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  • The Socratic Makeover: Montaigne's "De la physionomie" and the Ethics of the Impossible
  • Lawrence D. Kritzman

In "De la physionomie" (III, 12), Montaigne makes the topos of vision central to the understanding of the essay. From the start the essayist engages in an epistemological critique that draws attention to our inability to see things as they are:

Nous n'apercevons les graces que pointues, bouffies et enflées d'artifice. Celles qui coulent soubs la nayfveté et la simplicité eschapent ayséement à une veue grossiere comme est la nostre: elles ont une beauté delicate et cachée; il faut la veue nette et bien purgée pour descouvrir cette secrette lumiere.


To be sure, the appearance of a thing always already constitutes its otherness since our perception constrains us and allows what is seen to be viewed equivocally. According to this logic, once we see something the aporia between seeming and being is foregrounded to such an extent that we can no longer distinguish between reality and fiction.

Montaigne's essay draws on the popular treatises of the day that delineated parallels between a person's external facial features and his inner moral character. The text's conceptual framework is organized around a debate concerning the relationship between inner and outer spheres and how one might inform the other. "Il n'est rien plus vraysemblabe que la conformité et relation du corps à l'esprit" (1057). Within this context the essay's focus on questions of the physical act of seeing and the psychic process of visualization make it the place for investigating the validity of the science of physiognomy.

Etymologically, physiognomy conjoins the concepts of nature (physis) and knowledge (gnos). It was thought, from Barthélemy Coclès to Jean d'Indagine, that for the specialist of this science Being could be made to surface through the image of the face.2 This engagement with the world of phenomenal forms identified the face as the privileged locus for the unveiling of Being and the gateway to one's character. The physiognomic unity on which this science insists is one of analogy between the parts. Yet the face of things is far from being transparent, and vision is often overdetermined, based as it is on the limitations of spatial perspective. [End Page 75]

The most striking problem that physiognomy encounters, according to Montaigne, concerns the counter-example represented by the discrepancy between the grotesque features of Socrates' face and the beauty of his soul:

Socrates, qui a esté un exemplaire parfaict en toutes grandes qualitez, j'ai despit qu'il eust rencontré un corps et un visage si villain, comme ils dissent, et disconvenable à la beauté de son ame, luy si amoureux et si affolé de beauté.


One glimpse of Socrates reveals him in all his ugliness. In this context, vision fails to account for the "beauté de son ame." Nevertheless, albeit initially, the text's representation of Socrates draws on the silenic image found in Plato's Symposium. This image suggests, according to Alcibiades, the necessity of looking beyond the philosopher's grotesque image, his "si vile forme" (1037), in order to discover the beauty within. To be sure, the phenomenon of the Silenic Socrates puts into question physiognomy itself. However this project can only be realized with a "veue nette et bien purgée" which paradoxically replaces the phenomenon of sight with the imagination's power of visualization. Montaigne assigns to the mind's eye the ability to imagine a virtual reality that paradoxically enables us to see more closely things as they are. Reality thus becomes that which is not grasped with the eyes, but instead with the intellect.

The language of credit and borrowing is a central motif in "De la phisionomie." The opening line of this essay bears witness to this: "Quasi toutes les opinions que nous avons sont prinses par authorité et à credit" (1037). This emphasis on "otherness," however, is quickly put into question by a reference to the figure of Socrates who in his individuality acquires exemplarity: "Il n'est aisé de parler et vivre comme Socrates. Là loge l'extreme degré de perfection: l'art n'y peut joindre...


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pp. 75-85
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