Personal beauty

Personal beauty

[First published in The Leader for April 15, and May 13, 1854.]

It is a common opinion that beauty of character and beauty of aspect are unrelated. I have never been able to reconcile myself to this opinion. Indeed, even those who hold it do so in an incomplete sense; for notwithstanding their theory they continue to manifest surprise when they find a mean deed committed by one of noble countenance—a fact implying that underneath their professed induction lies a still living conviction at variance with it.

Whence this conviction? How is it that a belief in the connexion between worth and beauty primarily exists in all? It cannot be innate. Must it not, then, be from early experiences? And must it not be that in those who continue to believe in this connexion, spite of their reasonings, the early and wide experiences outweigh the later and exceptional ones?

Those who do not admit the relationship between mental and facial beauty, usually remark that the true connexion is between character and expression. While they doubt, or rather deny, that the permanent forms of the features are in any way indices of the forms of the mind, they assert that the transitory forms of the features are such indices. These positions seem scarcely consistent. For may we not say that the transitory forms, by perpetual repetition, register themselves on the face, and produce permanent forms? Does not an habitual frown by-and-by leave ineffaceable marks on the brow? Is not a chronic scornfulness presently followed by a modified set in the angles of the mouth? Does not that compression of the lips significant of great determination, often stereotype itself; and so give a changed form to the lower part of the face? And if there be any truth in the doctrine of hereditary transmission, must there not be a tendency to the re-appearance of these modifications as new types of feature in the offspring? In brief, may we not say that expression is feature in the making; and that if expression means something, the form of feature produced by it means something?

Possibly it will be urged, in reply, that changes of expression affect only the muscles and skin of the face; that the permanent marks they produce can extend but to these; that, nevertheless, the beauty of a face is mainly dependent upon the form of its bony framework; that hence, in this chief respect, there cannot take place such modifications as those described; and that, therefore, the relationship of aspect to character, while it may hold in the details, does not hold in the generals.

The rejoinder is, that the framework of the face is modified by modifications in the tissues which cover it. It is an established doctrine in physiology, that throughout the skeleton the greater or less development of bones is dependent on the greater or less development of the attached muscles; that is, on the exercise of them. Hence, permanent changes in the muscular adjustments of the face will be followed by permanent changes in its osseous structure.

Not to dwell in general statements, however, let me cite cases in which the connexion between organic ugliness and mental inferiority, and the converse connexion between organic beauty and comparative perfection of mind, are distinctly traceable.

It will be admitted that the projecting jaw, characteristic of the lower human races, is a facial defect—is a trait which no sculptor would give to an ideal bust. At the same time, it is a fact that prominence of jaw is associated in the mammalia generally with comparative lack of intelligence. This relationship, it is true, does not hold uniformly. It is not a direct but an indirect one; and is thus liable to be disturbed. Nevertheless, it holds among the higher tribes; and on inquiry we shall see why it holds. In conformity with the law that organs develop in proportion as they are exercised, the jaws are relatively large where the demands made on them are great; and diminish in size as their functions become less numerous and less onerous. Now, in the lower mammals the jaws are the sole organs of manipulation—are used not only for mastication, but for seizing, carrying, gnawing, and, indeed, for everything save locomotion, which is the solitary office performed by the limbs. Advancing upwards, we find that the fore-limbs begin to aid the jaws, and gradually to relieve them of part of their duties. Some creatures use them for burrowing; some, as the felines, for striking; many, to keep steady the prey they are tearing; and when we arrive at the monkeys, whose fore-limbs possess such power of prehension that objects can not only be seized, but carried and pulled to pieces by them, we see that the jaws have fewer functions. Accompanying this series of changes, we see a double change in the form of the head. The increased complexity of the limbs, the greater variety of actions they perform, and the more numerous perceptions they give, imply a greater development of the brain and of its bony envelope. At the same time, the size of the jaws has diminished in correspondence with the diminution of their functions. And by this simultaneous protrusion of the upper part of the cranium and recession of its lower part, what is called the facial angle has increased.

Well, these co-ordinate changes in functions and forms have continued during the civilization of the human race. On contrasting the European and the Papuan, we see that what the one cuts in two with knife and fork, the other tears with his jaws; what the one softens by cooking, the other eats in its hard, raw state; the bones which the one utilises by stewing, the other gnaws; and for sundry of the mechanical manipulations which the one has tools for, the other uses his teeth. From the Bushman state upwards, there has been a gradual increase in the complexity of our appliances. We not only use our hands to save our jaws, but we make implements to save our hands; and in our engine-factories may be found implements for the making of implements. This progression in the arts of life has had intellectual progression for its necessary correlative. Each new complication requires a new increment of intelligence for its production; and the daily use of it develops the intelligence still further. Thus that simultaneous protrusion of the brain and recession of the jaws, which among lower animals has accompanied increase of skill and sagacity, has continued during the advance of Humanity from barbarism to civilization; and has been, throughout, the result of a discipline involving increase of mental power. And so it becomes manifest that there exists an organic relationship between that protuberance of the jaws which we consider ugly, and a certain inferiority of nature.

Again, that lateral jutting-out of the cheek-bones, which similarly characterizes the lower races of men, and which is similarly thought by us a detraction from beauty, is similarly related to lower habits and lower intelligence. The chief agents in closing the jaws are the temporal muscles; and these are consequently the chief active agents in biting and mastication. In proportion as the jaws have much work, and correspondingly large size, must the temporal muscles be massive. But the temporal muscles pass between the skull and the zygomatic arches, or lateral parts of the cheek-bones. Consequently, where the temporal muscles are massive, the spaces between the zygomatic arches and the skull must be great; and the lateral projection of the zygomatic arches great also, as we see it in the uncivilized and partially civilized races. Like large jaws, therefore, of which it is an accompaniment, excessive size of the cheek-bones is both an ugliness and an index of imperfection.

Certain other defects of feature, between which and mental defects it is not thus easy to trace the connexion, may yet be fairly presumed to have such connexion in virtue of their constant co-existence with the foregoing ones: alike in the uncivilized races and in the young of the civilized races. Peculiarities of face which we find regularly associated with those just shown to be significant of intellectual inferiority, and which like them disappear as barbarism grows into civilization, may reasonably be concluded to have like them a psychological meaning. Thus is it with depression of the bridge of the nose; which is a characteristic both of barbarians and of our babes, possessed by them in common with the higher quadrumana. Thus, also, is it with that forward opening of the nostrils, which renders them conspicuous in a front view of the face—a trait alike of infants, savages, and apes. And the same may be said of wide-spread alæ to the nose, of great width between the eyes, of long mouth, of large mouth,—indeed of all those leading peculiarities of feature which are by general consent called ugly.

And then mark how, conversely, the type of face usually admitted to be the most beautiful, is one that possesses opposite peculiarities. In the ideal Greek head, the forehead projects so much, and the jaws recede so much, as to render the facial angle larger than we ever find it in fact. The cheek-bones are so small as scarcely to be traceable. The bridge of the nose is so high as to be almost or quite in a line with the forehead. The alæ of the nose join the face with but little obliquity. In the front view the nostrils are almost invisible. The mouth is small, and the upper lip short and deeply concave. The outer angles of the eyes, instead of keeping the horizontal line, as is usual, or being directed upwards, as in the Mongolian type, are directed slightly downwards. And the form of the brow indicates an unusually large frontal sinus—a characteristic entirely absent in children, in the lowest of the human races, and in the allied genera of the primates.

If, then, recession of the forehead, protuberance of the jaws, and largeness of the cheek-bones, three leading elements of ugliness, are demonstrably indicative of mental inferiority—if such other facial defects as great width between the eyes, flatness of the nose, spreading of its alæ, frontward opening of the nostrils, length of the mouth, and largeness of the lips, are habitually associated with these, and disappear along with them as intelligence increases, both in the race and in the individual; is it not a fair inference that all such faulty traits of feature signify deficiencies of mind? If, further, our ideal of human beauty is characterized not simply by the absence of these traits, but by the presence of opposite ones—if this ideal, as found in sculptures of the Greek gods, has been used to represent superhuman power and intelligence—and if the race so using it were themselves distinguished by a mental superiority, which, if we consider their disadvantages, produced results unparalleled; have we not yet stronger reasons for concluding that the chief components of beauty and ugliness are severally connected with perfection and imperfection of mental nature? And when, lastly, we remember that the variations of feature constituting expression are confessedly significant of character—when we remember that these tend by repetition to organize themselves, to affect not only the skin and muscles but the bones of the face, and to be transmitted to offspring—when we thus find that there is a psychological meaning alike in each passing adjustment of the features, in the marks that habitual adjustments leave, in the marks inherited from ancestors, and in those main outlines of the facial bones and integuments indicating the type or race; are we not almost forced to the conclusion that all forms of feature are related to forms of mind, and that we consider them admirable or otherwise according as the traits of nature they imply are admirable or otherwise? In the extremes the relationship is demonstrable. That transitory aspects of face accompany transitory mental states, and that we consider these aspects ugly or beautiful according as the mental states they accompany are ugly or beautiful, no one doubts. That those permanent and most marked aspects of face dependent on the bony framework, accompany those permanent and most marked mental states which express themselves in barbarism and civilization; and that we consider as beautiful those which accompany mental superiority, and as ugly those which accompany mental inferiority, is equally certain. And if this connexion unquestionably holds in the extremes—if, as judged by average facts, and by our half-instinctive convictions, it also holds more or less visibly in intermediate cases, it becomes an almost irresistible induction, that the aspects which please us are the outward correlatives of inward perfections, while the aspects which displease us are the outward correlatives of inward imperfections.

I am quite aware that when tested in detail this induction seems not to be borne out. I know that there are often grand natures behind plain faces; and that fine countenances frequently hide small souls. But these anomalies do not destroy the general truth of the law, any more than the perturbations of planets destroy the general ellipticity of their orbits. Some of them, indeed, may be readily accounted for. There are many faces spoiled by the misproportion of features that are in themselves good; others, by defects of skin, which, though they indicate defects of visceral constitution, have no relationship to the higher parts of the nature. Moreover the facts that have been assigned afford reason for thinking that the leading elements of facial beauty are not directly associated with moral char­ac­ter­is­tics, but with intellectual ones—are the results of long-continued civilized habits, long cessation of domestic barbarism, long culture of the manipulative powers; and so may co-exist with emotional traits not at all admirable. It is true that the highest intellectual manifestations imply a good balance of the higher feelings; but it is also true that great quickness, great sagacity in ordinary affairs, great practical skill, can be possessed without these, and very frequently are so. The prevalent beauty of the Italians, co-existing though it does with a low moral state, becomes, on this hypothesis, reconcileable with the general induction; as do also many of the anomalies we see around us.

There is, however, a more satisfactory explanation to be offered than any of these—an explanation which I think renders it possible to admit the seeming contradictions which the detailed facts present, and yet to hold by the theory. But as more space will be required for showing this than can here be spared, I must defer going further until next week. In the meantime, my own conviction may be expressed in a formula in which I have often before uttered it:—The saying that beauty is but skin-deep, is but a skin-deep saying.


All the civilized races, and probably also the uncivilized ones, are of mixed origin; and, as a consequence, have physical and mental constitutions in which are mingled several aboriginal constitutions more or less differing from each other. This heterogeneity of constitution seems to me the chief cause of the incongruities between aspect and nature which we daily meet with. Given a pure race, subject to constant conditions of climate, food, and habits of life, and there is reason to believe that between external appearance and internal structure there will be a constant connexion. Unite this race with another equally pure, but adapted to different conditions and having a correspondingly different physique, face, and mind, and there will occur in the descendants, not a homogeneous mean between the two constitutions, but a seemingly irregular combination of char­ac­ter­is­tics of the one with char­ac­ter­is­tics of the other—one feature traceable to this race, a second to that, and a third uniting the attributes of both; while in disposition and intellect there will be found a like medley of the two originals.

The fact that the forms and qualities of any offspring are not a mean between the forms and qualities of its parents, but a mixture of them, is illustrated in every family. The features and peculiarities of a child are separately referred by observers to father and mother respectively—nose and mouth to this side; colour of the hair and eyes to that—this moral peculiarity to the first; this intellectual one to the second—and so with contour and idiosyncrasies of body. Manifestly if each organ or faculty in a child was an average of the two developments of such organ or faculty in the parents, it would follow that all brothers and sisters should be alike; or should, at any rate, differ no more than their parents differed from year to year. So far however, from finding this to be the case, we find not only that great irregularities are produced by mixture of traits, but that there is no constancy in the mode of mixture, or the extent of variation produced by it.

This imperfect union of parental constitutions in the constitutions of offspring, is still more clearly illustrated by the re-appearance of peculiarities traceable to bygone generations. Forms, dispositions, and diseases, possessed by distant progenitors, habitually come out from time to time in descendants. Some single feature, or some solitary tendency, will again and again show itself, after being apparently lost. It is notoriously thus with gout, scrofula, and insanity. On some of the monumental brasses in our old churches are engraved heads having traits still persistent in the same families. Wherever, as in portrait galleries, a register of ancestral faces has been kept, the same fact is more or less apparent. The pertinacity with which particular char­ac­ter­is­tics re-produce themselves is well exemplified in America, where traces of negro blood can be detected in the finger nails, when no longer visible in the complexion. Among breeders of animals it is well known that, after several generations in which no visible modifications were traceable, the effects of a cross will suddenly make their appearance. In all which facts we see the general truth that an organism produced from two organisms cons­ti­tu­tion­al­ly different, is not a homo­ge­neous mean; but is made up of components, taken in variable ways and proportions from the originals.

In a recent number of the Quarterly Journal of the Agricultural Society were published some facts respecting the mixture of French and English races of sheep, bearing collaterally on this point. Sundry attempts had been made to improve the poor French breeds by our fine English ones. For a long time these attempts failed. The hybrids bore no trace of their English male ancestry; but were as dwarfed and poverty-stricken as their French dams. Eventually the cause of failure was found to lie in the relative heterogeneity and homogeneity of the two constitutions. The superior English sheep were of mixed race; the French sheep, though inferior, were of pure race; and the compound, imperfectly co-ordinated constitution of the one could not maintain itself against the simple and completely balanced constitution of the other. This, at first an hypothesis, was presently demonstrated. French sheep of mixed constitution having been obtained by uniting two of the pure French breeds, it was found that these hybrid French sheep, when united with the English ones, produced a cross in which the English char­ac­ter­is­tics were duly displayed. Now, this inability of a mixed constitution to stand its ground against an unmixed one, quite accords with the above induction. An unmixed constitution is one in which all the organs are exactly fitted to each other—are perfectly balanced: the system as a whole, is in stable equilibrium. A mixed constitution, on the contrary, being made up of organs belonging to two separate sets, cannot have them in exact fitness—cannot have them perfectly balanced; and a system in comparatively unstable equilibrium results. But in proportion to the stability of the equilibrium will be the power to resist disturbing forces. Hence, when two constitutions, in stable and unstable equilibrium respectively, become disturbing forces to each other, the unstable one will be overthrown, and the stable one will assert itself unchanged.

The imperfect co-ordination of parts in a mixed constitution, and this consequent instability of its equilibrium, are intimately connected with the vexed question of genera, species, and varieties; and, with a view partly to the intrinsic interest of this question, and partly to the further elucidation of the topic in hand, I must again digress.

The current physiological test of distinct species is the production of a non-prolific hybrid. The ability of the offspring to reproduce itself is held to indicate that its parents are of the same species, however widely they may differ in appearance; and its inability to do this is taken as proof that, nearly allied as its parents may seem, they are distinct in kind. Of late, however, facts have been accumulating that tend more and more to throw doubt on this generalization. Cattle-breeders have established it as a general fact, that the offspring of two different breeds of sheep or oxen dwindle away in a few generations if allied with themselves; and that a good result can be obtained only by mixing them with one or other of the original breeds—a fact implying that what is true of so-called species, is, under a modified form, true of varieties also. The same phenomena are observable in the mixtures of different races of men. They, too, it is alleged, cannot maintain themselves as separate varieties; but die out unless there is intermarriage with the originals. In brief, it seems that the hybrids produced from two distinct races of organisms may die out in the first, second, third, fourth, fifth, &c., generation, according as the constitutional difference of the races is greater or less. Now, the experience of the French sheep-breeders, above-quoted, suggests a rationale of these various results. For if it be true that an organism produced by two unlike organisms is not a mean between them, but a mixture of parts of the one with parts of the other—if it be true that these parts belonging to two different sets are of necessity imperfectly co-ordinated; then it becomes manifest that in proportion as the difference between the parent organisms is greater or less, the defects of co-ordination in the offspring will be greater or less. Whence it follows that, according to the degree of organic incongruity between the parents, we may have every gradation in the offspring, from a combination of parts so incongruous that it will not work at all, up to a combination complete enough to subsist permanently as a race. And this is just what we find in fact. Between organisms widely differing in character, no intermediate organism is possible. When the difference is less, a non-prolific hybrid is produced—an organism so ill co-ordinated as to be capable only of incomplete life. When the difference is still less, there results an organism capable of reproducing itself; but not of bequeathing to its offspring complete constitutions. And as the degrees of difference are further diminished, the incompleteness of constitution is longer and longer in making its appearance; until we come to those varieties of the same species which differ so slightly that their offspring are as permanent as themselves. Even in these, however, the organic equilibrium seems less perfect; as is illustrated in the case I have quoted. And in connexion with this inference, it would be interesting to inquire whether pure constitutions are not superior to mixed ones, in their power of maintaining the balance of vital functions under disturbing conditions. Is it not a fact, that the pure breeds are hardier than the mixed ones? Are not the mixed ones, though superior in size, less capable of resisting unfavourable influences—extremes of temperature, bad food, &c.? And is not the like true of mankind?

Returning to the topic in hand, it is manifest that these facts and reasonings serve further to enforce the general truth, that the offspring of two organisms not identical in constitution is a heterogeneous mixture of the two, and not a homogeneous mean between them.

If, then, bearing in mind this truth, we remember the composite character of the civilized races—the mingling in ourselves, for example, of Celt, Saxon, Norman, Dane, with sprinklings of other tribes; if we consider the complications of constitution that have arisen from the unions of these, not in any uniform manner, but with utter irregularity; and if we recollect that the incongruities thus produced pervade the whole nature, mental and bodily—nervous tissue and other tissues; we shall see that there must exist in all of us an imperfect correspondence between parts of the organism that are really related; and that as one manifestation of this, there must be more or less of discrepancy between the features and those parts of the nervous system with which they have a physiological connexion.

If this be so, then the difficulties which stand in the way of the belief that beauty of character is related to beauty of face are considerably diminished. It becomes possible to admit that plainness may co-exist with nobility of nature, and fine features with baseness; and yet to hold that mental and facial perfection are fundamentally connected, and will, when the present causes of incongruity have worked themselves out, be ever found united.