Essays on Physiognomy, designed to promote the knowledge and the love of mankind. By John Caspar Lavater, citizen of Zurich, and minister of the Gospel. Illustrated by more than eight hundred engravings accurately copied; and some duplicates added from originals. Executed by, or under the inspection of Thomas Holloway. Translated from the French by Henry Hunter, D.D.
London: printed for John Murray; H.Hunter; and T.Holloway, 1789. (1792, 1798).
The Philosophical Research Library is a rich repository of social and cultural history and a wonderful resource for scholars exploring how ideas developed and shifted from antiquity to the present. The library collection includes rare books that preserve ideas that were once commonly accepted as true but later became objects of amusement or ridicule as thinking evolved. Physiognomy is a case in point. It is defined by Merriam-Webster as “the art of discovering temperament and character from outward appearance.” Its use in divination can be traced back to ancient Greece with Pythagorus and Aristotle asserting that signs of character could be discerned from physical appearance. During the 17th century, opinions shifted with the advancement of science. The study of physiognomy was disparaged as an accurate measure of character. However, during the 18th century there was a resurgence of in scientific interest in Physiognomy. Johann Caspar Lavater (1741-1801) was a catalyst for this revival.
Lavater was a Swiss Protestant pastor, poet, and author of religious and devotional literature; however, he became most renowned as a physiognomist. It was his deep devotion to Christianity that prompted his interest in the subject. Like Emanuel Swedenborg, he was convinced that there was a spiritual basis for physiognomy. He believed that God created man in his own image and was searching for the face of God through the analysis of human faces. The more beautiful a person, the more godly, speculated Lavatar. He was certain that a strong correspondence existed between the interior and exterior of a human being. He believed that physiognomy represented the inner-most soul of a person and sought to not only to promote physiognomy as a science but to integrate it with theology.
This lavishly illustrated three-volume set in five folio volumes was considered to be the most important and complete work on the subject of its time. It is an anthology of facial types with commentary. There are hundreds of copper plate engravings of famous individuals including Socrates, Julius Caesar, Voltaire, Sir Thomas More, and George Washington, as well as Satan and the Virgin Mary. Thomas Holloway was the chief artist-engraver of the set, but other famous engravers, including William Blake, contributed illustrations for the set. Almost every image has a brief explanation identifying the type of character that can be deduced from the physiognomy.
The Special Collections section of the Philosophical Research Library has over 1,200 items including rare or unique books, manuscripts, photographs and artifacts. The materials span a wide range of topics including Alchemy, Astrology, Comparative Religion, and Philosophy. Many of these items are fragile and access must be restricted. This segment of our website will showcase items from this collection.