Theophrastus’ Characters

Emily Esfahani Smith:

The new translation of Characters, by the philosopher Theophrastus (Aristotle’s favorite student), presents 30 brief vignettes of vulgarians, dullards, and yokels who populated the streets of ancient Athens—and who continue to make their presence known in ours. The rascals he profiles—from “The Newshound” and “The Arrogant Man” to “The Social Climber” and “The Flatterer”—are figures straight out of contemporary headlines. We meet, for example, “The Obnoxious Man,” who compulsively exposes himself in front of women. Characters like Harvey Weinstein and Charlie Rose; Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton; Michael Avenatti and Stormy Daniels would have amused Theophrastus endlessly with their behavior. Civilization may be 2,400 years older, but human nature is apparently much the same.

Unlike this gallery of rogues, Theophrastus was beloved during his time. Born as Tyrtamus around 371 bc on Lesbos, he came to Athens in his youth and found his way to Aristotle’s philosophical school, the Lyceum, where the great philosopher rechristened him Theophrastus (“divine in speech”), according to the concise and helpful introduction that opens this volume, written by classicist James Romm of Bard College. Considered the father of botany for his writings on plants—though he covered a wide range of topics, from the gods and stars to human sweat and hair—Theophrastus not only became Aristotle’s favorite student but also revered by the citizens of Athens. His philosophy lectures at the Lyceum attracted thousands of Athenians, and when he died at 85, an ancient source tells us that “the whole population of Athens, honouring him greatly, followed him to the grave.”

This isn’t to say that Theophrastus did not encounter the seamier side of human nature. As a foreigner, he was considered an outsider in Athens and was made to remember it. “In legal terms,” writes Romm, “Theophrastus and Aristotle were ‘metics,’ resident aliens, who had no political rights and could not own property.” Once, when Theophrastus asked an old woman in the marketplace about the price of her goods, she responded disdainfully by calling him “foreigner.” “Though he might acquire fine Attic speech and join Aristotle’s high-minded school, he was still a ‘bowl carrier,’” writes Romm, referring to the role metics were relegated to in Athenian state processions.