Johann Kaspar Lavater Essay - Critical Essays

Lavater, Johann Kaspar


Johann Kaspar Lavater 1741-1801

(Also referred to as Johann Caspar Lavater). Swiss nonfiction writer.

A celebrated minister and scientific writer, Lavater is considered the catalyst behind the eighteenth-century revival of physiognomy. Generally dismissed in the contemporary era, physiognomy is a pseudo-scientific blend of aesthetics, psychology, and theology that traces its origins to the classical era and the belief that an individual's outward appearance offers clues to his or her internal qualities. A significant cultural figure during the Age of Sensibility, in which Lavater's theories fed a pervasive desire for the accessible understanding of a person's inherent nature, Lavater attempted to demonstrate how to decipher the hidden meanings contained within readily observable bodily appearances. The principle thrust of Lavater's theory was moral, aimed toward the promotion of mutual understanding among diverse individuals. In equating physical beauty with moral worth, Lavater initiated a new vogue for physiognomic analysis across Europe, even as he invited sustained criticism, and sometimes ridicule. Lavater was one of the leading intellectuals of the age, and the impact of his theories on European literature and thought persisted well into the nineteenth century, particularly so in Germany and England.

Biographical Information

Born in Zurich, Switzerland on November 15, 1741, Lavater was the twelfth child of physician Hans Heinrich Lavater and his wife. A moderately affluent member of the middle class, Lavater received the formal religious education characteristic of the period at the Collegium Humanitatis. He later attended Caroline College, where he was encouraged in his study of theology and literature by instructors Johann Jakob Bodmer and Johann Jakob Breitlinger (figures associated with the “Sturm and Drang” movement in Zurich). Having completed his theological examinations, Lavater was ordained a minister of the Zwinglian Reformed Church in the spring of 1762. Later that year, he sparked controversy by anonymously publishing a tract with his friend Johann Heinrich Füssli (later Henry Fuseli) that exposed the corruption of Felix Grebel, a well-known public servant in Zurich. Once his identity had been revealed as part of a subsequent trial, Lavater was forced to flee Switzerland and he embarked on a tour of Germany with Füssli in late November of that year. During this period, Lavater made the acquaintance of such notable German literary and intellectual figures as C. F. Gellert, Friedrich G. Klopstock, J. J. Spalding, J. W. L. Gleim, and Moses Mendelssohn. Having returned to Zurich by 1765, Lavater began to edit and publish a weekly journal on moral issues called Der Erinnerer (1765-1767). This was followed by his 1767 collection of Psalms translated into German, the Schweizerlieder. By this time, Lavater had begun his correspondence with major literary men of the German Enlightenment, including such luminaries as Herder and Goethe. Pursuing his vocation as a minister in Zurich, Lavater meanwhile plunged himself into literary and scholarly activities. He translated Charles Bonnet's Palingénésie philosophique into German in 1769 to 1770. Lavater's first significant publications on the subject of physiognomy appeared in his four-volume Aussichten in die Ewigkeit (1768-1778). He also published two introspective works, Geheimes Tagebuch (1771) and Unveränderte Fragmente aus dem Tagebuche eines Beobachters seiner Selbst (1773), that continued his practical exploration of the subject of physiognomy. Lavater's friendship with Goethe in the 1770s and 1780s contributed to the Swiss writer's burgeoning notoriety, which drew international attention with the publication of his Physiognomischen Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe (1775-1778; Essays on Physiognomy). Enjoying a nearly unsurpassed fame in Europe for his “scientific” revival of the ancient art of physiognomy, Lavater won audiences with some of most powerful and influential individuals on the continent, including Austria's Emperor Joseph II. Meanwhile, numerous translations of Physiognomischen Fragmente appeared, including editions in English, French, Italian, Dutch, and Russian. While physiognomy became the principal focus of the remainder of his career, Lavater did not neglect his religious writing. He published several works on Christian themes in the 1780s, such as Jesus Christus oder die Zukunft des Herrn (1780), Pontius Pilatus (1782-1785), and Nathanael oder die ebenso gewisse als unerweisliche Göttlichkeit des Christentums (1786). In 1786, Lavater was elevated to the position of First Preacher of St. Peter's Church in Zurich, and continued to balance his pious works with physiognomic endeavors. A strong critic of the French Revolution and its chaotic aftermath, Lavater expressed his opinions in a number of politically charged private responses. Among these, his 1798 letter Ein Wort eines freyen Schweizers an die französische Nation, a piece never meant for publication, positioned him as an outspoken proponent of Swiss nationalism and as an antagonist to French expansionism. In May of 1799, Lavater was arrested and deported after the letter was made public. Lavater returned to Zurich shortly thereafter but was shot in the abdomen by an occupying French soldier on September 26, 1799, when he came to the aid of two Swiss women. Lavater survived the initial wound, but died thirteen months later on January 2, 1801 due to medical complications from the shrapnel that remained lodged in his body. He left behind a substantial body of work comprising more than one hundred individual titles and countless unpublished letters.

Major Works

Scholars concur that Lavater's most significant work is his illustrated Physiognomischen Fragmente zur Beförderung der Menschenkenntnis und Menschenliebe. In this approximately 2,000-page collection, Lavater elucidated his central physiognomic contention: that the fixed or stable features of the human face, when properly analyzed, represent the hidden psychological and moral nature of the subject, whereas the mutable elements of the face, those involved in making expressions or displaying shifting moods and passions, may be used to deceive. In the Physiognomischen Fragmente Lavater attempted to establish a systematic, “scientific” approach to the process of observing, identifying, and analyzing the link between facial characteristic—either from live examination or artistic rendering—and corresponding moral tendencies or psychological traits. The work also features a significant “how-to” section, consisting of one hundred physiognomic rules that would allow even the layman to practice Lavater's system. It additionally boasts an extensive collection of original drawings and paintings, including hundreds of detailed silhouettes with accompanying physiognomic analysis. Overall, the work evinces Lavater's belief in the tripartite division of the human individual, one that envisioned a person's bodily, mental, and moral components as they exist in dynamic relationship to one another. Building from this theory, Lavater claimed that through a thorough examination of an individual's external appearance the trained observer could ascertain otherwise concealed information about the subject's moral and intellectual character. Accordingly, Lavater described physiognomy as “the science of knowledge of the correspondence between the external and internal man, the visible superficies and the invisible contents.” His primary focus was the head and face, which he believed could reveal the often disguised secrets of one's moral nature. While he claimed his method to be scientifically factual and empirical, Lavater frequently reduced his physiognomic insights to simple aphorisms for easier consumption. Thus, he could write, “The morally best, the most beautiful. The morally worst, the most deformed.” In cases when such facile explanations seemed to be contradicted by observable fact, Lavater forwarded a more complex system that allowed for both moral and intellectual change within individuals affected by the external forces of the surrounding environment. His stated intention in the work, as in all of his previous writings on physiognomy, was to further the noble cause of brotherly love and the understanding of the individual as a divinely inspired fusion of body, intellect, and moral spirit. Turning to Lavater's early works, a survey of his previous writings on physiognomy demonstrates a steady development of the subject over several decades. Lacking the accompanying illustrations of the Physiognomischen Fragmente, Lavater's Von der Physiognomik (1772) sketches many of the thinker's ideas on the topic of facial analysis in preliminary form. His lifelong belief in the interrelationship between harmony, beauty, and virtue is also first suggested in this work. Aussichten in die Ewigkeit introduced Lavater's concept of Christian spirituality and morality concretized in the corporeal and physical terms of the human body. Unveränderte Fragmente aus dem Tagebuche eines Beobachters seiner Selbst additionally attests to Lavater's extensive self-analysis based on one of his principle physiognomic tools, his own portrait. Lavater's Aphorisms on Man (1788) is arguably his most famous work in English, although some critics believe these aphorisms are liberal translations adapted by Heinrich Füssli from an assortment of writings penned by Lavater. While others question this assumption, the collection of moral and psychological maxims that constitute the Aphorisms on Man is thought to be a cogent distillation of the Swiss writer's fundamental precepts regarding human understanding via visual observation.

Critical Reception

At the time of his death in 1801, Lavater was considered one of the most noted and recognizable figures in Europe, in part due to his religious writings, but primarily for his popularization of physiognomy through his Physiognomischen Fragmente and accompanying works. His popularity can be traced through the innumerable translations that appeared in Germany, France, and England, as well as his native Switzerland and elsewhere on the continent. Contemporary critical reviewers also helped solidify Lavater's position as one of the preeminent intellectuals of the late eighteenth-century period, and his influence remained steady well into the following century. According to contemporary critic John Graham, the Physiognomischen Fragmente “was reprinted, abridged, summarized, pirated, parodied, imitated, and reviewed so often that it is difficult to imagine how a literate person of the time could have failed to have some general knowledge of the man and his theories.” In his day, Lavater's work inspired both extraordinary praise and extreme derision. Among his chief detractors was Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, whose Antiphysiognomik commended Lavater's religious motivations, but decried its unscientific methods and reductive tendencies. Largely unblemished by such criticism, Lavater won an international notoriety that was nearly unsurpassed during the period. In England, Lavater's Aphorisms on Man was generally well received by reviewers. The work's most notorious critic, then and now, remained William Blake, whose extensive marginal annotations to the text continue to interest scholars for the insights they provide into the mind of Blake and his intellectual relationship to Lavater. In the contemporary period, one in which the questionable science of physiognomy is generally dismissed, commentators have begun the process of digesting the literary and cultural impact of Lavater's writings. A number of scholars have begun to explore Lavater's importance to European literary fiction. Some of his physiognomic ideas are thought to have exerted influence on such diverse writers as Matthew “Monk” Lewis, Emile Zola, Honoré de Balzac, Ivan Turgenev, and Charlotte Brontë, to name only a few. Viewing Lavater's system as a whole, contemporary critics have observed that his physiognomy is essentially a grand, pre-romantic blend of religion and science that lacks strong claims to verifiability in either discipline. Most reject the writer's overarching and grandiose moral scheme, without absolutely invalidating its fundamental intents and purposes. Others scholars have argued that even as Lavater surrounded his theory of physiognomy with the trappings of science, his methods were far from empirical, instead relying on what K. J. H. Berland has characterized as his “pseudo-inductive” methodology. In Berland's assessment, Lavater offered a priori hypotheses and afterward selectively produced observable evidence, manipulated to support his original suppositions. Lavater's use of scientific language, Berland and others have maintained, generally masked his actual avoidance of scientific principles in favor of rhetorical appeals to authority (usually his own) and selective interpretation. Despite such contemporary criticism, however, the draw of Lavater's physiognomic theory remains a strong one for modern scholars, who generally have categorized Lavater as one of the single most pervasive and influential moral-scientific writers of the late eighteenth century.

Principal Works

Grebelhandel. Der ungerechte Landvogt (essay) 1762

Zwei Briefe an Herrn Magister Carl Friedrich Bahrdt (letters) 1764

Der Erinnerer. 3 vols. [editor and contributor] (journalism) 1765-67

Schweizerlieder (songs) 1767

Aussichten in die Ewigkeit. 4 vols. (nonfiction) 1768-78

Philosophische Palingenesie oder Gedanken über den vergangenen und künftigen Zustand lebender Wesen: Als ein Anhang zu den letzten Schriften des Verfassers und welcher insonderheit das Wesentliche seiner Untersuchungen über das Christenthum enthält. 2 vols. [translator; from Palingénésie philosophique by...

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John Graham (essay date October-December 1961)

SOURCE: Graham, John. “Lavater's Physiognomy in England.” Journal of the History of Ideas 22, no. 4 (October-December, 1961): 561-72.

[In the following essay, Graham chronicles the reception and influence of Lavater's works in England.]

When Johann Caspar Lavater died in 1801, a leading British periodical, The Scots Magazine, quite rightly acknowledged that he had been, “for many years, one of the most famous men in Europe.”1 Part of his fame rested on his capable and conscientious performance of duties as a pastor and a religious writer, rôles which made him loved and respected by his fellow citizens of Zurich who literally flocked about him...

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R. J. Shroyer (essay date 1980)

SOURCE: Shroyer, R. J. “Introduction.” In Aphorisms on Man, by Johann Caspar Lavater, pp. v-xxxii. Delmar, N.Y.: Scholars' Facsimiles & Reprints, 1980.

[In the following introduction to a facsimile reprint of William Blake's annotated copy of Aphorisms on Man, Shroyer recounts the publication history of Lavater's work and discusses its influence on Blake.]

Had Laurence Sterne undertaken another sentimental journey to the continent, he might have encountered a living representative of Shandeism in the Rev. John Caspar Lavater, Citizen of Zürich. A cleric noted for his unaffected piety and unrelenting efforts on behalf of the poor, Lavater was as...

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Michael Shortland (essay date fall 1986)

SOURCE: Shortland, Michael. “The Power of a Thousand Eyes: Johann Caspar Lavater's Science of Physiognomical Perception.” Criticism 28, no. 4 (fall 1986): 379-408.

[In the following essay, Shortland briefly summarizes the history of physiognomy, then concentrates on Lavater's approach to facial analysis as described in his Physiognomischen Fragmente.]

In the classical age, a common point of reference in discussions of aesthetics, psychology, medicine and religion was the doctrine of physiognomy. In the earliest literature, the notion that a correspondence exists between the outer appearance of man and his inner character was advanced, deepened and extended to suit...

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Edmund Heier (essay date 1991)

SOURCE: Heier, Edmund. “J. C. Lavater's Edifying and Physiognomic Ideas in Eighteenth-Century Russia.” In Studies on Johann Caspar Lavater (1741-1801) in Russia, pp. 6-36. Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang, 1991.

[In the following essay, Heier traces the impact of Lavater's Physiognomischen Fragmente on Russian culture.]

Lavater's edifying views, as well as the total concept of physiognomic thinking, were introduced into Russia as part of the general wave of Western influence. One ought to keep in mind that Russia did not undergo the Western European Renaissance; therefore, the classical revival, and with it the tradition of physiognomy, entered Russia rather...

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K. J. H. Berland (essay date July-September 1993)

SOURCE: Berland, K. J. H. “Reading Character in the Face: Lavater, Socrates, and Physiognomy.” Word & Image 9, no. 3 (July-September, 1993): 252-69.

[In the following excerpt, Berland argues that an evaluation of Lavater's comments on images of Socrates indicates that his method of physiognomy is not empirical, but instead “pseudo-inductive.”]

The physiognomists are easy enough targets today, especially since there exist some physiognomical texts that do assert a mechanistic system of fixed and direct correspondences. But there are also more texts that insist on maintaining the proper distinction between natural causes (innate tendencies) and the...

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Ellis Shookman (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Shookman, Ellis. “Pseudo-Science, Social Fad, Literary Wonder: Johann Caspar Lavater and the Art of Physiognomy.” In The Faces of Physiognomy: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Johann Caspar Lavater, edited by Ellis Shookman, pp. 1-24. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1993.

[In the following essay, Shookman critiques the pseudo-science of physiognomy professed by Lavater, while examining its popularity, logical flaws, influence on German literature, and relationship to the visual arts.]

There is nothing more likely than the conformity and relation of the body to the spirit.

Montaigne, “Of Physiognomy”...

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Graeme Tytler (essay date 1993)

SOURCE: Tytler, Graeme. “Lavater and the Nineteenth-Century English Novel.” In The Faces of Physiognomy: Interdisciplinary Approaches to Johann Caspar Lavater, edited by Ellis Shookman, pp. 161-81. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1993.

[In the following essay, Tytler considers the immense, if generalized, influence of Lavater's Physiognomischen Fragmente on the nineteenth-century English novel.]

It is curious to reflect that when we celebrate the 250th anniversary of a famous person, we commemorate an event of which the celebrity himself almost certainly never had any conscious memory. Accordingly, there may be some who think that anniversaries should every...

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Graeme Tytler (essay date April 1995)

SOURCE: Tytler, Graeme. “Lavater and Physiognomy in English Fiction 1790-1832.” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 7, no. 3 (April 1995): 293-310.

[In the following essay, Tytler identifies Lavaterian principles of physiognomy in British literary portraiture of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, discussing works by Ann Radcliffe, Sir Walter Scott, and Jane Austen.]

The study of physiognomy in the novel has become an established domain of literary criticism, with scholars intent on showing ways in which novelists of different nationalities were influenced by the physiognomic theories of Johann Caspar Lavater (1741-1801).1 The present essay, while...

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K. J. L. Berland (essay date 1999)

SOURCE: Berland, K. J. L. “‘The Air of a Porter’: Lichtenberg and Lavater Test Physiognomy by Looking at Johnson.” Age of Johnson: A Scholarly Annual 10 (1999): 219-30.

[In the following essay, Berland highlights Georg Christoph Lichtenberg's criticism of Lavater's physiognomy, using the example of Samuel Johnson to elucidate contradictions and weaknesses in Lavater's theory.]

Johann Christoph Lavater, the great Swiss preacher and physiognomist, first introduced his Physiognomische Fragmente in 1775-78. His book took Europe by storm, and was speedily translated into many languages, including the English version, Essays on Physiognomy, Designed to...

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Further Reading


Berghahn, Klaus L. “Lavater's Attempt to Compel the Conversion of Moses Mendelssohn Abuses the Friendship Cult Surrounding Jewish and Christian Intellectuals.” In Yale Companion to Jewish Writing and Thought in German Culture 1096-1996, edited by Sander L. Gilman and Jack Zipes, pp. 61-67. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997.

Considers Lavater's 1769 suggestion to Moses Mendelssohn that he refute the Christian apologetics of Charles Bonnet's Palingénésie philosophique or convert to Christianity.

Cooper, Andrew M. “Blake and Madness: The World Turned Inside Out.” ELH 57, no. 3 (autumn 1990): 585-642.


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