by Zixin Jiang
Why is it said that the eyes are windows to the soul?
One common interpretation is that our eyes reveal our innermost thoughts and emotions. There’s probably some truth to that; a person’s eyes can sometimes reveal whether they are lying, or faking a smile. However, a seasoned orator may be able to control their eyes and use them to their advantage. This seems to be what Cicero meant in an early version of the saying: Nam ut imago est animi voltus sic indices oculi (‘for as the face is the image of the soul, so are the eyes its interpreters’), from his Orator, a treatise on how to speak persuasively.
To me, both these interpretations seem a bit banal. On the one hand, there’s a lot about a person that the eyes don’t reveal; there’s a lot more to a person’s inner state than simply whether they are happy or sad, telling the truth or lying. On the other hand, it would be quite disappointing if the proverb were nothing more than a tip about how to win debates at the Union.
The eyes don’t tell us everything there is to know about a person. Rather, they remind of how much we don’t know. Eyes are the only things that look back at us when we look at them. We are your equals, they say to our eyes. We can see like you do, and we have seen many things that you have no idea about. They remind us that others have memories and inner lives as rich as our own, that we can hardly fathom. They remind us that others are ‘not only intelligible but also intelligent’, to borrow words from one Oxford philosopher. They remind us that other human beings are not merely objects like chairs and tables and all the other things we see, but that they are rational and moral beings, not merely perceived but also perceiving.
In short, looking into another person’s eyes reminds us that others have souls. The eyes don’t reveal much about the soul, but they point to its existence (‘indices’, literally). Recognition of the rational and moral capacity of others is the starting point for equality and rights. It is the basis for the imperative that we must treat others never as mere means, but as ends in themselves.
Talk about the ‘soul’ may sound abstract or old-fashioned (and the word is the descendant of a number of concepts from different cultures that I don’t pretend to encompass here), but that reminder of human rational and moral capacity, and how it differentiates us from mere things, is an important one in our relationships and politics. The eyes of others, looking back at us, remind us that we are not the centre of the universe, although we often behave as if we were. We argue just for the sake of winning the argument, forgetting that we are arguing with people; we gossip and treat others as merely a conversation topic; we treat others as sexual objects; we stereotype others; we make friends for the sake of furthering our social or career ambitions; we treat others as problems or projects to be solved. Our politics reflects such attitudes which, in different ways and to different degrees, are present in our personal interactions.
Or, more subtly, we create for ourselves images of the poor, the sick, the homeless, or of a crush, a lover or a child, without truly engaging with the persons around us in all their complexity and unknownness (recognition of unknownness results from recognition of their autonomy).
When one American politician invited Victorina Morales, an undocumented worker formerly employed by Donald Trump’s golf club, to attend his State of the Union address, she stated that she invited Morales ‘so that [Trump] may look her in her eyes to tell his lies to a familiar face’. I doubt it helped. We can always refuse to see the soul behind the eyes. But if we have the imagination to see the souls that other people’s eyes point towards, then our politics and interactions would be imbued with a greater respect, a respect that treats others not as objects, demons or statistics, nor as any other image or abstraction, but as intelligent human beings, with all the significance that entails.