I just don’t think they should look like that!
I don’t know about you, but I was definitely indoctrinated in high school with the idea of what The White Male Philosopher Of The Past looked like: a white, male, uh, philosopher. He wore ambiguously Enlightenment-era clothing and had a slightly obnoxious, very knowing look. That being said, I also made it through ¾ of fall semester CC without having the slightest clue of what those philosophers I was reading actually looked like—or, at least, what artists want us to think they looked like. Aristotle? He was just an amorphous figure in the corner of the room spouting shit about virtue ethics and natural slavery. Vitoria? Never heard of him.
This beautiful illusion I was living under shattered, however, when I first Googled a portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli. I was shocked! Horrified! That’s what “Machiavellian” is supposed to look like? I’m sorry, that’s just wrong. That’s not my Niccolò Machiavelli. Obviously, the only way to cope with these feelings of betrayal was to look up every other philosopher I had read so far to see if the experience of finally putting a face to the philosophy was universally terrible. Out of this was born this Very Correct Ranking of how much CC philosophers look like what I think they should look like.
Some caveats about the ranking: It’s limited mainly to first-semester philosophers, because critiquing what Michel Foucault looked like when he and my parents were alive at the same time feels weird. Also, no busts of Plato, because I’m not here to analyze something three degrees removed from the truth. The images are linked, not embedded, both so we don’t get sued by an angry museum, or something, but also so you can mentally prepare yourself for finally finding out what Adam Smith looks like, if you, like me, did not already know.
10. Niccolò Machiavelli. It shouldn’t be surprising, given the introduction to this article, that he’s ranked dead last. Okay, to be fair, I let myself be misled here by the Oxford edition cover of The Prince, which is apparently a portrait of Duke Cosimo I De’ Medici, and he’s a perfectly fine-looking man. I got used to seeing his face, especially when I used The Prince for a paper and had to reference the book a lot. Now, no proportions are “normal,” but the man on the cover’s proportions are normal. Machiavelli’s, as revealed by this terrible portrait, are not. I hate that red robe he wears and the sliver of white cloth you can see around his neck. It’s not a look I would adopt. All in all, though, I think I have to blame the artist for most of his faults because between the large hands and the tiny head and the bizarre lighting (why is his right hand like that?), they clearly didn’t know what they were doing. Machiavelli receives the worst rating as the betrayal I felt when I first found out that Niccolò was not the man on the Oxford cover was unparalleled. I had to tell my CC prof about it, because I’m intolerable and I found this out right before office hours.
9. Thomas Hobbes. I’m mainly disturbed by the way Hobbes himself insisted, I’m going to assume, on the absolutely bizarre use of light in this portrait. I haven’t taken Art Hum yet, so if there’s a special symbolism going on, I don’t know it—but seriously, why does he just look like a disembodied head and one (1) hand? His scathing gaze does match what I’d think a man who believes the sovereign can do whatever he wants would stare like. It also makes me believe he knows that I talked shit about his ideas of censorship in my final paper. Overall this one is pretty disturbing.
8. René Descartes. This is a little fake because I’ve never actually read Descartes, but as a French major (yikes!), I think it’s my right to judge him anyway. I certainly know several people who have the same hairstyle he did, but they pull it off better than him. Wikipedia calls him the modern father of philosophy—assuming my CC professor was right in saying that he basically just ripped off Ibn Tufayl and Al-Ghazali, Wikipedia is pushing it a little there. He’s ranked especially low because I asked my friend who did read Descartes for CC what she thought he should look like, and she said Ted Danson, and he’s decidedly not Ted Danson.
7. Thomas More. My CC prof was zesty (Hi Nicole!) so we read Thomas More, specifically Utopia, last semester. I don’t have many opinions about his portrait vs. my conception of him, because I think it’s all par for the course. His necklace in this portrait kind of looks like it’s made of gold, which is kind of funny if you think of how in Utopia, he had gold be culturally associated with sewage and shit and thievery. What does it all mean, Thomas? His hat is quite nice though. Docked because he’s not a “real” CC philosopher.
6. Adam Smith. Apparently, Adam Smith really did not like his appearance and thus didn’t have many portraits done of him in his life. I, however, quite like his assertive nose. Between his fear of getting his portrait done (internalizing societal beauty standards is a whole section in Theory of Moral Sentiments, after all) and the fact that he looks totally fine in the few engravings/portraits we do have, it makes sense that this is the man who somehow both believed that we inherently care and want to help other people and that you should only appeal to the butcher, the baker, etc.’s self-interest. Adam Smith has many faces. Maybe that’s the real reason why he didn’t want many portraits.
5. Immanuel Kant. After looking at several portraits, I think people just really didn’t know what to do with Immanuel’s face. I think in this first portrait he looks quite nice and polite, like someone I would dance with at a ball during the London season, and both of us know this is just a nicety, he’s not a real prospect for me, because I’m the season’s Incomparable and can get whomever I want and will be settling for a marquess at the worst. Kant’s just dancing with me to fulfill some sense of societal duty, but he’s just conforming with duty instead of acting from it. Sorry—I just watched Bridgerton, and I know that analogy doesn’t hold at all, especially since Kant was German and never left his hometown. But I guess that it just goes to show that, as Kant said, the “fair sex” could never be enlightened enough to write coherently.
4. Martin Luther. I think Martin Luther might have been the only one of these philosophers I could recognize via their portrait before starting this class. His gaze is not intense, but it is slightly admonishing, which aligns nicely with his critique of the Church and simultaneous desire for reform, not revolution. I like how his clothes lose all sense of detail, so you’re just left with the minutiae of his face—much like how I remember reading his texts: a bunch of amorphous stuff about how the Church is not perfect, actually, with a very clear recollection of his ideas of spiritual citizenship. All in all, this isn’t surprising.
3. St Thomas Aquinas. Yeah.
2. John Locke. Considering how prominent basically all of Locke’s features are, I would expect myself to be more surprised by how he looks, but I’m not. It seems to make sense. I feel like John Locke is the kind of person I would absent-mindedly stare at while we both take the subway to Columbus Circle because he is immaculately dressed, very tall, and also blocking the subway doors. So much for adhering to the implicit subway social contract. However, the plot thickens, because the more portraits I look at, the less they all look like the same person, so maybe my impression is wrong. I guess that really only says things about the artists. Sorry, John. Like Immanuel, they didn’t know how to do your face consistently.
1. Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Remember when I said that I had been indoctrinated with an image of The White Male Philosopher? I think that that image is actually just Jean-Jacques Rousseau, which is highly unfortunate, because I hate him and practically everything he stands for so much. From that terrible little smirk of his to the oh-so-stereotypical powdered wig to his deceptively gentle stare, he feels like The CC Philosopher in my head. This portrait is burned into my brain. I cannot escape Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Perhaps he’s right, that society is the source of all ills, since society is the thing that keeps making me read his works over, and over, and over. I certainly wouldn’t do this to myself in isolation. Leave me alone, Rousseau! Society didn’t ruin us, even if it did make me (by way of my classes) read The Social Contract in English and French! Also, I’ve read your Confessions! I know all about how you love to dish critique out but you can’t take it! Sorry you couldn’t handle Voltaire being mean to you! He was right!
Image of the death of Socrates aka a philosopher I did not discuss via Met Open Access