A couple of decades ago, I published a work of the Greek writer and philosopher Theophrastus (c. 371-287 BC) at my newly started publishing company. Theophrastus – a native of Eresos in Lesvos – was a productive writer but it was his – Characters – that had captivated me since my early teens but now no longer could be found in Swedish bookstores.
Actually, one may say that Theophrastus work was the very reason that I came to start my publishing company. At that time I studied Ancient Culture and Society at Goteborg’s University and I had tried to tease my professor with Theophrastus, as he, along with his work as an archaeologist, also had a well-established publishing house – a business where he published archaeological books, periodicals but not the least classical authors as Horace, Ovid and Epictetus.
My sympathetic, very wise and captivating professor did however not share my interest in Theophrastus and after a fairly intense lobbying for The Characters without any result I experienced my own “Eureka” and the idea of my own publishing company appeared. Now I set out with the ambition to create a new Swedish translation and not the least … try to sell a few copies of this book.
I thought some time about how I would formulate the preface to this work, and as so often before (regarding ancient authors) I realized that it was the historical perspective – rather than the amusing lines, the “merciless” painting of Theophrastus’ fellow citizens in Characters – that captivated me.
More amusing and maybe more accurate depictions of any mankind’s contemporary characters have been made – if not before Theophrastus – so at least later. But with this gigantic perspective (more than two millenniums) the confirmation that nothing much has changed (my thoughts) gives Theophrastus book a very special dimension.
Nothing much has changed? Well, I believe that the characters Theophrastus met in Athens may easily be found wherever you go today. A disheartening perspective? No, rather an understanding that makes you prepared to encounter and perhaps also change/tackle your contemporary characters (if you find it necessary) a little bit …
Just study the following lines and ponder whether you’ve not met this man somewhere the last week …
Flattery may be considered as a mode of companionship degrading but profitable to him who flatters.
The Flatterer is a person who will say as he walks with another, “Do you observe how people are looking at you? This happens to no man in Athens but you. A compliment was paid to you yesterday at the Stoa. More than thirty persons were sitting there; the question was started, Who is our foremost man? Everyone mentioned you first, and ended by coming back to your name.” With these and the like words, he will remove a morsel of wool from his patron’s coat; or, if a speck of chaff has been laid on the other’s hair by the wind, he will pick it off; adding with a laugh, “Do you see? Because I have not met you for two days, you have had your beard full of white hairs; although no one has darker hair for his years than you.” Then he will request the company to be silent while the great man is speaking, and will praise him, too, in his hearing, and mark his approbation at a pause with “True”; or he will laugh at a frigid joke, and stuff his cloak into his mouth as if he could not repress his amusement. He will request those whom he meets to stand still until “his Honour” has passed. He will buy apples and pears, and bring them in and give them to the children in the father’s presence; adding, with kisses, “Chicks of a good father.”
Also, when he assists at the purchase of slippers, he will declare that the foot is more shapely than the shoe. If his patron is approaching a friend, he will run forward and say, “He is coming to you”; and then, turning back, “I have announced you.” He is just the person, too, who can run errands to the women’s market without drawing breath. He is the first of the guests to praise the wine; and to say, as he reclines next the host, “How delicate is your fare!” and (taking up something from the table) “Now this — how excellent it is!” He will ask his friend if he is cold, and if he would like something more; and, before the words are spoken, will wrap him up. Moreover he will lean towards his ear and whisper with him; or will glance at him as he talks to the rest of the company. He will take the cushions from the slave in the theatre, and spread them on the seat with his own hands. He will say that his patron’s house is well built, that his land is well planted, and that his portrait is like.
In short the Flatterer may be observed saying and doing all things by which he conceives that he will gain favour.
- An easy way to access R. C. Jebb’s translation is through the fine work made public at: http://www.eudaemonist.com/biblion/characters
- The original scanned book (R. C. Jebb’s translation) may be read at: http://archive.org/stream/theophrastoucha01jebbgoog#page/n99/mode/2up
- The illustration (in this article and in my Swedish translation) was created by: Daniel Dahlgren
Editor / Publisher
© Anders Dahlgren 2012/04/13