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Character: as flawed as the ancient Greeks’

in Literature/Philosophies by

Psychologists, teachers, but also lay people of an observant nature, will assure you that a character is already forged at 5 years of age. A character is what characterises us, is the total of our characteristics, of our predominant traits, of the things we prefer and the things we avoid. Our advantages and disadvantages. It is our identity.

In his book Characters, the ancient Greek philosopher Theophrastus (c. 371 – c. 287 BC) concentrates on the disadvantages of humans, on what is wrong with some people.

Character expert? Theophrastus. Etching by J. Richardson, 1739.
Character expert? Theophrastus. Etching by J. Richardson, 1739. By Wellcome Collection gallery (2018-04-05): CC BY 4.0, Link

As we turned 40, most of my friends (women) started complaining that they were slowly turning into their mothers. Their most common complaint was that they were becoming chronic complainers exactly like their mothers before them. What they had mostly hated about their moms, the endless whining, the grumpy attitude, the accusations against their husbands and their children, they were now doing themselves.

Theophrastus doesn’t mention women in his Characters; during his time, they were more or less invisible. Centuries later, the most famous characters of the French playwright Molière (1622 – 1673) were also men, like the Misanthrope Alceste or the Miser Harpagon, and the Imaginary Invalid Argan. Molière commented on the hypocritical morality of his era, by presenting us these protagonists under a comical light.

It is incredible how modern Theophrastus’s text is. People haven’t changed at all during the last two thousand years. Their needs, their tendencies, their inability to control their faults remain the same.

Theophrastus analyzes the 30 character types using a remarkable sense of humour.

A museum in Greece, present time. (Photo: public domain)
A museum in Greece, present time. (Photo: public domain)

Most of them have more or less the same weak points. They are either too selfish or too rude towards others. They are garrulous or flatterers or impolite or stingy.

One of the described characters will always say the wrong thing at the wrong moment.

Another one is so superstitious that if he sees a cat crossing the street in front of him, he will not walk any more unless someone else comes and walks before him. If no one appears, he will have to throw three stones onto the spot where the cat has trodden.

Another character is never satisfied; he always has a negative comment. When his lover kisses him, he says to her, “I am not sure if these kisses come sincerely from your heart;” when someone comes to announce the birth of his son to him, he answers, “but mind you, half of my fortune is also gone now.”

There is a lot to learn from Theophrastus’s Characters regarding the life and the habits in ancient Athens. For instance, elegant men used to remove the hair from their chest or their armpits because their clothes left these parts of the body exposed, and hair wouldn’t make them look good.

Also, ancient Greeks didn’t have cooks at home; their wives used to cook, with professional cooks brought in only for official banquets. Later, during the time of Alexander the Great, the rich started hiring cooks. A cook, as depicted in the comedies of that time, was a con artist, a glutton and a thief.

A character is indeed a tricky thing.

In modern Greek, there is a phrase that goes: “Don’t judge others based on the knowledge you have about yourself.”

If you are a frightened chicken, don’t believe that everyone’s a frightened chicken like you. If you are a gossipy little wretch, don’t assume that everyone takes pleasure in talking about other people behind their backs like you do. On the same token, if you have a heroic, courageous nature, think twice before assuming that most of the people you meet will be as fine as you.

Theophrastus' Characters, in Greek and Latin. Edited by Peter Needham and Isaac Casaubon. 1758.
Theophrastus’ Characters, in Greek and Latin. Edited by Peter Needham and Isaac Casaubon. 1758.

Or to quote the words of Theophrastus in the preface of his book:

“Often before now have I applied my thoughts to the puzzling question — one, probably, which will puzzle me for ever — why it is that, while all Greece lies under the same sky and all the Greeks are educated alike, it has befallen us to have characters so variously constituted.”

The question applies not only for Greece, but for the whole world. To its 7 billion people with their various characters. Perhaps the answer is to be found in this small book written so many centuries ago.


Which (unflattering) character archetype best describes you, according to Theophrastus? Find out here!


The Acropolis in Athens, Greece. (Image: public domain)
The Acropolis in Athens, Greece. (Image: public domain)

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