Characters: An Ancient Take on Bad Behavior by Theophrastus

Characters: An Ancient Take on Bad Behavior
by Theophrastus
Translated by Pamela Mensch
Illustrated by Andre Carrilho
Callaway, 2018

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Over 2300 years ago, a young parvenu named Tyrtamus from the island of Lesbos came to Athens and soon attached himself first to the philosophical school of Plato and then to that of Aristotle. According to a much later chronicler, Diogenes Laertius, he rose in his late master’s esteem, earned himself the euphonious nickname “Theophrastus,” eventually took over the running of Aristotle’s Lyceum, wrote prodigiously, and died at the ripe old age of 85 mourned by the entire intelligentsia of Athens. Only a fraction of his works survive, and one of those, his short collection of 30 sketches of broad character types, now appears from Callaway Arts & Entertainment as one of the publishing season’s neatest little surprises.

This little volume, Characters: An Ancient Take on Bad Behavior, only barely stretches to 100 pages, but it’s been given a downright royal treatment: its pithy and genuinely insightful Introduction is by the classicist James Romm, who refers to the book as a “festival of faultfinding”; its lean and chatty new translation is by the great Pamela Mensch, who has an unbroken string of successes to her name, including the magnificent Landmark Arrian and a lavish Oxford University Press production of Lives of the Eminent Philosophers by the aforementioned Diogenes Laertius; and its antic illustrations are by Andre Carrilho, one for each Character. Romm also provides the scanty but learned annotations in the back of the book.

If you’re going to give a new burst of life to an ancient piece of trivia as trite and banal as this, Characters is exactly the way to do it; Callaway has spared no expense to make this a little volume worth keeping. Mensch does wonders with the author’s boring generalities (“the obnoxious man is the sort who, when he encounters freeborn women, pulls up his clothes and flashes his genitals” - well, yes, one assumes), and Carrilho’s sumptuous black-and-white illustrations are unfailing more profound in a single image than Theophrastus manages to be in 200 words.

That there’s a market for classical snacks like this one has been demonstrated lately by the success of Princeton University Press’ series of well-produced pocket-sized bits of Cicero (How to Win an Election, How to Grow Old, etc.), and if this Theophrastus volume has similar luck, readers will doubtless see more keepsakes from the cod philosophers of ancient times. In an age already well-stocked with Characters such as the Shameless Man, the Tactless Man, the Arrogant Man, and the Authoritarian, such a bounty will require an extra bit of stoicism.

Steve Donoghue was a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in the Boston Globe, the Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, and the American Conservative. He writes regularly for the National, the Washington Post, the Vineyard Gazette, and the Christian Science Monitor. His website is