Noses come in a wide variety of shapes and styles; they may be snub, ski-slope, retrousse, aquiline, straight, hooked, bent, bulbous, beaky, retrousse, syphilitic, or just plain cute.
What we make of all these variations is equally various. We may see noses as markers of health or illness, occupations or hobbies, ethnicity or race, and as beautiful or ugly. These alleged markers are not reliable indicators of the self; yet we persistently judge noses as symbols of the self, perhaps partly because of their centrality in the face, and we all try to read faces: is he or she kind or cruel, trustworthy or not, happy or depressed or insincere? And so on. We check the eyes, mouth, expression, laughter lines, and the nose. This is allegedly the art or science of physiognomies.
Physiognomics, or face-reading, was developed by Aristotle and persists to the present. In his “Physiognomies,” Aristotle used the comparative method with animals to deduce the characters of humans. Since the art and science of face-reading is still necessary, we will consider its origins in Greek thought and the first theories of the nose. According to Aristotle:
A nose thick at the tip means laziness, as witness cattle; but if thick from the tip, it means dullness of sense, as in swine; if the tip is pointed, irascibility, as in dogs; whilst a round, blunt tip indicates pride, as in lions. Men with a nose thin at the tip have the characteristics of birds. A snub nose means lasciviousness, as in deer. Open nostrils are a sign of fierce temper, for they enter into the facial expressions of temper. (811a)
The simplicity of these equations: a piggish nose is a sign of a piggish temperament and so on may be open to criticism or empirical research, but Aristotle’s powers of nasal observation were considerable. His ideas and theories on physiognomies remained the basis for work by later thinkers on the topic, many of whom linked the face to astrology. The face is discussed elsewhere, but an important development in nasology or nose-reading was the publication by a Swiss minister, Johann Lavater, of his “Essays on Physiognomy” in 1783.
Lavater emphasized the central importance of the nose for its conspicuous position as well as for being the organ of inspiration, essential for life. Such vital psychological and biological roles are reflected in their vital role in physiognomies. Lavater formulated 100 rules of physiognomy, eight of which treat the nose. This is one:
Noses which are much turned downward are never truly good, truly cheerful or noble or great. Their thoughts and inclinations always tend to earth. (1783:472)
Lavater’s work was immensely influential and was frequently re-printed. Indeed, Charles Darwin’s career was nearly wrecked by Lavater’s theories. Darwin wrote to one of his friends that, before being accepted for his voyage on HMS Beagle, he was interviewed by the captain:
I heard that I had run a very narrow risk of being rejected on account of the shape of my nose! He was an ardent disciple of Lavater and was convinced that he could judge a man’s character by the outline of his features, and he doubted whether anyone with my nose could possess sufficient courage and determination for the voyage. But I think he was afterwards well-satisfied that my nose had spoken falsely. (Darwin, 1887. Vol.1: 59-60)
Noses can lie if one only reads noses. Nasology is not an exact science.
A comprehensive treatise on noses was written by Eden Warwick in 1848 and entitled “Nasoloqy, or Hints Towards a Classification of Noses.” Warwick was convinced that “The Nose is an Important Index of Character” (1848:5), and he argued that by analyzing the nasal types of famous people it would be possible to develop a general theory of the nose. He wrote chapters on Roman, Greek, Jewish, Feminine, and National noses, and considered also Cogitative, Snub, and Celestial noses. Warwick goes far beyond the Aristotelian simplicity that a physiognomic similarity to particular species of animals equates with a characterological similarity, and he did not believe that the nose is the sole index to character either, but nonetheless most scientists today would not follow his methods or his conclusions. They might not even look at the nose or the face, just examine the Minnesota Multi-Phasic Personality Test results.
So much for the Aristotle (Greek), Lavater (Swiss), and Warwick (English) traditions; all of which testify to the international fascination with the nose over two and a half millennia.
The Italian tradition is quite different, and altogether more endearing. Apparently, the ancient Romans valued and honored the nose as a symbol of intelligence. For Seneca, a “homo nasutissimus” was a very clever man, and the term Naso (Latin for nose) was valued by many families as an honorific, notably Publius Ovidius Naso (Ovid). Nose competitions have been held regularly at least since the 1890s, especially in North Italy, and more recently in Lagenbruck, Germany. This cult of the nose, originally equated with intelligence and virtue is now equated with sexuality. The big nose = big penis, like the big feet equation. (Celin, 1986).
We can agree with the authorities from Aristotle to Lavater to today, that we all try to read people’s faces all the time, just to understand people and survive, and just as we try to read the sky, the road ahead, and the food on the table. Noses are harder to read. (2)
The nose remains an expression of beauty or not, the site of hundreds of thousands of operations every year, a symbol of inquisitiveness and snobbery, also character from Aristotle to Lavater to Warwick to today, to the penis in Italian culture, but it also an important and under-appreciated source of knowledge, possibly also of sexual attraction, and the beginnings and ends of life.
1 I recommend Desmond Morris’ excellent essay in “Bodywatching” (1985), and mine in “The Body Social” (1993).
2 More recent nose-readings include those by L.H. McCormick “Characterology” (1920), Harry Balkin “The Secrets of Reading Character at First Sight” (1941) and even more in the 1970s.
Celin, Gian F. 1986. The Kingdom of the Noses. Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Vol. 77, No. 6: 1000-3.
Darwin, Francis 1887. The Life and Letter of Charles Darwin. 2 Vols. London: John Murray
Warwick, Eden [pseudonym of George Jabet]. 1848. Nasology, or Hints towards a Classification of Noses. London: Richard Bentley.