Johann Caspar Lavater, Physiognomische Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe

In four volumes
Published by Weidmanns Erben und Reich as well as Heinrich Steiner und Companie, Leipzig and Winterthur 1775-1778

Life comes easier for beautiful people. Even science knows that. Beautiful people are generally considered more successful, more intelligent and more self-confident than they would rate themselves. It comes as no surprise that the Greeks already spoke of “kalokagathia”, the good and the beautiful, both of which were said to always occur together in human beings.

But what really is beautiful and therefore good? This is an excellent question to argue about. Or one to write a detailed book about, as did Johann Caspar Lavater (1741-1801). In the four volumes of his work “Physiognomische Fragmente”, published between 1775 and 1778, he attempted to relate the human physical appearance to corresponding typical character traits.

Silhouette portrait of Johann Caspar Lavater; created by W. H. Mewes.

The countless images Lavater depicted in his book seemed to substantiate his hypotheses in an impressive manner. Nowadays, researchers would describe his method as pseudo-scientific at best – and Lavater’s physiognomy was the source of many lively discussions about methodology in his day as well. But what was the use of dry scientific research, if Lavater’s work was in line with the zeitgeist of his time? He declared the human body, the face and head shape in particular, the universal language of nature. Those who learned how to interpret said language would be able to discern a person’s character at first sight. His contemporaries liked that idea. And the numerous pictures allowed everyone to comprehend Lavater. His book became a bestseller in the Enlightenment salons. Malicious gossip has it that this happened only because the four volumes of his work were so elaborately illustrated. And because even back then, people would rather look at pictures than read complicated texts.

Just as people today dabble in their zodiac signs for fun – and both believe in them as much as they don’t believe in them – society’s elite of the 18th century drew silhouette portraits of their companions for their own amusement and attempted to interpret them on the basis of Lavater’s book. The head shape was particularly interesting as it indicated whether one was a genius or a lunatic.

 

 

 

Of course, we as tolerant people of the modern world would never label someone as stupid or evil merely based on their physiognomy. Or rather, we could pride ourselves on that, if it wasn’t for the findings of psychological research, which keep telling us that while physical appearance does not determine a person’s character, it does define the judgment of those around us.

All of the physiognomic fragments can be viewed online. Both of the volumes owned by the Herzog August Library in Wolfenbüttel were scanned.

More information on the author’s life is available in the Historic Dictionary of Switzerland (German, French, Italian).

And if you prefer to read about Lavater in English, this link takes you to the Encyclopaedia Britannica.