Evidence for the benefits of wearing face masks is controversial. Nevertheless, it is hoped that wearing them may help to limit the spread of infection. Highwaymen had a different reason for wearing masks, although their masks covered only the upper part of the face, leaving their mouths free to shout 'Your money or your life'.
Death masks have had various functions. In Western culture, they are moulds taken of the faces of famous people to serve as the basis of statues or paintings. For example, there is a death mask of Beethoven, looking quite grumpy. One made from a young girl who drowned in the Seine – L'Inconnue de la Seine
– is of great beauty and is regarded as the Mona Lisa
of death masks. I am told that the practice of making death masks continues, and death masks are collector's items. The death masks of notorious murderers fetch a good price.
The German archaeologist, Heinrich Schliemann, excavated various areas in Greece and Asia Minor looking for Troy. In 1876, he claimed to have found in a dig in Mycenae the death mask of Agamemnon, the Greek leader in the siege of Troy. This was a striking mask covered with gold. He announced to King George of Greece: 'I have gazed on the face of Agamemnon'. Unfortunately he hadn't; but no doubt he had a few ouzos on the strength of his claim.
Death masks in Ancient Egypt adorned the dead Pharaohs. They were elaborate affairs as we now know from the mask of Tutankhamun. They did not serve as a mould of the features of the dead because these were previously mummified. Presumably such masks were thought to have some other function, perhaps to ward off evil spirits. Their effectiveness against COVID-19 has not yet been tested in a randomised trial.
Better fun were the masks worn at the Carnival of Venice. They also were very elaborate, covering the whole face and amounting to a complete disguise. This enabled the Venetians to engage in their traditional pastimes of conducting clandestine affairs and carrying out murders. No doubt Venetian carnival masks would also be effective in preventing the spread of COVID, but they might look a bit odd in Waitrose, especially the sinister looking 'Plague Doctor' mask.
There is a more philosophical side to masks. Historians of ideas tell us that the term 'person' is derived from the Latin persona
, which was originally a mask through which came the sound of an actor's voice. The term was then extended to mean a role in drama, or dramatis persona
, and from there it easily comes to mean a social role. This extension took one form in Roman law, where the role in question was that of 'citizen', or bearer of the rights and duties of Roman law. In other words, in Roman law the term 'person' is not the same as the biological notion of a human being but is an institutional notion.
But the origin of the idea of 'person' – a human being wearing dramatic masks or acting out assorted roles – has led to developments in many directions. Consider, for example, the assorted masks we wear in everyday life. This extension was early recognised by Shakespeare in As You Like It
All the world's a stage,
And all the men and women merely players:
They have their exits and their entrances;
And one man in his time plays many parts.
These parts involve, for example, the occupational mask, or how we act when doing our job and how we interact with colleagues. This might be quite different from how we are with family and different again with old friends; the strict boss can also be the indulgent parent and the pub crony. All this raises one of the central questions of philosophy – the nature of personal identity.
For example, the inquiring journalist might decide to interview a prominent public figure, with the aim of 'uncovering the real person' behind the public mask. But what would be uncovered would just be other masks, one or two of the many masks of private life. Some sociologists push the idea to its limits and argue that there is no one unitary 'self', that we are just the sum total of the roles we play or the masks we wear. Hume reached the same conclusion from a very different starting position when he argued that the self is just a bundle of fleeting internal impressions, that there is nothing unitary that can be regarded as 'the real me'.
In answer to the sociologists who say that the self is just the sum total of the roles we have or the masks we wear, we can ask: who or what plays the roles or wears the masks? In answer to Hume, we can ask: what ties the bundle of fleeting internal impressions? Or, what distinguishes my bundle from yours? Some philosophers would answer both questions by insisting that there must be a continuing self to wear the masks, play the roles, or tie together the fleeting impressions of the bundle. They might use an analogy and point out that we all wear different clothes for different occasions but underneath them all there remains the nude you to be seen in the bathroom mirror, if you can bear to look. Similarly, something – the self – must continue through time to wear the masks or act out the role.
But that approach has its problems. The bathroom mirror analogy is persuasive because the body is something solid, an animate thing, which despite changes has a continuing identity through time. But bodily identity is not the same as personal identity, even if we need a body to have a personal identity. Personal identity involves thoughts, memories, hopes, desires, or in a word, consciousness. These may require a physical basis but are not themselves physical. So if the self, the person, is not identical with the body, what is it? What wears the personal masks or acts out the roles?
Some philosophers would say that there is a continuing non-bodily substance, a soul or ghost in the bodily machine, and it is that which constitutes our personal identity and can wear the assorted masks of our personal lives. Certainly, many people feel strongly that there is something that is the essential me which continues the same through both bodily changes and changes in masks or roles. Despite rationalistic scoffing, that position can be defended.
I'll not develop its problems or defence but note that it is based on a certain assumption: that identity must be understood as if it were necessarily the identity of a thing, inanimate or animate. But there are other ways of looking at identity. For example, a good novel has a narrative identity, and a play has the identity of its dramatic continuity: As You Like It
has its own type of identity and a different one from Hamlet
, but neither is a thing, animate or inanimate.
So perhaps our identities as persons are less like the identity of our bodies and more like the identity of a novel or a play with their linked scenes and characters. That approach would give our personal identity a coherence and unity without presuming a ghostly substance which wears masks.