Theophrastus on the Philologist: The Lost Character Sketch

Das Leipziger Postklaßischkollektiv

Theophrastus (c.371–c.287 BC) is not really given his due these days. As Aristotle’s successor at the head of the Peripatetic School in Athens, the poor chap had unfillable shoes to step into. But step he had to, after his illustrious teacher had given him such an uncompromising rebranding: his perfectly serviceable name of Tyrtamus was turbo-charged into “Mr Divine-Speech” (Θεόφραστος). Still, he really did his part, diving deep into physics, biology, botany, geology, astronomy, metaphysics, linguistics, ethics, and intellectual history, which gave him ample excuse to turn out over 200 books. And folk seemed to prick their ears up, as his school found itself with more than 2,000 students enrolled at once.

Theophrastus lays a supportive arm on an improbably-bodied Strato, while Aristotle flexes for the mandatory avian anatomy lesson; Demosthenes contemplates a course transfer (Carl Rahl, 1888, University of Athens, Greece).

Most read among Theophrastus’ far-ranging works is his Characters (called in Greek “Behavioural Types”, Ἠθικοὶ χαρακτῆρες), which offers a typology of 30 different stock individuals with whom we are all too familiar. But in 1897, the team of German philologists who had just produced a new edition and commentary of the Characters clamed to have turned up a 31st sketch.[1] Yes, the papyrus raised eyebrows by being found in the Library of Plagwitz (German for “joke”), and yes it first circulated at a social gathering of their Philologische Gesellschaft in Leipzig, but its style nevertheless seemed impeccably Theophrastean. The only slight sticking point was that its subject matter – the Philologus, or Classical Scholar – seemed to be a much more contemporary (i.e. late-19th-century) figure than any credible Athenian type of the 3rd century BC. If only we could know more about this strange text and its mysterious origins…

At any rate, here follows the Greek text with a rough-and-ready English translation. And if you “feel seen”, join us!

Character Sketch 31: On Philology

(1) Philology, of course, is the excessive desire for archaic writings and affairs, and the philologist is the sort of person (2) who overvalues and sanctifies books, papyri, inscriptions and other such things only because they are ancient, and who rejoices when they are found not in an intact state but corrupted by many errors and lacunae, declaring that his sweetest and most worthwhile task is restoring and correcting such stuff.

(3) And when ancient writings are discovered somewhere, he is pleased if they are written on paper; he dances if they are on parchment; he cries out if they are on papyrus; he sings triumphantly if they are on stone; and he even falls to his knees if they are on bronze; (4) and he admires nothing from the crafstmen of his time, always reciting those words from Homer’s poems: “Such are mortal men now.” And whenever he sees a statue of noseless, maimed and mutilated figures, or a fragment of an ancient and battered pot depicting a young lad’s buttocks, he leaps with joy and cries out, “How excellent is this!”

(5) And he spends more time in libraries than his own house, having his living room, private quarters, and bedroom filled with books. (6) And he forbids the maid from cleaning or reorganising his writing desk. (7) And if he meets one of the many children born to him while walking in the street, he doesn’t recognise them but generously asks, “Child, why are you crying? What is your home and who are your parents?” (8) He is also liable to force his young children to learn the epic poems by heart at the age of five, and his wife the Greek alphabet.

(9) And he knows the ancient laws of the Greeks and Romans with more precision than those of his own country. (10) And he wears old-fashioned cloaks, and sports trousers too short for his legs.

(11) And he is always teaching something, and getting angry at the person who isn’t persuaded. (12) And he keeps getting in terrible fights with his colleagues, asserting in a loud voice over everyone else’s collective cries that only what he himself said is correct. (13) And he deploys these phrases: “I don’t believe you,” and “That’s nonsense,” and “I clearly proved the opposite the day before yesterday,” and “Surely you’ve read what I wrote about this recently?”

(14) And he travels to Athens and Rome especially and praises the sky and land and sea there and the men and women and young girls there, and he marvels at the pictures of all these things which he is always carrying about; and by purchasing fake or fraudulent coins and ostraka and gems and lecythia and trinkets he unwittingly spends his travel funds. And he returns home promising his wife [added in the margin: and his mother-in-law] that he will take them next time.

Further Reading

Theophrastus’ certainly genuine corpus of characters can be freely read in English here and Greek here. Those wishing to pursue them in greater deal will profit greatly from James Diggle’s recent ‘Green and Yellowcommentary (Cambridge UP, 2022).

Robinson Ellis, Benjamin Jowett, and Richard Jebb keeping the faith at the top.


1 The seven scholars whom Otto Immisch herded through this admirably collaborative project were Malvin Bechert, Konrad Cichorius, Alfred Giesecke, Richard Holland, Jan Ilberg, Richard Meister and Walther Ruge.