Detail from lithograph by Matthias Rudolph Toma depicting Franz Xaver Messerschmidt’s “character heads,” 1839. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
The “Theophrastan character” is not often mentioned today, perhaps because it is so little known as a genre. Yet for centuries this was what “character” meant in literature. A list of familiar social types compiled in the fourth century B.C. that chronicled human traits and foibles—from bore to boaster, cynic to coward—influenced the development of later fiction and drama, and remains sharply pertinent in psychology, journalism, cartoon art, and popular culture.
Theophrastan character sketches deliberately describe a recognizable model of behavior rather than a mocked or skewered individual. Dickens’s ever-hopeful Mr. Micawber, clinging to the thought that “something will turn up,” is a descendant of the Theophrastan character, as are Molière’s miser and hypochondriac. Psychologists and psychoanalysts have created character types on what could be called the Theophrastan model, like the obsessive-compulsive, the hysteric, the impulsive man, and the paranoid (whom Theophrastus, lacking the resources of the DSM, might have called “The Suspicious Man”). The “white working-class voter” is a Theophrastan type, as is the equally hypothetical “soccer mom,” not to mention generational “types” like the baby boomer and the millennial. By the twenty-first century, the “character sketch” (or “character portrait”) had become the frequent province of editorial journalism, both print and electronic, as well as of social media and stand-up comedy. “Any kid with a passionate interest in science was a wonk, a square, a dweeb, a doofus, or a geek,” wrote the scientist Stephen Jay Gould, a self-confessed geek. (Within a year or two, however, this “depreciative” term—“an overly diligent, unsociable student,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary—would morph into the glamorous style called “geek chic.”)
Why has this ancient mode survived so long? “The Characters suggested an adaptable form and a set of basic techniques, according to which human types of any century or country could be depicted,” observes J. W. Smeed. “The book seemed to offer an invitation to later writers to borrow the method and use it to describe their own contemporaries.” He adds, “I cannot think of a smaller book with a greater influence.”
A consideration of that influence, beyond the “character collections” of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which were enormously popular in their own time but much less so today, will speak directly to the fascination with character that still dominates intellectual and public life.
Theophrastus (ca. 370–285 B.C.), born Tyrtamus, was a student and colleague of Aristotle, chosen by him as his successor to direct the Peripatetic school in Athens. His name, which translates to “the divine speaker,” is an honorific said to have been given him by Aristotle in acknowledgment of his eloquence.
Called by some “the father of botany,” a topic on which he wrote two large and important early treatises, Theophrastus produced a wide range of scholarly work, very little of which has survived, in areas as diverse as physics, biology, law, ethics, rhetoric, mathematics, music, and poetics. He is best known today for the thirty fictional sketches that are known collectively as the Characters, each of which illustrates a dominant attribute, or fault, or “vice.”
As Jeffrey Rusten points out in his edition and translation of the Characters, “If it were not firmly established, Theophrastus’ title might better be rendered ‘traits,’ ” since it is part of his conception that “individual good or bad traits of character may be isolated and studied separately”—a point also made by Aristotle in the Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle himself had produced in that work a striking description of magnificence, or “the magnificent man,” situated at the mean between stinginess and vulgarity, but the virtuous mean is not the substance with which Theophrastus will work in the Characters. His thirty memorable “characters” are all extremes, whether deficient or excessive.
Whether his goal in writing them was ethical, rhetorical, satiric, comic, or to enliven his classroom lectures—scholars have suggested all of these, sometimes in combination—the result was remarkable: his imitators and stylistic heirs included some of the most notable writers of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, as well as a surprising number and variety of modern practitioners. The psychologist Gordon Allport quoted the whole of “The Penurious Man” in his Pattern and Growth in Personality, observing, “Though written over two thousand years ago it is applicable to some of our acquaintances today.”
Theophrastus’s most immediate literary influence, however, was on the comic playwright Menander, who may have been one of his students. “You will find,” the British scholar G. S. Gordon told an Oxford audience,
that whenever Characters are written there is this same conjunction, of Character-Writing and Comedy; to every Theophrastus, his Menander. To Hall, Overbury, and Earle, the accepted imitators of Theophrastus in England, corresponds Ben Jonson with his Comedy of Humours, an earlier, harsher, and profounder version of the later Comedy of Manners. To La Bruyère, his professed disciple in France, corresponds the comedy of Molière, the French Menander. To the Tatler and the Spectator, the New Testament, as I may call them, of Character-writing in England, corresponds the comedy of Congreve, our English Molière.
Gordon added that such a conjunction always implies or reflects some philosophy of conduct. “Virtue once admitted to be the mean,” as Aristotle had established, “it became necessary to define all the extremes, the too little and too much of the social appearances of man.” This “too little and too much” would furnish the basic materials of comic types, from the miser to the libertine, the fashionable peacock, and the glutton.
Comedy, as is often observed, is an essentially conservative genre, as is satire. Both point toward the foibles and follies—and sometimes the delusions and sheer wickedness—of human beings. Here ethical “character” and two different but related modes of literary “character,” the Theophrastan prose sketch and the theatrical role, come together.
Since they would exercise so great an influence upon his imitators and (witting or unwitting) literary heirs, it may be useful here to list the thirty “characters” as we have them from Theophrastus. Richard Aldington’s titles for them, derived from scholarly work of the early twentieth century and generally adopted by commentators, describe the person (“The Flatterer,” “The Arrogant Man,” etc.), whereas Benjamin Boyce, and Jeffrey Rusten in his recent Loeb translation, names the characteristic, or foible (“Flattery,” “Arrogance”). In Aldington’s version, the original Theophrastan characters are:
The Chatterer (or “The Bore”)
The Complaisant Man
The Reckless Cynic
The Loquacious Man
The Unscrupulous Man
The Penurious Man
The Gross Man
The Unseasonable Man
The Officious Man
The Stupid Man
The Surly Man
The Superstitious Man
The Distrustful Man
The Offensive Man
The Unpleasant Man
The Vain Man
The Mean Man
The Arrogant Man
The Friend of the Rabble
The Avaricious Man
From this list, even without looking at the individual descriptions, it is easy to understand Allport’s sense that these two-thousand-year-old types are readily recognizable in the modern world.
“Theophrastus’ characters remain fixed,” notes the philosopher Amélie Rorty. “They are not transformed by the unfolding of events. On the contrary, their dispositional characteristics allow them to be used to develop a narrative or to stabilize the structure of a society.” In other words, as events unfold, the “character” becomes even more like himself or herself—sometimes to the point of comedy or parody. “At a time when bad behavior flourishes, even among our leaders,” says the novelist and critic Francine Prose, Theophrastus’s “portraits of boors, braggarts, and blowhards have never felt more current.” The classicist Mary Beard agrees: “These Characters are people we know—they’re our quirky neighbors, our creepy bosses, our blind dates from hell.”
The format of the Characters is fairly uniform. Each begins with a definition of a quality (“Chattering is the mania of talking hugely without thinking”; “Grumbling is complaining too much of one’s lot”; “Penuriousness is economy carried beyond all measure”), although not all scholars agree that Theophrastus himself wrote these opening sentences. Then the chosen trait is illustrated by a series of descriptions of actions or words. The Chatterer (in some translations, “The Bore”) “sits down beside someone he never saw before and begins by praising his wife; then describes a dream he had the night before; then passes to his dinner and relates it in detail.” When the Grumbler is told of the birth of a son, he retorts, “You should add … that my property is now halved, and you would be telling the truth.” Of the Penurious Man (or “The Pennypincher”) we are told, “At a dinner where expenses are shared, he counts the number of cups each person drinks,” and “When his servant breaks a pot or a plate, he deducts the value from his food. If his wife drops a copper, he moves furniture, beds, chests and hunts in the curtains.” “The inner man emerges from this description of externals,” observes Smeed. “There is no abstract analysis.” The form is perfect in and of itself.
Here is one of Theophrastus’s “characters” quoted in full, to give you a sense of how the shape of the whole small form coheres. “The Gross Man” (or “The Obnoxious Man,” or “Obnoxiousness”) is one of the briefer “characters,” but every sentence is telling.
Grossness is not hard to define; it is obtrusive and objectionable jesting. The Gross Man is the sort of person who, meeting free-born women, pulls up his clothes and exposes his genitals. At the theatre he goes on clapping when others cease, and hisses the actors whom the public like. In the midst of a general silence he leans back and belches to make everybody turn round. When the market-place is crowded he goes up to the stalls where they sell nuts or myrtle-berries and pilfers from the pile as he talks to the stall-keeper. Somebody he does not know comes by in a hurry—he tells him to stop. Another comes out of court where he has lost an important case—he accosts him and offers congratulations. He goes personally to do his marketing and hire flute-players; he shows his provisions to everybody and invites them to the feast. He stops in front of the barber’s or perfumer’s and tells the customers he is going to get drunk.
The “sort of person who” structure allows for a list of distinguishing actions and behaviors that describe not a specific individual (what later practitioners and scholars would call a “portrait”) but, rather, a recognizable “type.” The obnoxious man does things like the ones here mentioned. The reader can be relied upon to think up some additional examples to fit the pattern. The generality of the form, and the present tense (“he goes on clapping”; “he stops in front of the barber’s or perfumer’s”), underscores both the typicality of the behavior and the way it might translate into another place or time. (Think “frat party” or “#MeToo.”)
Marjorie Garber is the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of English and of Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University. She is the author of several books on Shakespeare, including Shakespeare’s Ghost Writers and Shakespeare After All, and of books on cultural topics ranging from dogs and real estate to cross-dressing, bisexuality, the use and abuse of literature, and the place of the arts in academic life. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, she is a member of the American Philosophical Society.
Excerpted from Character: The History of a Cultural Obsession, by Marjorie Garber. Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Copyright © 2020 by Marjorie Garber. All rights reserved.
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