manuals sold to simple folk to teach them the art of reading faces and futures.
All this would be as irrelevant retrospectively as it is to our central purpose, were it not that it indicates the presence throughout the ages of a considerable body of popular lore and systematized doctrine—both saturated with flimsy analogy and engaging prepossessions—which was available for the ambitious renaissance of the interest in character and its signs in the face, through its best known apostle, Johann Caspar Lavater (1741-1801). The contrast between Lavater and such men as Cardan and Porta is as marked as that of the spirit and scope of the scientific study of their respective times. The vagaries of the sixteenth century may have stood measurably aloof from the real, if slow and uncertain, advances in the knowledge of mind and nature then maturing; but they were not wholly remote, not wholly tangential to its orbit. This was no longer true of the eighteenth century. Lavater, despite his reputation and associations and the imposing effect of his ambitious publications, failed to affect seriously or to divert the increasing stream of scientific discovery to which the early eighteenth century gave momentum. The scientific contemporaries of Lavater judged his views as critically, appreciated their wholly subjective basis in a personal predilection and their lack of objective warrant quite as justly as we of today. The contrast of attitude appears equally in the all but complete desuetude of the old persistent pseudo-sciences, astrological and others.
Lavater had nothing new to offer in principle or data or method. He was an impressionistic enthusiast setting forth conclusions with a minimum of argument, and convictions with a minimum of proof. His system was based upon subjective interpretation. His delineation of character has a direct reading of detailed mental traits by an interpretation of their equivalents or representatives in features and expression. Lavater’s activities were manifold. Preacher, orator, philanthropist, political reformer, dramatist, writer of ballads, he was a conspicuous man of his times, highly regarded by his eminent contemporaries—among them Goethe, whose contribution to the Fragments of Physiognomy have been identified. He was quite without scientific
- Nothing less than a glance at the illustrations which the earlier physiognomists employed will convey an adequate impression of the vagaries of Porta and his kind. They show that what was once pictorial proof has become the artist’s pastime. The material presented for amusement in Lear’s “Nonsense Botany” or Wood’s “Animal Analogues” is hardly more remote than that which served Porta as a serious instrument of research. Thus a portrait of Plato is printed side by side with that of a dog, and one of Vitellus Caesar is paralleled by that of a stag; and in each case some of the most deserving qualities of the animal are regarded as typical of the human embodiment. Similarly distorted illustrations show human resemblances to a lion, or a bull, or a donkey, or a deer; while the picture of a girl is ungallantly made to approach the features of a pig. These and yet more capricious ventures in animal physiognomy were incorporated into later systems, often in complete ignorance of their source.