« AnteriorContinuar »
A Uah nam edZopyrus, says Cicero, in his 2'uscufana runt, who pretended to judge of the character of persons by their ptysiognomy, seeing Socrates in an assembty, assured them that he united in his person innumerable vices. Those who heard this singular accusation could not refrain from laughter; but the philosopher justified his assertion by saying: "He has not imposed upon you; these vices were in my composition, but reason delivered me from them."
From this anecdote it is clear, that the science and system of physiognomy, which the labours of Lavater have rendered so celebrated in our days, were not unknown to the ancients; but before his time moderns have flattered themselves with possessing a portion of his acute knowledge. Julius Caesar Scaliger, so famous for his erudition, his dissentions, and his pride, pretended he could discover the manners of men by the features of the face; and his son assures us, that he was never deceived in his judgment. Experience and reflection certainly prove that the emotions of the soul, and the affections of the heart, are observable in the eyes and countenance. If they be weak, they leave but fleeting or imperceptible traces—if violent and settled, they leave lasting and strong impressions, which time and change do not destroy. It must be allowed that those appearances are often deceitful. But if the science of physiognomy were not even more conjectural than that of physic, there would scarcely be any one of greater utility or importance.
John Gaspard Lavater, born at Zurich, in 1741, composed a profound system, which only presents vague and uncertain conclusions. He imagined he had discovered the means of distinguishing characters, the difference of passions, and of intellect, by the simple inspection of the head. He went even so far as to draw inferences from the hand-writing. This doctrine was not confined to man—he extended it to the animal system. Is it possible to indicate the genius of a person by his physiognomy? At this truth it is possible to arrive after a long course of observation. The faculties of the mind develope themselves, and are disclosed by certain characteristical traits. Do we not often compare the busts of illustrious moderns with the portraits or the medals of distinguished personages of antiquity? In contemplating the statue of Demosthenes, we read in his countenance those elevated projects—that generous inquietude which urged him to oppose the ambitious designs of Philip, that threatened the ruin of the liberties of Greece. The physiognomy of Voltaire, that surprising man, who combined such singular talents with such malignity, who was alternately sublime and facetious, announced, it is said, this wenderful contrast. It partook at once of the eagle and the ape. The forms of government and political occurrences impress likewise on the face very singular appearances. If the studies and pursuits of men leave their traces on the physiognomy, is it not easy to imagine that a habit of baseness, of perfidy or cruelty, may be discovered in a sensible manner, by those whose eyes are greatly penetrating and frequently used. Do not painters act up to the idea? If they are to represent a Cain, a Nero, or a Caligula, do they not depicture the characters of those monsters by ferocity of aspect?
Lavater, to illustrate his doctrine, composed a book replete with genius and mystical enthusiasm, with novel' descriptions, profound ideas, and brilliant errors.
Even those who opposed his system with the greatest ingenuity, rendered ample justice to his prodigious talent. Travellers of the greatest rank and discernment, and even those whose curiosity was simply excited on passing through Zurich, where this singular man, a minister of the holy gospel, resided, did not fail to visit him and testify their regard. He seduced them by an air of confidence and inspiration, and convinced them because he appeared himself to have been convinced. His eloquence had a character of pathetic majesty. When M. Neckar quitted France, in 1789, he beheld Lavater at Zurich, and the Doctor immediately read in the countenance of the minister, all the vices, projects, and affections, of his great mind. The system of Lavater has been developed by Coxe, in his Letters on Switzerland, with considerable energy and effect. Ma-" dame Roland, whose Memoirs appertain to the History of the Revolution in France, and its consequences, the most astonishing upon record, has made us acquainted with the moral character of this philosophical observer, in an account she has given us of her journey into Switzerland. We are assured by a person who knew him intimately, that this ingenious divine was a divot, even to fanaticism. As pastor of the principal church of St. Peter, he was certainly distinguished for his unwearied zeal, in behalf of practical Christianity. During the last troubles that devastated his country, he did not believe that the studies and the reputation he had acquired, should exonerate him from taking an active part in the public calamity. Upon the entrance of the French troops into Zurich, under Massena, in 1799> Lavater received a
wound, though in what manner it is not known, which caused him, during fifteen months, inexpressible pain. Notwithstanding his long and acute suffering, his mind retained all its vigour; and he employed the remnant of his life in improving his work. He died in 1801, at the age of sixty.
The system of Lavater produced, it is surmised, that of Dr. Gall, which has excited so much attention in Germany. His Cabinet of Medals was reckoned one of the finest collections in Switzerland. Beside his Treatise on Physiognomy, Lavater composed a volume of poems, and other works of some celebrity.