Oh, for H.L. Mencken today, our prince of reporters, who enjoyed the company of politicians, and knew that the only way to look upon them is down. On this bad Friday in U.S. history, in the spirit of the erudite Baltimorean, let us consider Theophrastus.
Theophrastus succeeded Aristotle as chief philosopher of the Lyceum. But what U.S. voter doesn’t know that?
“The whole population of Athens, honoring him greatly, followed him to his grave,” if you can believe Diogenes Laertius — and who else are you going to believe?
Theophrastus’ major surviving work, “Moral Characters,” is 30 short, pithy descriptions of character types: the boor, the coward, the flatterer, and so on. It has no plot, no character with a name; it tells no story. It just describes 30 character types.
“There is nothing in the world so interesting as a character, but there is nothing that is so difficult to portray briefly,” Charles Bennett and William Hammond wrote in the introduction to their 1902 edition of Theophrastus.
Theophrastus survives not just for the acuteness of his eye, ear and hand, but because his characters are still with us, after 2,300 years.
Character, to the ancient Greeks, did not mean what it means to us. It was not: “What a crazy guy!” Character showed virtue, or vice. “Any violation of good taste or breach of courtesy was morally vicious,” his translators wrote.
None of us, no one who ever lived, was a pure character. We are all mixtures of character types. Bearing this in mind, we submit to the opinion of a candid world these characters from Theophrastus. (Bennett’s and Hammond’s translation is in the public domain.)
The Shameless Man: Shamelessness is contempt for decency, joined with meanness of purpose. Your shameless fellow robs a man and then returns to borrow money of him.
The Pompous Man: Pompousness is contempt for everybody except oneself.
The Braggart: Bragging is pretending to have excellences one does not really possess. The braggart stands on a wharf and tells bystanders how extensive his business is, and how much money he made on his deals.
The Backbiter: Backbiting is a disposition to vilify others. He says vile things of his friends, and maligns even the dead.
The Impudent Man: Impudence is conduct that is obtrusively offensive. The impudent man insults women in the streets.
The Vicious Man: Viciousness is love of what is bad. The vicious man declares that no one is actually upright, but that all men are alike; he even reproaches the man who is honorable.
The Bore: A bore is a man who cannot refrain from talking. A bore is the sort of fellow who, the moment you open your mouth, tells you that your remarks are stupid, that he knows all about it, and if you’ll only listen to him, you’ll learn.
The Oligarch: Oligarchy is love of money that clings to personal advantage.
The Avaricious Man: Avarice is greedy love of gain. When he pays a debt of 30 pounds, he does so with a discount of four shillings.
The Suspicious Man: Suspicion is a kind of belief that everybody else is fraudulent.
The Rough: Roughness is coarse conduct, whether in word or act. The rough takes an oath lightly and doles out insults. He is a town bully, obscene in manner.
The Boor: Boorishness is ignorance of good form. His boots are too big for his feet and he talks in a loud voice.
The Thankless Man: Thanklessness is an improper criticism of what one receives.
The Exquisite Man: Exquisiteness is a striving for honor in small things.
Bring anyone to mind?
A pompous braggart, backbiting, vicious, impudent, boring, avaricious, suspicious, rough and boorish, a thankless oligarch?
Well, at least he’s exquisite, I guess. Though that could be a mistranslation.