Mediterranean peoples: Pseudo-Aristotle theorizes the meaning of physical features (third century BCE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Mediterranean peoples: Pseudo-Aristotle theorizes the meaning of physical features (third century BCE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 12, 2024,

Ancient author: Pseudo-Aristotle, Physiognomy 1-2, 4-6 (full work with Greek text and translation)

Comments: The ancient concept of physiognomy (literally knowledge about physical things) presumed one could gain knowledge about the internal soul, emotional disposition or character of animals or humans by closely examining outward, physical features or attributes. This is related to the general belief in some Greek medical literature that the physical features and characters of animals and people would also reflect the broader environment, as expressed in the theory of the four humours. So the environment could determine physical features and the disposition of whole peoples, in this somewhat circular view. Both ethnicity and gender played important roles in such theories. For this reason, the physiognomic literature is one of the places where one can encounter aspects of racialization as we understand  it, at least with respect to a focus on the relationship between physical attributes, the environment, and the supposed inherent quality of a people. This work attributed to Aristotle (which is actually two separate treatises), although not consistently focussed on ethnicity nonetheless shows its importance as an ongoing factor.


[Introduction to the first treatise, mentioning the method that focusses on whole peoples or ethnic groups]

[805a] Minds are conditioned by the state of the body and are not independent of, or unaffected by, bodily processes. Correlating to this, the body is sympathetically influenced by affections of the soul. The former of these propositions is well illustrated by drunkenness and sickness, where altered bodily conditions produce obvious mental modifications, and the second is well illustrated by the emotions of love and fear and by states of pleasure and pain. But still better instances of the fundamental connection between body and soul and their very extensive interaction may be found in the normal products of nature. There never was an animal with the form of one kind and the mental character of another: the soul and body appropriate to the same kind always go together, and this shows that a specific body involves a specific mind. Moreover, experts on the lower animals are always able to judge character by bodily form: so a horseman chooses his horse or a sportsman his dogs. Now, supposing all this to be true (and it always is true), physiognomy [knowledge of the meaning of physical features] can be done.

Three methods have been attempted in the past, each having had its special adherents. The first method took as the basis for physiognomic inferences the various genera [plural of genus, general category] of animals, positing for each genus [general category] a peculiar animal form and, following on this, a peculiar mental character, and then assuming that if a man resembles such and such a genus in form he will resemble it also in soul.

Those who adopted the second method proceeded in the same way, except that they did not draw their inferences from all kinds of animals but confined themselves to the genus [general category] of human beings: they distinguished various peoples (ethnē), such as Egyptian, Thracian, and Scythian, by differences of appearance and of character, and drew their signs of character from these genera just as others did from animal genera.

The third method took as its basis the characteristic facial expressions which are observed to accompany different conditions of the mind, such as anger, fear, erotic excitement, and all the other passions.

All these methods are possible, and others as well: the [805b] selection of signs may be made in diverse ways. The third method by itself, however, is defective in more than one respect. For one thing, the same facial expression may belong to different characters: the brave and the disrespectful, for example, look alike, though their characters are far apart. Besides, a man may at times display an expression which is not normally his: for instance, a morose person will now and again spend an enjoyable day and assume a cheerful countenance, while a naturally cheerful man, if he is distressed, will change his expression accordingly. And, thirdly, the number of inferences that can be drawn from facial expression alone is small.

As to arguments from animals [i.e. the first method], the selection of signs is made on wrong principles. Suppose you have reviewed the forms of all the different kinds of animals one by one, you still do not have the right to assert that a man who resembles a given kind in body will resemble it in soul also. In the first place, speaking broadly, you will never find this complete likeness, but only a resemblance. Moreover, very few signs are peculiar to individual genera; most of them are common to more than one kind, and of what use is resemblance in a common attribute? A man will resemble a lion, let us say, neither more nor less than a deer. (For we have a right to suppose that common signs indicate common mental characters and peculiar signs peculiar characters). Thus the expert in physiognomy will not get any clear evidence from common signs. But is he any better off if he takes every genus [general category] by itself and selects signs that are peculiar to each? Surely not, for he cannot tell what they are signs of. They should be signs of peculiar characteristics, but we have no right to assume that there are any mental characteristics peculiar to the different kinds of animals that we examine in physiognomy. Courage is not confined to the lion, but is found in many other creatures; nor fearfulity to the hare, but it shares this quality with numerous other creatures. Thus it is equally fruitless to select the common and the peculiar features, and we must abandon the attempt to proceed by an examination of every kind of animal on its own. Rather, we should select our signs from all animals that have some mental affection in common. For instance, when investigating the external marks of courage, we should collect all brave animals, and then inquire what sort of affections are natural to all of them but absent in all other animals. For if we were to select this or that as the signs of courage [806a] in the animals chosen in a way that does not exclude the possibility of the presence in all these animals of some other mental affection, we would not be able to tell whether our selected marks were really signs of courage or of this other character. Two conditions must be fulfilled, therefore: the animals from which we choose our signs must be as numerous as possible, and they must not have any mental affection in common except the one about which we are investigating the signs.

Permanent bodily signs will indicate permanent mental qualities, but what about those that come and go? How can they be true signs if the mental character does not also come and go? No doubt if you took a transitory sign to be permanent, it might be true once in a way, but still it would be worthless because it would not be a constant concomitant of the affection.

Then again there are affections of soul whose occurrence produces no change in the bodily marks on which the expert in physiognomy relies, and they will not provide his tehnique with recognizable signs. So with respect to opinions or knowledge, you cannot recognize a doctor or a musician, for the fact of having acquired a piece of knowledge will not have produced any alteration in the bodily signs on which physiognomy relies.

2   We must now determine the special sphere of physiognomy (for the range of its application is limited), and the sources from which its various kinds of data are drawn, and then we may proceed to a detailed exposition of the more convincing among its conclusions. Physiognomy covers, as the name implies, all natural affections of mental content, and also such acquired affections as on their occurrence modify the external signs which the experts in physiognomy interpret.

I will explain later what kinds of acquired characters are meant, but now I will give a list, a complete list, of the sources from which physiognomic signs are drawn. They are these:

  • movements,
  • gestures of the body,
  • colour,
  • characteristic facial expression,
  • growth of the hair,
  • smoothness of the skin,
  • the voice,
  • condition of the flesh,
  • parts of the body,
  • and overall shape of the body.

Such is the list that experts in physiognomy always give of the sources in which they find their signs. Had this list been obscure or insignificant, there would have been no use in my going any further; but, as things are, it may be worth while [806b] to give a more detailed description of the more convincing of the inferences that they draw from their material, and to state what their various signs are and where they are supposed to be found, so far as I have not already done so.

[Supposed contrasts between southern and northern peoples]

A brilliant complexion indicates a hot sharp temper, while a pale pink complexion signifies naturally good parts, when it occurs on a smooth skin. Soft hair indicates cowardice, and coarse hair courage. This inference is based on observation of the whole animal kingdom. The most fearful of animals are deer, hares, and sheep, and they have the softest coats; while the lion and wild-boar are bravest and have the coarsest coats. Precisely the same holds for birds, for birds with coarse plumage are generally brave and those with soft plumage are generally fearful, particular instances being the cock and the quail. Again, among the different genera [general categories] of humankind the same combination of qualities may be observed, the inhabitants of the north being brave and coarse-haired, while southern peoples are cowardly and have soft hair. A thick growth of hair around the belly signifies loquacity, on the evidence of the whole tribe of birds, for the one is a bodily and the other a mental property peculiar to birds. . . [omitted material].


[Introduction to the second treatise]

Soul and body, as it seems to me, are affected sympathetically by one another: on the one hand, an alteration of the state of the soul produces an alteration in the form of the body, and contrariwise an alteration in bodily form produces an alteration in the state of soul. . . [material omitted].

[Cowardly or brave, just or unjust characters supposedly corresponding to physical characteristics]

. . . 5 Now I will attempt to distinguish among animals with regard to which ones are brave or cowardly, just or unjust. We have to divide the whole animal kingdom for this purpose into two physical types, male and female, and to show what mental attributes are associated with each of these types. In all beasts that we try to breed, the female is tamer and gentler in disposition than the male, less powerful, more easily reared and more manageable. One may conclude from this that the female has a less spirited temper, and I think we find a parallel to this in ourselves, for when we are overtaken by a fit of anger we become more obstinate and totally intractable; we grow headstrong and violent and do whatever our temper urges us to do. Further, the female is, in my opinion, more mischievous than the male, and (though weaker) more reckless. Every one can see that this is so in women and in domesticated animals, and according to the unanimous evidence of herdsmen and hunters it is no less true of the beasts of the field. Moreover, it is beyond dispute that in every genus the head of the female is smaller than that of the male, her face narrower, her neck thinner, her chest weaker, her sides of smaller build, and that, while her hips and thighs are fuller, she inclines to be knock-kneed, the lower parts of her legs are less stout, and her feet more delicately made: in short, the build of her body is pleasing to the eye rather than imposing, and she is in comparison feeble and tender, and of moister tissue. The male is the opposite of all this: his is the braver and more just nature, while the female is the more fearful and less just. . . [omitted material].

[Egyptians and Ethiopians and the supposed meaning of black or white skin]

6 [812] . . . Too black a hue marks the coward, as witnessed with Egyptians and Ethiopians, and so does too white a complexion, as you may see from women. So the hue that makes for courage must be intermediate between these extremes. A tawny colour indicates a bold spirit, as in lions: but too ruddy a hue marks a rogue, as in the case of the fox. . . [omitted material].

[Ethiopians and the supposed implications of their wooly hair]

[813] . . . When the hair of the head stands up stiff, it signifies cowardice, by congruity, for fright, as well as cowardly disposition, makes the hair stand on end: and very woolly hair also signifies cowardice, as may be seen in Ethiopians. Thus extremely bristly and extremely woolly hair alike signify cowardice, and so hair gently curling at the end will make for boldness of spirit, as is to be seen in lions. A ridge of hair on the upper part of the forehead indicates a liberal disposition, as in the lion: but a growth of hair on the forehead down by the nose indicates illiberality, the argument being from congruity, because such a growth presents a servile appearance. . . [omitted material].


Source of the translation: T. Loveday and E.S. Forster “Physiognomonica,” in The Works of Aristotle, volume 6, W.D. Ross, ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 1913), public domain, adapted by Harland.

2 thoughts on “Mediterranean peoples: Pseudo-Aristotle theorizes the meaning of physical features (third century BCE)

  1. Abhijit Choudhury

    Liked the analysis, which gives insight into the basis of racism! Thank you, and regards,
    Abhijit Choudhury, Shillong

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