Beauty and Civilization

Buffon’s considerations on human somatic features in Histoire Naturelle de l’Homme

  • Julia Jacob Johns Hopkins University
Keywords: Buffon, Histoire naturelle de l'Homme, Beauty, anthropology, race, aesthetic judgment, Natural History


The presence of an aesthetic judgment in an anthropological, scientific study may seem incongruous. One would think that the human body should be approached only in terms of "objective" criteria of functionality and measurable proportions.

However, to our surprise, two adjectives keep coming up in Buffon's description of the human body in his Histoire naturelle de l'Homme: 'beautiful' and 'ugly'.

To be sure, it is possible to determine that a person is beautiful through measurements and observations of bodily and facial symmetry, but most often, these proportions are not enough to explain why we find a person beautiful.

How does Buffon think about beauty when he writes the Natural History of Man? Does he understand it as a classificatory tool based on an objective system of measurement, or does he use his personal preference? On what criteria does he judge the physical aspect of the varieties in the human species?


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