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Characters

[Originally published at the now defunct group blog explananda.com]


Posted on July 19, 2006
Tags: classics

I was waylaid by a garrulous neighbour yesterday while walking the dog. He held me captive until, after about 5 minutes, I had to just start walking away from him. Without fairly aggressive evasive action I’m sure I would have passed the day away under the sun nodding along to a stream of reflections on the weather, the neighbourhood, and etc. etc. etc.

Anyway, this reminded me of Theophrastus. Theophrastus was a friend and associate of Aristotle’s, and, after Aristotle’s death, his successor as head of the Lyceum, the school that Aristotle founded in Athens. Theophrastus was, like Aristotle, a genius and a polymath, producing works on botany, rhetoric, metaphysics and many other subjects. He also wrote a short work on different character types, which you can read in its entirety here, courtesy of at eudaimonist, a wonderful and elegant little site.

To give you an idea, here is Theophrastus’s Garrulous Man:
The Garrulous Man is one who will sit down beside a person whom he does not know, and first pronounce a panegyric on his own wife; then relate his dream of last night; then go through in detail what he has had for dinner. Then, warming to the work, he will remark that the men of the present day are greatly inferior to the ancients; and how cheap wheat has become in the market; and what a number of foreigners are in town; and that the sea is navigable after the Dionysia; and that, if Zeus would send more rain, the crops would be better; and that he will work his land next year; and how hard it is to live; and that Damippus set up a very large torch at the Mysteries; and How many columns has the Odeum? and that yesterday he was unwell; and What is the day of the month?; and that the Mysteries are in Bodromion, the Apaturia in Pyanepsion, the rural Dionysia in Poseideon. Nor, if he is tolerated, will he ever desist.
And here is the Unseasonable Man (i.e., the man with bad timing):
The Unseasonable Man is one who will go up to a busy person, and open his heart to him. He will serenade his mistress when she has a fever. He will address himself to a man who has been cast in a surety-suit, and request him to become his security. He will come to give evidence when the trial is over. When he is asked to a wedding, he will inveigh against womankind. He will propose a walk to those who have just come off a long journey. He has a knack, also, of bringing a higher bidder to him who has already found his market. He loves to rise and go through a long story to those who have heard it and know it by heart; he is zealous, too, in charging himself with offices which one would rather not have done, but is ashamed to decline. When people are sacrificing and incurring expense, he will come to demand his interest. If he is present at the flogging of a slave, he will relate how a slave of his own was once beaten in the same way � and hanged himself; or, assisting at an arbitration, he will persist in embroiling the parties when they both wish to be reconciled. And, when he is minded to dance, he will seize upon another person who is not yet drunk.

I think what makes these so funny is the strange blend of foreign and familiar. We all know such people - that’s half the pleasure, as it must have been for Theophrastus’s original audience - but we don’t know them with many of these details. Anyone who studies a foreign culture, either temporally or geographically foreign, knows this feeling, but I think it’s especially strong when we read this work because Theophrastus has drawn his characters so well and so concretely.

Theophrastus’s Characters was a real hit. Not only has it been read and appreciated since he wrote it, but it also spawned an entire (sub?)genre of literature. If you’re interested there’s more here, and even more elsewhere if you keep looking - and perhaps even more still waiting to be written.

Comments


Author: DC
Date: 2006-07-19

“And, when he is minded to dance, he will seize upon another person who is not yet drunk.”

That’s very funny. But the whole thing sounds like a brainstorming session for an episode of Seinfeld, or maybe the lyrics of an Alanis Morisette song.



Author: Chris
Date: 2006-07-19

I did giggle at that sentence especially.

I’d say the Seinfeld comparison gets a bit closer to the mark than the comparison to Alanis M, who, by the way, had her locker around the corner from me when I was in Grade 10.



Author: DC
Date: 2006-07-20

Touched by greatness. But please, explain this “grade” thing to me - Grade 10 is what age exactly?



Author: Chris
Date: 2006-07-20

Um, 15-16 years old. Back then we went up to grade 13, though now they’ve trimmed it to grade 12.



Author: anne
Date: 2006-07-20

Chris, that is beautiful. More, please.

DC, what do you call them? Forms? This is one of the notable differences between Canadian and American English: Canadians say “grade ten”, Americans say “tenth grade”, and to both it sounds weird the other way round.



Author: Chris
Date: 2006-07-20

Also, I get giggles and funny looks when I say to an American “Back in Grade 13 . . .” Ontario has since gotten rid of Grade 13 anyway, so I imagine it’s only a matter of time until the young Canadians give the same damn giggle. Whippersnappers, and etc.



Author: DC
Date: 2006-07-20

I believe they call them “forms” in Britain. In Ireland (ah, complications!) we refer to 1st, 2nd, 3rd etc. “class” in primary school, until we change to secondary school aged 12 or 13, when they are 1st, 2nd, 3rd etc. “year”.

We always hear the US version of “grade” on TV and in films, but I’ve always been hopelessly confused as to what it all meant.

Now, what’s “high school”?



Author: Chris
Date: 2006-07-20

DC, if you’re not just putting us on, high school is grade 9 to 12 (i.e., ages 14 to 18). Junior high is grades 7 and 8. Grade school is kindergarten to grade 6.



Author: DC
Date: 2006-07-22

Simpler here: primary school 4-12, secondary school 12-18. Hang on, is junior high actually a different school? Seems odd for just two years.