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Interesting Findings And World Unfolding Through My Eyes.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Wild Ideas Of The Greeks

What do George W. Bush and Hillary Rodham Clinton have in common? Their higher education began with posture photos, in the nude or underclothes. Both will have been required on first arriving – the one at Yale, the other at Wellesley – to strip for three snaps: front, back and side views. It was standard practice in the East Coast colleges of their time, confirmed to me by three distinguished United States academic friends of the relevant age. Yes, they all had to submit.

Officially, the idea was that the pictures would reveal which students needed remedial treatment for poor posture. In reality, the project was to correlate the students’ undergraduate posture with their success or failure in later life. As the evidence accumulated, it would become possible to predict the Presidential chances of each year’s intake. He’s got what it takes, has she? All this from a momentary glimpse of the person whose future (together perhaps with all our futures) is at risk if a wrong diagnosis is made. Professor W. H. Sheldon of Columbia University, the éminence grise behind these programmes, was eventually disgraced and his research project abandoned. The ultimate inspiration had been Francis Galton, the eugenicist founder of Social Darwinism, who proposed a similar photo archive for the entire British population. We should be grateful to our present masters for confining their identity card scheme to mug shots with our clothes on.

It is an ancient dream, this idea of an instant diagnosis of someone’s character or skills:

"Black hair announces cowardice and great craftiness, excessively yellow and pale white hair, such as the Scythians and Celts have, reveals ignorance and clumsiness and wildness, and that which is gently yellow points towards an aptitude for learning, gentleness, and skill in art. Unmixed fiery hair like the flower of a pomegranate is not good, since for the most part their characters are beastlike and shameless and greedy. Legs which are very hairy with thick black hair indicate slowness at learning and wildness. Those whose loins and thighs have lots of hair separately from the other parts of the body are very lascivious."

Tosh, you may say – and rightly. A good half of Seeing the Face, Seeing the Soul, edited by Simon Swain, some 332 pages, is filled with the stuff, in ancient Greek and Latin, medieval Arabic, and modern English translation. A huge effort (and considerable Leverhulme funding) has gone into this beautifully produced, collaborative project on ancient Greek physiognomy and its reception in medieval Islamic society. Does the other half, on the history and interpretation of this massive repository of tosh, redeem the enterprise?

In part it does – but how large a part may depend on your interests. The index, a paltry eight and a half pages, has no entry for “hair” to help a curious reader discover why lots of hair on their loins and thighs would signify lasciviousness: the reason, to be found in an Arabic version of the Greek treatise just quoted, is that it matches the hair distribution found in billygoats. Those 332 pages are largely taken up by different versions, or partial versions, of the same lost treatise: one Greek version, one Latin, and two Arabic (both newly edited for this volume), all of it translated into English for the first time. The centre of attention, the writer of the lost treatise and so the ultimate originator of most of the material under study, is Polemon of Laodicea (cad 88–144), a leading figure in the politics and literature of the period known as “the Second Sophistic”.

What survives of Polemon’s original Greek is just one sentence: “Eyes that are moist and shine like pools reveal good characters”. This fragment is neither indexed nor quoted as such anywhere in Swain’s massive tome. It does occur, almost verbatim, in one of the texts printed, a later Greek adaptation of Polemon’s book by Adamantius the Sophist (third or fourth century ad), where it is followed by the explanation “For such are the eyes of children”. A tiny footnote, easy to overlook, is the only indication readers are given that this is the Master’s voice. The index does have an entry “Polemon’s Physiognomy, general: eye, importance of”, but no contributor to the volume wonders about the destructive implications for physiognomy of the Rousseauesque thought that children might start life innately good. Physiognomy, by the very meaning of the word, claims to be the art of discerning the underlying and unalterable “nature” (in Greek, the physis) one is born with. So if the eyes of children reveal good character, all those nasty traits which physiognomy loves to discern in grown-ups must have been acquired some time after birth. In which case, physiognomy is impossible!

The other, complementary half of the book consists of six interpretative essays, three on Antiquity (around 200 pages) and three on Islam (less than 100). All are impressive, especially the longest: 105 wonderfully acute and original pages by George Boys-Stones on the ancient philosophers’ dealings with physiognomy. My focus here is on the editor’s contribution, which aims to situate Polemon and his Physiognomy in its original historical context.

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