Theophrastus (Tyrtamus) (Writer)

(ca. 372-ca. 287 B.C.) philosopher, rhetorician, scientist, teacher, nonfiction writer

The son of a fuller, or cloth handler, Theophrastus was born in Eresus on the island of Lesbos. Certain biographers suggest he studied at plato’s Academy in Athens. By age 25 he had formed close ties with Plato’s favorite student and successor aristotle, whom he accompanied to the court of Philip of Macedonia when Aristotle was hired to tutor the young prince Alexander. Upon their joint return to Athens in 334, Aristotle founded the Peripatetic school, where Theophrastus became his most gifted student. After Alexander’s death, the Athenian democracy experienced civil disorder as various persons struggled for control of the city. Theophrastus spent a year in exile when a political decree banished all philosophers, but in 306, when the decree was revoked, he returned and took over as head of the Peripatetic. Under his leadership, the school enjoyed the peak of its influence and success, attracting more than 2,000 students. When Theophrastus died, Athenians accompanied his bier on foot as a mark of honor.

Originally named Tyrtamus, Theophrastus, which means “divine speaker,” earned the name by which he is known through his impressive command of rhetoric. strabo said that “Aristotle made all his students eloquent, but Theophrastus most eloquent.” Like his mentor, Theophrastus’s interests ranged from the natural sciences to logic, metaphysics, rhetoric, poetics, politics, and ethics. His ideas on philosophy and metaphysics built on the ideas of Plato and Aristotle, though during Theophrastus’s tenure at the Peripatetic, Zeno was formulating Stoic philosophy and epicurus founded his own Epicurean school at the Garden.

Diogenes Laertius, who wrote an early biography of Theophrastus, called him “a very intelligent and industrious man … ever ready to do a kindness and a lover of words.” Laertius attributed 224 works to Theophrastus, everything from 24 books on law to treatises on the winds, types of sweating, tiredness, plagues, fainting, and dizziness. The sheer diversity and breadth of topics shows the extraordinary breadth of his knowledge and the in-quisitiveness of his mind. He wrote on abstractions such as flattery and piety and on practical activities such as sleep and dreams, music, and judicial speeches. He analyzed virtually every aspect of the natural world, from fruits and flavors to wine and olive oil. He meditated on emotions, virtue, and the nature of the soul and wrote manuals on kingship, the rearing of children, and the art of rhetoric. Other topics he studied included melancholy, derangement, slander, metals, fire, and old age, to name just a few.

What remains of Theophastus’s work, aside from scattered fragments and quotations in texts of late antiquity and the middle ages, are two treatises on botany and assorted essays on natural sciences, sense perception, and metaphysics. His most-remembered work is what was, perhaps to him, his most unimportant: the Characters, which became a paradigm for European literature and contributed to the development of the English essay.

Critical Analysis

The work Characters consists of a table of contents, a preface explaining the purpose of the collection, and 30 chapters, each devoted to a different aspect of personality. None of the listed traits are very pleasant or admirable. Each individual chapter is titled with the trait under attack and commences with a general definition, leading to a description of the characteristic actions of a person of this sort. Some sketches are followed by moralizing epilogues, which scholars suspect are later additions. The true worth of Characters lies in the detailed descriptions of each figure, which read like a series of lecture notes or scribbles in a personal sketchbook. The structure of these descriptions is uniformly peculiar and distinctive: Each begins with the formula “X is the sort who …” and commences with a series of modifiers listing the behaviors to which this sort of person is prone. The details are vivid and often hilarious. There are no virtues featured in these sketches; the characters are buffoons, braggarts, tricksters, and examples of all sorts of vice.

Theophrastus, along with his students, had a reputation for dressing finely and living well, which may explain why so many of the characters he writes about are parodies of stinginess. He was also known for his elegant manners and sophistication, so several of the bumbling characters lack social graces. The work is clearly not meant to instruct, either on the basis of ethical behavior or as an example of rhetorical style; alone of Theophras-tus’s compositions, Characters seems designed for sheer entertainment. What moral judgments that exist are thought to be the interpolations of later authors. Theophrastus takes the stance of the natural scientist—studying, classifying, and remarking on distinct traits, without attempting to moralize or rationalize upon them.

The details of the descriptions clearly anchor them in Athens in the last decades of the fourth century b.c., revealing the city’s customs, institutions, practices, and prejudices. The sketches were likely composed over a decade or so, and most of the internal evidence, or references within the work, suggest dates between 325 and 315 b.c. The descriptions abound with fascinating information about everyday life in Athens, as can be seen in this description of the character Obsequiousness:

He gets frequent haircuts and keeps his teeth white, and discards cloaks that are still good, and anoints himself with perfumed oil. In the marketplace he goes frequently to the moneychangers; among gymnasia he spends his time at those where the ephebes work out; in the theater, whenever there is a show, he sits next to the generals. He buys nothing for himself, but for foreigners he buys letters of commission for Byzantium, and Laconian dogs for Kyzikos, and Hymettos honey for Rhodes, and as he does so tells everybody in town about it.

Despite the specificity of the detail, however, Theophrastus’s characters do not belong only to ancient Greece. When he summarizes the ungenerous person as “the sort who, if he wins the tragedy competition, dedicates to Dionysus a strip of wood with only his own name written on it,” even readers unacquainted with this practice can guess readily enough what it means. Many of Theophrastus’s characters are universal types.

In his approach to the work, Theophrastus uses a theory of personality predicated on the belief that traits may be isolated and separately studied. He inherited from Aristotle the idea that badness of character resulted from excess or extremes. Excellence of character—what we would call virtue— required moderating or balancing between the extremes. While Theophrastus’s characters borrow from Aristotle’s Ethics, at least in their examples of vice, he also incorporates elements of comedy and satire perfected by the dramatists, for example aristophanes. menander’s style of New Comedy owes much to the philosophy of character contained in Theophrastus. After Theophrastus, character writing was often imitated, most successfully by seneca and plutarch. The works of Horace, martial, juvenal, and lucian all demonstrate their knowledge of the Characters.

The several existing copies of the manuscript, in various stages of decay, owe their survival to the frequency with which the work was anthologized in manuals of rhetorical instruction. The character sketch was a rhetorical exercise recommended by cicero and quintilian as a way of developing writing skill as well as providing an understanding of human nature. Medieval writers borrowed the technique of a gallery of personality portraits; the most notable examples are the Prologue to The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer, the catalog of the Seven Sins in Piers Plowman by William Langland, and Ship of Fools by Sebastian Brandt. The 1592 edition of Characters by Issac Casaubon inspired renewed attention to the character sketch.

Renaissance writers showed a keen interest in the literature and ideals of the ancient Greeks, among them Francois Rabelais, Miguel de Cervantes, Desiderius Erasmus, Michel de Montaigne, and Ben Jonson. Several writers of the 17th century attempted their own series of characters modeled after Theophrastus, most notably Jean de La Bruyere, who translated Theophrastus and then continued with his own updated character sketches. Though the technique of the literary “portrait” belonged to the 17th and 18th centuries, the art of describing characters through descriptions of manners and behaviors was adapted by 19th-century novelists from Charles Dickens to George Eliot. In many ways, therefore, the technique of characterization used in the modern-day novel can be dated all the way back to the height of ancient Greece and the work of Theophrastus.

English Versions of Works by Theophrastus

Theophrastus: Characters. Edited James Diggle et al. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Theophrastus: Enquiry Into Plants. Translated by Arthur F. Hort. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989.

Works about Theophrastus

Baltussen, Han. Theophrastus Against the Presocratics and Plato. Boston: Brill Academic , 2000.

Huby, Pamela and William W. Fortenbraugh. Theophrastus ofEresus: Sources for his Life, Writings, Thought and Influence. Boston: Brill Academic Publishers, 1999.

Van Ophuijsen, Johannes M. and Marlein Van Raalte, eds. Theophrastus: Reappraising the Sources. Somerset, N.J.: Transaction Publications, 1998.

Next post:

Previous post: