Peering into the face of an old marble statuette of Socrates, sculpted in the days of ancient Greece, the first thought that might cross one’s mind is that the face of the famed philosopher doesn’t at all fit the classical Greek profile. Glaringly absent from his chiseled visage is the long and narrow Grecian nose that typically descends in an almost even line from the forehead. Socrates instead has a schnoz that is short and wide with upturned nostrils.
It’s a conflicting depiction of the wise man of Western thought that made one 19th century art historian bluntly propose that Socrates had a black person’s nose. And he wasn’t completely alone in the thought.
Throughout the 19th and early the 20th century, the seemingly foreign facial features of Socrates were on the minds of many in the West, from ethnologists to then-modern day philosophers. Why this was the case isn’t entirely clear. But it’s probably not at all coincidental that it was during this *ahem* progressive age that beliefs about the alleged biological superiority of European folk began evolving from out of the tar pits of centuries-old religious dogma into the modern realms of pseudosciences like “phrenology.”
phrenology |freˈnäləjē| noun: the detailed study of the shape and size of the cranium as a supposed indication of character and mental abilities.
This evolution was largely inspired by theories like those of Johann Blumenbach, the German anatomist who’s often regarded as the founder of physical anthropology.
Blumenbach, the reader may recall, is the dude who is credited with coining the term “Caucasian.” It was a word born from his somewhat innocent but nonetheless flawed theory that 19th century Europeans could trace their supposedly extraordinary origins to a prehistoric hominid population that once inhabited the Caucasus Mountain region of Georgia, Russia’s southern neighbor.
But in his limited analysis of a fossilized skull, Blumenbach made something of a boo-boo. The Homo erectus georgicus hominids, like their distant cousins the Neanderthals, weren’t exactly modern humans.
They also weren’t particularly Caucasian-looking either.
Nonetheless, with Europeans and their immigrant relatives in the Americas being ever so eager––back then––to embrace new theories about their genetic superiority over the rest of humanity, Blumenbach’s efforts inspired an untold many to distill their proto-supremacist ideologies down to a “science.”
In a Nutty-ass Nutshell®, the more European (or “Caucasian”) a person’s physical make-up, then the higher up on the ladder of human evolution one stood. And the more African (or “Negroid”) a person’s physical make-up, then the nearer one’s place to the bottom rung of evolution’s ladder.
Eureka! See? That’s science!
The overflowing toilet of such theories spread like a medieval plague throughout the Western world, infecting cultural perspectives on both the perceived attractiveness of the world’s varied populations and their brain power. Thus, in countless versions of similarly defective notions, the more Caucasian a person’s physical makeup, the more attractive and also the more intelligent one stood to be. And in stark contrast, the more African the physical makeup of a person, then the uglier and the dumber they were.
Which brings us back to Socrates.
The vexing visage of the wise man of Western thought dealt a dizzying blow to the snooty ideals of the 19th century’s newly dubbed “Caucasians.” While the sculpted busts of the other Greek philosophers aligned themselves neatly with the Aryan-like physiognomies that were expected of them, the face of Socrates was having the effect of a fly in a sugar bowl at teatime.
physiognomy |ˌfizēˈä(g)nəmē|noun: a person’s facial features or expression, esp. when regarded as indicative of character or ethnic origin.• the supposed art of judging character from facial characteristics.
Discussing the sculpted faces of the philosophers in 1871, author Samuel Roberts Wells quotes a whacked out analysis of the sculpted busts of Plato and Pythagoras that boasts, “What majesty! What wisdom! And what noses!” (Their noses apparently reflected standard types found among Europeans.)
With regard to Mr. Socrates, however, Wells was of the view that the teacher of Plato had a “splendid” head, but an “ugly” face. His worst feature, Wells claimed, “was a broken or deformed nose which greatly disfigured him.”
Wells’ final verdict on the schnoz of Socrates seemed to give voice to what must have been a widespread sense of befuddlement when he states that “everybody is astonished that such a man should have such a nose.”
The Problem Of Socrates
Relying less on the sculpted portrait of Socrates and more on the contemporary accounts of his looks written nearer to his lifetime, George Henry Lewes notes in 1863 that Socrates’ “flattened nose, with wide and upturned nostrils, projecting eyeballs, thick, sensual lips…squab figure and unwieldy potbelly were all points upon which ridicule might fasten.”
And upon the famed philosopher ridicule did indeed fasten.
Henry William Dulcken offers a physical description of Socrates in 1880 that concludes that he was very homely; this due to the fact that he was bald, had a “dark complexion, and a severe, downcast look.”
The latter also appears to have once been a common description, as it can be found verbatim in biographical dictionaries published as early as 1762.
In 1908, George Willis Botsford adds to the picture of Socrates by pointing out that he was bow-legged. That same year, Thomas D. Seymour makes mention of the shabby garments that Socrates was commonly known to have worn. Also detailed by Seymour was the fact that Socrates never wore sandals, and wandered year-round through the streets of Athens like a barefoot barbarian.
barbarian |bärˈbe(ə)rēən| noun: (in ancient times) a member of a community or tribe not belonging to one of the great civilizations (Greek, Roman, Christian).
The aforementioned, by the way, was a really fascinating ‘feat’ that pupils of Classical Studies rarely learn of this well known and presumably *ahem* ‘well-heeled’ philosopher. Or that, in contrast to his respected contemporaries, Socrates lived in poverty and was generally looked upon with disdain.
It was his description recorded in ancient sources, as well as what his old sculpted portrait appeared to suggest, that is reflected in the Robert Hamerling novel Aspasia (1881). Here Hamerling conjures up an intimate discussion that takes place between the lovely protagonist Aspasia and the “homely” Socrates. In rebuttal to the fair maiden––who discerns the need to remind him that he is Greek — the philosopher replies, “Am I not too ugly to be a Greek? My snub nose does not belong to the pure lineaments of my race.”
lineament |ˈlin(ē)əmənt| noun: 1 (usu. lineaments) poetic/literary a distinctive feature or characteristic, esp. of the face.
Eight years later, the echo of Hamerling’s racially uncertain Socrates reverberates in the pages of the Friedrich Nietzsche essay collection Twilight of the Idols (1889). In a piece titled “The Problem of Socrates,” Germany’s legendary thinking mensch takes time to contemplate the odd physiognomy of the Athens anomaly and reiterates the idea that Socrates may have been too ugly to have come from Greek ancestry — or at least a pure one.
“Ugliness, while it is an objection in itself,” asserted Nietzsche, “is a refutation when found among Greeks.”
And though he was better known as a philosopher than as a physiognomist, Nietzsche proposed that a repugnant mug like that of Socrates was usually an indication of mixed ancestry; this offered in response to one of the most…niggling mysteries of the late 19th century: “Was Socrates Greek at all?”
As to which population it was that the so-called mongrelized and thus ugly features found in the physical makeup of Socrates came from, Nietzsche doesn’t say. But inferences and associations found in the writings of others in the 19th and 20th centuries provide a not-so-vague idea.
While examining the work of François Navez in 1895, art critic Robert Muther wrote that Navez was a sculptor who, unlike his peers, rarely corrected the ugly imperfections of an artistic subject. According to Muther, Navez valued realism to such a degree that had he ever chiseled the face of Socrates from a block of stone, the legendary thinker would have been rendered faithfully, complete with “his negro nose.”
Decades earlier, in response to an article in The Examiner in 1811, a letter writer rendered a cutting critique of the facial features of Socrates. In this impassioned missive to the editor, the philosopher’s broad nose and “misshapen” lips were critically juxtaposed against the “blended” nose and forehead and “chaste” lips of the typical Greek. But the comparison also includes a loaded racial contrast expressing the view that the face of Socrates was almost as “abhorrent” to the Greek ideal as… “the negro face.”
abhorrent |abˈhôrənt; -ˈhär-|adjective: inspiring disgust and loathing; repugnant, extremely offensive
In 1902, in his essay “Migrations,” the famed Egyptologist Sir William Flinders Petrie also looked toward the face of Socrates to make a racial inference, albeit more of a scientific one. Here Petrie shares anthropological data on an ancient population, ambiguously described as “short-nosed,” that once inhabited the boundaries of prehistoric Egypt. Based on skull measurements, Petrie describes their facial features as fitting somewhere between those of an Algerian type of North Africa and a “Socratic or Negroid type.”
Socratic, it should be observed, is defined as following or relating to Socrates. And Petrie’s interesting employment of the word showed it to be, at least to him in this case, interchangeable with Negroid.
Nearly a century after Petrie, a 20th century author also gazed upon the chiseled face of the ancient Socrates statuette and described it as somewhat or “vaguely Negroid.”
This…spartan description appears in a 1996 article in Chronicles. But the author is also hella quick here to suppose that the likeness was sculpted “generations” after the death of Socrates, and therefore not based on an actual life-portrait. Instead, it’s suggested that the image was based on the descriptions of Socrates found in the remembrances of his pupils, Plato and Xenophon.
In the accounts given by those actual disciples of Socrates, the philosopher’s face is likened to mythical woodland divinities known as satyrs. Curiously, though, even this comparison seems to have carried with it the ancient implication that the appearance of Socrates was viewed by those who knew him in the flesh to be less like those of the Indo-European colonizers of Greece and more like those of the region’s earlier inhabitants.
Hung Like A Horse
In his Memorabilia, Xenophon recounts a playful conversation that took place between Socrates and Crito, both of whom had been homies since childhood. The latter challenges the former to prove that he is the best-looking of the two. In sportive response, Socrates points out the underestimated splendors of his wide upturned nose, bulging cock-eyes, and full lips — which Socrates says are so large and thick that they’re much more kissable than those sitting above Crito’s chin.
As an aside, the sharply pointed witticisms of Socrates and Crito nearly leap from the pages of antiquity like a 5th century B.C. version of the dozens–– minus the “your mama” jokes.
To bring an end to the short list of his winning features, Socrates suggests that their sum total should surpass those of Crito for a very significant reason. The philosopher points out that the Naiades, the alluring goddesses of the sea, were the creators of the odd-looking godlings called the Sileni: “And sure I am much more like them,” teases Socrates, “than you can pretend to be.”
In Plato’s Symposium, the most famous student of Socrates recounts how the philosopher’s friend Alcibiades had once also likened him to these woodland demigods. Alcibiades tells Socrates that his odd face looks exactly like the masks of Silenos that hang from the walls of sculptors’ workshops. To this comparison, he adds that his friend’s face is like that of Marsyas the satyr.
“You will not deny this,” he playfully insists. “Your face is like that of a satyr.”
In Greek myth, satyrs like Marsyas, Silenos, and their kin, were lustful fertility gods of the wilderness. In the image of this woodland deity, the wild and sensual nature of humankind was meaningfully articulated by depicting them as butt-ass naked with thick lips, short, upturned noses and coarse hair. Jutting out from the sides of their heads were pointed ears, like those of a horse or jackass, and from their buttocks sprang complementary tails.
The satyr was also often depicted in art as being… *ahem* hung like a horse.
While Silenos was usually shown as a white-bearded elder, Marsyas and the other fairy god-brothers were shown as younger and dark-haired. In the later Roman tradition, Silenos typically became more human in his appearance, while the younger satyrs inherited the look of the archaic pastoral god Pan, having horned heads, goat-like ears, fur-covered legs, and cloven feet.
Although often considered to be somewhat different divinities today, according to the 2nd century Greek traveler Pausanius, Silenos (also “Silenus”) was basically the name used to denote an elder satyr.
Support of this view can be found in The Catalogue of Greek, Etruscan and Roman Vases (1893). Here a rendering from an early period vase shows three figures, one of which is called “old Silenos.” But all three figures in the decoration are designated as satyrs.
Aside from a difference in hair color, the family resemblance is clear.
Another distinction in the classical classification of satyrs is that the plural Sileni that Socrates invoked, being the eldest of their kind, were considered to be wiser and more learned in the arts. Hence it was the old satyr Silenos to whom was entrusted the guardianship and education of young Dionysus (aka Bacchus), son of Zeus. With the guidance of this enlightened sage, Dionysus would also grow up to be a naked fertility god, inspiring lots of poetry, music, dancing, overindulgent wine drinking…and the infamous orgies known throughout the Greco-Roman world as the Bacchanalia.
orgy |ˈôrjē|noun (pl. -gies): a wild party, esp. one involving excessive drinking and unrestrained sexual activity • (usu. orgies) historical secret rites used in the worship of Dionysus (Bacchus), and other Greek and Roman deities, celebrated with dancing, singing, and drunkenness.
With closing regard for the nature of the beast, it should be understood that this mythical figure was more than just some fantastic whimsy of the Greek cultural imagination. The image of the satyr was used as allegory, parody––or satire; a word within which, coincidentally, the very name of this lesser Greek god lurks.
The original image of the satyr served as a caricature of the dark-skinned aboriginal folk living out in the countryside, far away from the walled city-states of Greece’s later Indo-European colonizers. People belonging, as historian R. Geare once noted, “to a race different from themselves.”
End of episode I
Paco Taylor is a writer from Chicago. He loves old history books, internet search engines, and the surprising findings of a perpetually curious mind.