New College of the Humanities

Deformity and Disfigurement in the Graeco-Roman World

Robert Garland draws on both mythology and accounts of everyday life to probe attitudes to physical misfortune in the classical era.

Deformity and disfigurement are in the eye of the beholder. What is monstrous, and what is not, is a matter of opinion. In the eyes of Saddam Hussein's contemptible uncle, 'God made a mistake when he created Persians, Jews and flies'. The philosopher Aristotle also had his prejudices; or perhaps we should say, more charitably, that he believed in a hierarchy of physical perfection, with male human beings at the summit. Asserting that being female represents the 'first step' along the road towards deformity, the philosopher magnanimously conceded that the weaker sex is 'required by nature', on the entirely practical grounds that 'the race of beings which is separated into female and male has to be preserved'. Aristotle was a realist. Driven to its logical conclusion, his point is that if this were a perfect world, it would possess a perfect system of reproduction, in which case the human race would consist entirely of males. Since it is not a perfect world, we are required to tolerate the presence of females, viz. deformed males, in our midst.

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