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Manus haec inimica tyrannis.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Of Moral Physiognomy

December 21, 1757

Dear Mr. Avenger,

In your last, you told me of a witty Author of your Age (Mr. ORWELL, I believe you call’d him), who declar’d that by his fiftieth Year, every Man hath the Face he deserves. This is more than mere Wit on your Author’s Part, for only a little Reflexion will convince us that that Action which is oft repeated, over a Course of many Years, must needs leave its Traces upon a Man’s bodily Constitution. We ought not to be surpriz’d in discovering that the angry cholerick Man, who inclines much to Displays of Rage, being oft flushed, will carry with him a perpetual redness of visage, even in his cooler Hours. And your gloomy and splenetick Fellow, being much given to the furrowing of his Brow, will in Time find he hath carv’d deep Furrows thereon. Indeed, I once knew a Man, of this Neighbourhood, a Drunkard and perpetual Gin-Sot, whose Hand had cramp’d it self into a veritable Claw from the constant grasping of his Mug, which he was never without. He hath long since pass’d from this Vale of Tears, a Martyr to his particular Vice, his Children put upon the Parish.

Not only will our outward Actions, by much Repetition, produce alterations of the outward Body, but our inwards, that is, our Passions and Affections, if they be swol’n to steady Dispositions, will also work their inevitable Effects upon the outward Physiognomy. It is for this Reason that my Lord VERULAM declar’d that “the Lineaments of the Body do disclose the Disposition and Inclination of the Mind in general” [Francis Bacon, Of the Proficience and Advancement of Learning (1605), Second Book, IX.2 — Ed.].

The reading of Character from Body and Countenance is not modern Philosophy, but rather ancient Lore. We read in the courtly SENECA that omnia rerum omnium, si observentur, indicia sunt et argumentum morum ex minimis quoque licet capere: inpudicum et incessus ostendit et manus mota et unum interdum responsum et relatus ad caput digitus et flexus oculorum. Inprobum risus, insanum vultus habitusque demonstrat [“all acts are always significant, and you can gauge character by even the most trifling signs. The lecherous man is revealed by his gait, by a movement of the hand, sometimes by a single answer, by his touching his head with his finger, by the shifting of his eye. The scamp is shown up by his laugh; the madman by his face and general appearance” Epistles 52.12 — Ed.]. (You shou’d know, my good Avenger, that in the Roman Times, scratching the Head with one’s little Finger was taken as a sure Sign that a Man was a Molly, that is, a Member of that infamous Race of Woman-Haters, practisers of that abominable Vice which shou’d ever be passed over in Silence.) In time, these outward Signs of Character become stamp’d upon us through much Repetition. Whether we will or no, in the very process of Age, we reveal our Minds to the World; our Souls are laid bare to Friend and Foe alike through our Habits and steady Dispositions.

You see, we wear Footpaths upon our Bodies in the Course of our Doings. Both our Virtues and our Vices leave their indelible Marks. And so it is that nec auguria novi nec mathematicorum caelum curare soleo, ex vultibus tamen hominum mores colligo, et cum spantiantem vidi, quid cogitet scio (PETRON. Satyr. 126) [“I know nothing of omens, and I never attend to the astrologer’s sky, but I read character in a man’s face, and when I see him walk, I know his thoughts.” Petronius Arbiter, Satyricon, ch. 126 — Ed.].

But the Relation of Cause and Effect may also run in the reverse Direction, from the Body to the Mind. That ill Action which is oft repeated will beat a Path to ease the Way for its after-Travellers, the Result being a well-worn Road to customary Vice. Where we once stick at committing some one Indiscretion the first Time, the third, fourth, or fifth Time finds our Will less reticent and more yielding, until she hath become a very Courtizan of easy Virtue. Whence it is that my Lord SHAFTESBURY justly observes that “the least step into Villainy or Baseness, changes the Character and Value of a Life” (Characteristicks Vol. I, p. 121).

The difficult Passage of the first Traveller invariably makes the Passage of the next Traveller just so much easier. And if enough Time be not left for the Thickets and Brambles to grow back, the soil becomes packt, trodden down, and instead of a mere Footpath, a fixt and permanent Road is form’d. As the divine EPICTETUS warns us, “the man who has had a Fever, and then recover’d, is not the same as he was before the Fever, unless he has experienced a compleat Cure. Something like this happens also with the Affections of the Mind. Certain Imprints and Weals are left behind on the Mind, and unless a Man erases them perfectly, the next time he is scourged upon the old Scars, he has Weals no longer but Wounds” [Discourses, II.18 — Ed.].

To bring this my tedious Lesson to a close, it is wise Advice when ’tis said that if we wish to gain knowledge of a Man’s Vices, we shou’d canvass his Enemies; if we wou’d know more of his Virtues, we shou’d speak with his particular Friends; and where we wou’d know about his Habits, Customs, and Times of coming and going, we shou’d press his Servants. But no little Intelligence can be glean’d of all these things by the mere observing of his Outwards, his Form, his Countenance, and his Frame.

I am, Sir, as allways, your Servant,
Jos: Darlington, Esq.
Darlington Close
Horton-cum-Studley, Oxon.

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