Reading someone’s personality and temperament by looking at his or her face, a “science” known as physiognomy, was accepted by philosophers in classical antiquity. Indeed, the great natural historian Aristotle (fourth century BC) was one of those who believed that facial features indicated personality type.
According to little-known passages in History of Animals, Aristotle included physiognomy principles in his detailed descriptions of human faces based on his observations. He started with the forehead: Those with high foreheads were “sluggish,” notes Aristotle, while those with broad foreheads were “excitable.” People with small foreheads were “fickle,” and a bulging forehead revealed a quick-tempered individual. Straight eyebrows were “a sign of a soft disposition” but eyebrows that curve out toward the temples signaled a mocking and evasive personality. Eyebrows curving down toward the nose indicated a harsh temper. People who blinked a lot were indecisive and unstable but those who can stare without blinking were deemed impudent. Aristotle thought ears were especially revealing: Large, projecting ears were a sign that the person indulged in a lot of silly chatter.
The earliest working phyiognomist was Zopyrus in Athens. According to a famous story reported by Cicero (de Fato), Zopyrus read Socrates’ character after observing the philosopher’s face but without knowing him. The reading he gave was so far off the mark that Socrates’ friends in Plato’s academy burst out in guffaws. According to Zopyrus, Socrates’ physiognomy supposedly revealed that he was stupid, dull-witted and lecherous toward women. But Socrates came to his rescue, stating that indeed Zopyrus was correct. Socrates explained that he was naturally inclined to be slow and stupid and addicted to women but that he had–with the help of reason and determination–overcome these character defects.
(For the science behind first impressions of faces, see Face Value by A. Todorov [Princeton, 2017])
About the author: A Research Scholar in Classics and History of Science, Stanford University. Adrienne Mayor is the author of The Poison King: Mithradates, Rome’s Deadliest Enemy, a nonfiction finalist for the 2009 National Book Award, and The Amazons: Lives and Legends of Warrior Women across the Ancient World (2014).