-26) and are the only animals capable of craft (in the true sense of the word; animals are crafty only by analogy), which means that their diets are most variegated as well and their constitutions are most diversified under the influence of climatic factors. This is mostly speculation on my part, but I think Aristotle hints at something like this in Politics I 8 (Pol I 8, 1256a19-30):

          But there are many kinds of food, and therefore there are also many ways of life both of animals and of human beings. For it is not possible to live without food, such that the differences in food have made differences in the ways of life of animals. For among the wild animals some are gregarious, but others are solitary, in ways that are beneficial with regard to their food on account of some of them being meat-eaters, others plant-eaters, and still others eat everything, such that nature has chosen ways of life for them with a view to what is easy and what is their preference for food, since the same thing is not by nature pleasant to each, but different things to different animals, and the ways of life of the meat-eaters and the plant-eaters themselves differ among each other. And the same applies also to human beings. For their ways of life differ from each other. [… The passage continues with a list of modes of life exhibited by humans, the inference that nature must have made plants and animals for the nourishment of humans, and the conclusion that the art of war is a natural art of acquisition].

          For the most part, these individual differences that result from differences in diet and climate do not seem to be for the better: instead, based on Aristotle’s ‘ethnographical passage’ in Politics VII 7, it appears that the more ‘unaffected’ the standard human character profile is, the better the natural character traits are with a view to developing virtue. Deviations from the ‘optimal’ hotness, moistness, and purity of the blood caused by individual differences in diet or locality or even aging and disease cause disturbances in the ‘well-mixedness’ of the blood, and although none of these deviations threaten the basic capacities for living (i.e., reproduction and survival), they certainly make it difficult or even impossible for these humans to live well.

          It might well be that this plays out to be somehow ‘for the better’ for those (freeborn men) living in the mildest climates (in Greece) and who are sticking to the best diets (involving, for instance, not too much wine or mint), especially if one assumes that the people without a well-mixed character are those who Aristotle elsewhere refers to as natural slaves (which is a move I would like to resist). In that case, the individual differences among human natural character could be thought of as serving a diversification of human functional roles in society, from which again only those (freeborn men) with a well-mixed blood-type and natural character would truly profit. However, it is hard (for me at least) to see how this kind of ‘teleology’ would still be natural, as opposed to being anthropocentric or even ‘Hellenocentric’.

  2. George Boys-Stones

    Terrific answers! The focus on ‘bottom-up’ explanation for physiognomy must be right (and I’m delighted that, by implication, you don’t follow the standard heresies about the transmission of the father’s form in reproduction). It is sobering to remember how few of Aristotle’s followers were teleologists at all; and I don’t think that it’s coincidence that Galen appeals to Aristotle on physiognomy when he is at his most psychologically reductive (sc. in QAM). As to your answer for why humans are most diverse — I’m just annoyed that the elegant solution your suggest never occurred to me! But of course it makes very good sense. I really look forward to reading all about it in due course!

    All best
    George

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