The Characters  

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"The Unscrupulous Man will go and borrow more money from a creditor he has never paid ... When marketing he reminds the butcher of some service he has rendered him and, standing near the scales, throws in some meat, if he can, and a soup-bone. If he succeeds, so much the better; if not, he will snatch a piece of tripe and go off laughing."

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

The Characters is a book by Greek philosopher Theophrastus (371 – c. 287 BC) which contains thirty brief, vigorous and trenchant outlines of moral types, which form a most valuable picture of the life of his time, and in fact of human nature in general. Writing the "character sketch" as a scholastic exercise also originated in Theophrastus's typology.

They are the first recorded attempt at systematic character writing. The book has been regarded by some as an independent work; others incline to the view that the sketches were written from time to time by Theophrastus, and collected and edited after his death; others, again, regard the Characters as part of a larger systematic work, but the style of the book is against this. Theophrastus has found many imitators in this kind of writing, notably Hall (1608), Sir Thomas Overbury (1614–16), Bishop Earle (1628, Microcosmographie) and Jean de La Bruyère (1688), who also translated the Characters into French. George Eliot also took inspiration from Theophrastus' Characters, most notably in her book of caricatures, Impressions of Theophrastus Such.

The characters

Cavilling · Flattery · Garrulitie · Rusticity · Smoothness · Senselessness · Loquacity · News-forging · Impudency · Avarice · Obscenity · Unseasonableness · Impertinent Diligence · Blockishness · Stubbornness · Superstition · Complaining · Diffidence · Nastiness · Unpleasantness · Affectation · Illiberality · Ostentation · Pride · Timidity · Oligarchy · Late-learning · Detraction

The study of the Character, as it is now known, was conceived by Aristotle’s student Theophrastus. In The Characters (c. 319 BC), Theophrastus introduced the “character sketch,” which became the core of “the Character as a genre.” It included 30 character types. Each type is said to be an illustration of an individual who represents a group, characterized by his most prominent trait. The Theophrastan types are as follows:

  • The Insincere Man (Eironeia)
  • The Flatterer (Kolakeia)
  • The Garrulous Man (Adoleschia)
  • The Boor (Agroikia)
  • The Complaisant Man (Areskeia)
  • The Man without Moral Feeling (Aponoia)
  • The Talkative Man (Lalia)
  • The Fabricator (Logopoiia)
  • The Shamelessly Greedy Man (Anaischuntia)
  • The Pennypincher (Mikrologia)
  • The Offensive Man (Bdeluria)
  • The Hapless Man (Akairia)
  • The Officious Man (Periergia)
  • The Absent-Minded Man (Anaisthesia)
  • The Unsociable Man (Authadeia)
  • The Superstitious Man (Deisidaimonia)
  • The Faultfinder (Mempsimoiria)
  • The Suspicious Man (Apistia)
  • The Repulsive Man (Duschereia)
  • The Unpleasant Man (Aedia)
  • The Man of Petty Ambition (Mikrophilotimia)
  • The Stingy Man (Aneleutheria)
  • The Show-Off (Alazoneia)
  • The Arrogant Man (Huperephania)
  • The Coward (Deilia)
  • The Oligarchical Man (Oligarchia)
  • The Late Learner (Opsimathia)
  • The Slanderer (Kakologia)
  • The Lover of Bad Company (Philoponeria)
  • The Basely Covetous Man (Aischrokerdeia)

It is unclear wherefrom Theophrastus derived these types, but many strongly resemble those from Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. Despite the fact that Theophrastus sought to portray character types and not individuals, some of the sketches may have been drawn from observations of actual persons in Athenian public life. Although the preface of the work implies the intention to catalogue “human nature, associate[ed] with all sorts and conditions of men and contrast[ed] in minute detail the good and bad among them,” many other possible types are left unrepresented. These omissions are especially noticeable because each of the thirty characters represents a negative trait (“the bad”); some scholars have therefore suspected that another half of the work, covering the positive types (“the good”), once existed. This preface, however, is certainly fictitious, i.e. added in later times, and cannot therefore be a source of any allegation. Nowadays many scholars also believe that the definitions found in the beginning of each sketch are later additions.

Full text

see The Characters of Theophrastus (R.C. Jebb translation)

See also




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