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From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern: Polemon and the Ontology of Passion

Andrew Scholtz

Binghamton University, SUNY

What is passion, yours, mine, anyone's, when others start to care about it? Polemon's Physiognomy, a book treating the body as a window into the soul, prompts that question. For Polemon has much to tell us not just about passion itself, but also about the "how" and "why" of observing it in others. Yet his book has had little impact on research into a topic of abiding interest over the past several decades: the passions — desire, envy, etc. — in the Greco-Roman world. Most scholars working in that area focus on subjectivity: how individuality, identity, and personhood were produced, performed, and perceived (e.g., Bartsch; Foucault; Beneker; Halperin; Connolly). Polemon, I suggest, illuminates a different side of passion: how it lived not simply inside but between subjects. Passion for Polemon, once it enters the shared discourse of witnesses, once it matters to them, acquires significance, presence, and force it never had before.

Marcus Antonius Polemon (c. 90–146 CE) was one of the foremost sophists of his day and wrote a much admired Physiognomy (Arabic, Latin, Greek witnesses, translation: Swain and Boys-Stones 329–635). For Polemon, as for other physiognomists, the body conditions temperament and passion, which in turn motivate action. But temperament and passion also give rise to bodily "tells" that Polemon teaches his readers to "read." How do those tells function as signs?

For help, I turn to Latour's distinction between matters of fact and matters of concern. Matters of fact, like individual data points, give only a partial rendering of reality. When facts gather into meaningfully integrated things, when they connect with our lives, then we are dealing with matters of concern. Consider Polemon's vast catalogue of bodily signs. The outward manifestation of character and affect, those signs do not produce meaning on their own. Rather, meaning comes from how observers both connect them (Swain and Boys-Stones 369, 81, 83) and connect with them. And Polemon's second-century readers would have connected with the idea of being able to read the tells of potential rivals, enemies, indeed, anyone with whom they will have had dealings (cf. Swain).

There are, however, other ways for people to connect, specifically, with emotion and its signs. Consider Polemon's account of a woman whose sudden and otherwise unforeseen misfortune he foretells from her face and movements (Swain and Boys-Stones 457). To Polemon, she offers an opportunity to demonstrate to an "astonished" bystander the power of his art; to readers, the spectacle of a bereaved mother overcome with grief. For when she strips herself naked, her grief in a sense goes public, and the crowd intervenes to cover her up. Then there is the "man from Corinth." This man, Polemon's locus classicus for the "cunning, suspicion, envy, and jealousy" associated with small, hollow eyes (Swain and Boys-Stones 361–65; cf. Adamantius Physiognomonica A12 = Swain and Boys-Stones 506), embodies all the malice and antisociality endemic to rivalrous passion (Swain and Boys-Stones 363; cf. Pl. Phil. 48b; Gal. De prop. an. 5.35.11–12; Alciphron 2.27.3). But the reality of it all does not fully sink in until Polemon's Corinthian happens upon the physiognomist and others conversing about him and his faults. Terrifying the group and confirming their suspicions, he confesses and breaks into tears.

Finally, I discuss a passage devoted to Polemon's archenemy, Favorinus (Swain and Boys-Stones 377–79 with notes). Outwardly feminine, a slave to greed and lust, a huckster sophist corrupting the crowd, Favorinus does not just embody vice; he spreads it to others. Note the rhetorical cast of this choice bit of invective. Yet this and other similarly epideictic performances in Polemon's treatise (cf. Von Staden on Galen) highlight, if anything, how passion impacts observers and vice versa. In ancient Greek sources, phēmē, "common report," confirms reality by making entire communities witnesses to its truth (McHardy). In Polemon, the phēmē of witnesses — bystanders, perpetrators, physiognomist, readers — concretizes what makes another's passion matter to "us."

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