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I cannot adopt his vague and unsatisfactory definition. “It is for the greater part,” he says, some quality in bodies acting mechanically upon the human mind by the intervention of the senses.” Some late writers on the subject, among whom are Mr. Alison and Mr. Jeffrey, suppose that in reality no one form of matter is more beautiful than another, and that all our ideas of beauty are the result of habit and association. This theory has often been opposed with considerable ingenuity. Mr. Hazlitt, in his little essay on the subject, though he does not define what beauty is, endeavours to show that it is in some way inherent in the object.
To the argument that beauty is a mere quality of mind, it may perhaps be objected that there are certain material objects, unconnected with life or spirit, such as a flower or a shell, which are admired as soon as seen. But even in new and inanimate objects the mind invariably discovers some kind of analogy, however slight or remote, with its own nature. The analogy is not the less decisive, because it is sometimes a secret and almost unconscious process. It is in this way that poets breathe life and passion into all external things, and sympathize with their own creations. The more imagination we possess, the deeper is our sense of beauty. The Medicean Venus, that excites some men to an ecstacy of admiration, is regarded by others whose corporeal vision is in no degree inferior, with absolute indifference. Smollet thought contemptuously of it. The effect depends greatly upon the mind of the observer. Persons of exquisite delicacy of taste and feeling recognize traits of a congenial spirit in the smooth elegance and the flowing outlines of the face and figure. We must be capable of conceiving and of sympathizing with the internal spirit, before its outward symbols can awaken a genuine enthusiasm. On this account no man who has not a touch of gentleness or nobility in his own nature can study the science of Physiognomy with complete success.
He might quickly discover his own crimes or weaknesses in the faces
of kindred characters, but the signs of a higher spirit would escape his penetration, or present a tacit reproof of his own selfesteem, that would render him quite unable to peruse them with an impartial judgment. There is a great deal of truth in the common saying, that a person has generally the good or ill qualities which he attributes to mankind. If Swift had written a work on Physiognomy, it would have been very different from that of Lavater. The more the latter studied the countenances of men, the higher became his opinion of our internal nature. But the cold, the stern, the suspicious and sarcastic English Satirist would have found nothing amiable or glorious in the “human face divine.” He only who unites in himself the rarely connected qualities of an enlarged and liberal mind with a capacity for minute observation, and a knowledge of the world with a pure and gentle heart, can hope to attain an equal facility in tracing the signs of vice or virtue.
The opponents of Physiognomy found their chief objections on isolated facts, and accidental circumstances. They are people who have a strange prejudice against all broad principles and general rules. With them a slight mistake even in the language of a proposition decides its fate. They rejoice at a flaw in the indictment. Thus if they happen for once in their lives to meet with an honest face on the shoulders of a rogue, or to have discovered a professed physiognomist in error, or to have proved their own want of physiognomical discernment by some still greater blunder, we are gravely assured that appearances are deceitful, and are called upon to believe that the soul of man is never legible in his face. They conclude that the aspect of humanity is a continual lie, because they have in some instances failed to read it rightly, or because certain individuals by a cunning misuse of their features, and others by some accident in life or some unkindly freak of nature, form exceptions to the ordinary correspondence between mind and matter. Physiognomy is a
science which can never admit of mathematical precision. Bat entirely to reject it on that account is illogical and absurd. The physician's art is equally uncertain. The full and blooming cheek is a sign of health and strength, and the pale and thin one of sickness and debility. The physician is guided by these tokens. Should they sometimes happen to deceive him, (such occurrences being comparatively rare) he does not the less regard them in other cases as symbolical of the internal condition of the system. He acts upon his general experience. If amongst a thousand apples, of a fresh and rosy look, there should be five or six that are rotten at the core, it would be ridiculous and childish to dispute, on account of these exceptions, the general assertion, that the quality of fruit is indicated by its appearance.
Notwithstanding our occasional mistakes and disappointments, the human face is still like a book of reference which we perpetually consult.
We study the features of a stranger before we admit him to our confidence. We decide upon his character at a single glance, and with infinitely more truth and precision than we could arrive at by a more lengthened and laborious pro
Looks are more legible than words, and far less deceitful. We can better command our phrases than our features, though the former are by no means so expressive of the movements of the soul. Even deeds are more equivocal than looks, because the motives which give them their real character are often too deeply shrouded in the heart to be discovered by the world. Our first impressions are commonly the truest.
The general character of the face, and the peculiar expression which is stamped upon the features by the thoughts and feelings of many years, flash into our minds with more force and clearness when we meet them as a novelty than when they become more familiar. Thus the first view of a landscape or a city impresses the real effect more vividly on the fancy than any subsequent or more deliberate observation.
We cannot easily conquer the feeling of repugnance which is sometimes excited by the countenance of a stranger. Neither can we always explain the cause, even to ourselves.
I do not like thee, Doctor Fell;
Even when subsequent familiarity, an exchange of kind offices, and a strong desire to shake off an apparently ungenerous prejudice, suppress for a time all harsh and unfriendly thoughts, some accidental exposure of character, either in word, deed, or look, is almost sure to confirm our first impression. There is a curious passage in Gessner's Life of Lavater, that may serve as illustration. I quote the translation by Thomas Holcroft*.
“A person to whom he was an entire stranger was once announced, and introduced to him as a visitor. The first idea that rose in his mind, the moment he saw him, was—This man is a murderer.'—He however suppressed the thought as unjustifiably severe and hasty, and conversed with the person with his accustomed civility. The cultivated understanding, extensive imformation, and ease of manner which he discovered in his visitor, inspired him with the highest respect for his intellectual endowments; and his esteem for these, added to the benevolence and candour natural to him, induced him to disregard the unfavourable impression he had received from his first appearance with respect to his moral character. The next day he dined with him by invitation; but soon after it was known that this accomplished gentleman was one of the assassins of the late king of Sweden ; and he found it advisable to leave the country as speedily as possible."
Rousseau somewhere speaks of a man in whose countenance he traced certain obscure and mysterious indications of an evil character, and he accordingly resolved to avoid him quietly while there was yet peace between them ; for he felt, he knew not why, that it could not long continue. Every man has experienced from repulsive features the same strong but undefinable impressions. Rousseau, however, often fell into great mistakes, for his fancy outran his observation. He regarded the face as a book in which he might read strange matters, and was far too whimsical and distrustful to make a just and accurate physiognomist. In the account of the controversy between him and Hume there is a curious and characteristic instance of his too fanciful interpretation of the face. It is given in Rousseau's own words.
* The son of this well-known writer, Villiers Holcroft, died in Calcutta a few years ago. He lived and died neglected. His death, I believe, was not even announced in the newspaper obituaries.
“ As we were sitting one evening, after supper, silent by the fire-side, I caught his (Ilume's) eyes intently fixed on mine, as indeed happened very often : and that in a manner of which it is very difficult to give an idea. At that time he gave me a steadfast, piercing look, mixed with a snter which greatly disturbed me. To get rid of the embarrassment I lay under, I endeavoured to look full at him in my turn; but in fixing my eyes against his I felt the most inexpressible terror, and was obliged soon to turn them away. The speech and physiognomy of the good David is that of an honest man; but where, great God! did this good man borrow those eyes he fixes so sternly and unaccountably on those of his friends ?
“ The impression of this look remained with me, and gave me much uneasiness. My trouble increased even to a degree of fainting; and if I had not been relieved by an effusion of tears, I had been suffocated. Presently after this I was seized with the most violent remorse; I even despised myself; till at length, in a transport which I still remember with delight, I sprang on his neck, embraced him eagerly ; while almost choked with sobbing, and bathed in tears, I cried out, in broken accents, No, no, David Hume cannot be treucherous. If he be not the best of men, he must be the busest of mankind. David Ilume politely returned my embraces, and, gently tapping me on the back, repeated several times, in a goodnatured and easy tone, Why, what, my dear Sir! Nay, my dear Sur! Oh, my dear Sir! He said nothing more. I felt my heart yearn within
We went to bed; and I set out the next day for the country.”
Hume answers all this by explaining, that like most studious men, he was subject to reveries and fits of absence, in which he sometimes had a fixed look or stare. A cool and sober physiognomist could not have made so ridiculous a mistake as that of Rousseau.