*Characters, by Theophrastus, c. 319 BCE
Characters, by Theophrastus, c. 319 BCE
Characteres (Characters) is a collection of 30 short prose descriptions of human vices written c. 319 BCE by the Greek polymath Theophrastus (c. 371–c. 287 BCE), a student of Aristotle and, after the latter’s retirement, his successor as head of the Peripatetic School; it is also the name given to the 17th-and 18th-century examples of this literary genre produced by English and French writers. The form of the Character by Theophrastus consists of a title naming a vice, an opening sentence that defines this vice first in abstract terms and then in terms of a man who represents it, followed by a collection of human actions or speeches that further illustrates it. As the word “character” originally meant an engraved mark or brand and, by extension, the instrument that makes such a mark, the Theophrastan Character conflates these two meanings, presenting both the distinctive marks or traits that define a particular moral quality and the human type whose behavior habitually enacts them. In this respect, a Character is like a riddle, the answer to which is given at the beginning rather than guessed at the end.
The form of the Theophrastan Character is unique in other respects. Its affinities with Aristotle’s system of ethics and with Theophrastus’ own (now lost) rhetorical treatises are suggestive, but inconclusive. If virtue, for Aristotle, is the mean between the extremes of excess and deficiency, Theophrastus supplies images only of the extremes (the reference to “good” men in the dedication of his book, suggesting a lost second part, may be spurious); furthermore, only a few of his vices (e.g. “Flattery” and “Surliness”) fit Aristotle’s “too much/too little” pairing, and even these are too widely separated in the collection to function as contrasting extremes. Moreover, Theophrastus’ vices are not, for the most part, truly vicious qualities. The norms from which his subjects diverge are social or cultural rather than moral, representing forms of overdoing (“Talkativeness,” “Officiousness”) or underdoing (“Absentmindedness,” “Stinginess”) that would be ignored in existing categories of moral admonition and that are as much a testimony to the observer’s perceptiveness as criticism of the observed. The Theophrastan voice is objective, neutral; its effect depends solely upon the recognition value of the details it cites, as these call forth a representative type of human nature.
In England, the Character emerged as a distinct literary form at about the same time as the essay (Bacon’s Essayes appeared in 1597, 1612, and 1625), and there is a tendency to blur the distinctions between the two genres. Both make use of the curt, pointed, Senecan “Attic” prose that (at least in Bacon’s essays) lends itself to discontinuous aphorism; in their later manifestations, moreover, essays may include illustrative Characters, and Characters become more methodical and discursive. Yet while native traditions of character representation played a part in the development of Character writing in England, writers in the first half of the 17th century found the basic elements of the Character in Isaac Casaubon’s edition and Latin translation of 23 (later 28) of Theophrastus’ Characters, published on the continent in 1592, and 1599. Of the countless imitations and adaptations of this basic model, three collections stand out. The earliest of these, Joseph Hall’s Characters of Vertues and Vices (1608), bears the closest resemblance to the Theophrastan model, notwithstanding its nine innovative virtue-types.
But Hall, a churchman and Juvenalian satirist, introduced an element of sincere moral concern to the Character, an exhortative voice that tends to comment and interpret and that undercuts the dramatic objectivity of his model. In a collection of (finally) Characters attached to succeeding editions of Sir Thomas Overbury’s long poem, A Wife (1614), drama and moral earnestness are alike abandoned for the sake of wit and epigram, qualities that would remain standard features of the English Character. The writers of the “Overburian” Characters (John Webster, Thomas Dekker, John Donne, and others) also replaced the ethical subjects of Theophrastus and Hall with the occupational and social types of their own times, often selected as ideological targets for satiric ridicule. Wit and an English repertoire of social and occupational types are also marks of the Characters included in John Earle’s Micro-Cosmographie (1628), the most admired of the English
collections. But Earle’s wit is more often sympathetic than satirical, and his subjects do not exclude the ethical dimensions of Theophrastus’ Characters. His commitment to humanist ideals is implicit in the title of the collection, “a discovery of the little world,” i.e. Man.
In France, Casaubon’s Latin version of Theophrastus’ Characters was translated by Jean de La Bruyère, although this seems little more than a pretext for the translator’s own Les Caractères ou moeurs de ce siècle (1688; The Characters, or the Manners of the Age). If the Overburian writers made the character sketch the vehicle of satirical wit and epigram, La Bruyère made satirical portraiture only one element in a larger and expandable medley of maxim and moral reflection on a general topic (e.g. Women, Courtiers, Freethinkers). Framed in this moral discourse, his portraits seem less like specimens of an abstract anatomy and more like the characters of fiction La Bruyère gives them classical names rather than taxonomic labels. Addison and Steele later adopted this successful pattern in the Tatler and Spectator.
In the 1640s and 1650s, the fragmenting of English society into political and religious factions provided a new field of subject matter for Character writers, self-identified types (the Puritan, the Non-Conformist, the Cavalier, etc.) that afforded writers the luxury of indulging their talent for inventing witty variations on the recognized characteristics of the subject. As a consequence, Characters grew longer, at times reaching pamphlet or essay length, and were often published singly rather than in collections. In the late 1660s, Samuel Butler, the author of the Puritan satire Hudibras (1662–77), produced (but did not publish) 198 Characters, several of them (“A Modern Politician,” “A Small Poet,” “An Hermetic Philosopher”) running to a dozen pages or more. By this time the “Character” label was also attached to the verbal portrait of an historical personage who epitomized a social or political class (e.g. Butler’s “A Duke of Bucks,” i.e. George Villiers), and even to the biographical sketch of an individual (e.g. Edward Hyde’s “Character of Charles II”). As Benjamin Boyce remarked in The Polemic Character (1955), however, “when literary terminology becomes so blurred that the tradition of Plutarch can no longer be distinguished from that of Theophrastus it is time to stop.”
See also Classical Influences
Characteres (Greek and Latin text), edited by Isaac Casaubon, 1592, 1599, Hermann Diels, 1909, O.Navarre, 1920, O.Immisch, 1923, and R.G.Ussher (with commentary), 1960, revised edition, 1993; as The Characters, edited and translated by J.M. Edmonds (Loeb Edition), 1929, and Jeffrey Ruslen, I.C. Cunningham, and A.D.Knox, 1929; translated by John Healey, 1616 (reprinted 1899), R.C.Jebb, 1870 (revised by J.E.Sandys, 1909), Jean Stewart, 1970, and Warren Anderson, 1970
Greenough, Chester Noyes, A Bibliography of the Theophrastan Character, Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1970 (original edition, 1947)
Baldwin, Edward C, “La Bruyère’s Influence upon Addison,” PMLA 29 (1904):479–95
Boyce, Benjamin, The Theophrastan Character in England to 1642, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1947
Boyce, Benjamin, The Polemic Character, 1640–1661: A Chapter in English Literary History, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1955
Boyce, Benjamin, The Character-Sketches in Pope’s Poems, Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 1962
Bush, Douglas, English Literature in the Earlier Seventeenth Century, 1600–1660, Oxford: Oxford University Press, revised edition, 1973 (original edition, 1945)
Fortenbaugh, William W., and others, editors and translators, Theophrastus of Eresus: Sources for His Life, Writings, Thought and Influence, Leiden and New York: Brill, 1991
Smeed, J.W., The Theophrastan “Character”: The History of a Literary Genre, Oxford: Clarendon Press, and New York: Oxford University Press, 1985
Turner, Margaret, “The Influence of La Bruyère on the ‘Tatler’ and the ‘Spectator,’” Modern Language Review 48 (1953):10–16
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