There once was an ancient Greek philosopher – a student of Plato and a colleague of Aristotle – whose name was Theophrastus. According to Diogenes Laërtius (a third century biographer of Greek philosophers), Theophrastus authored 227 works. A prolific writer indeed! Theophrastus took over Aristotle’s School of Philosophy at the Lyceum in Athens after Aristotle died, so his writing would have reflected both his own studies and his lectures. Sadly, only a small handful of his works are extant today. Two are major works into the nature of plants. They represent some of the earliest recorded methodical investigations into botany – the beginnings of scientific method as we know it today. A few remaining snippets delve into physics, geology and metaphysics.
But one of Theophrastus’ remaining books is quite different from the rest. It is a funny little volume called The Characters. This work is unlike any other form of ancient writing that has been discovered. In fact, it seems to presage the modern novel (which, believe it or not, has not always existed). That’s because, rather than offering a didactic tale of warning and woe, or opining on virtues and vices, or philosophically investigating the nature of everything, or offering itself as a sacred text, The Characters simply gives us pertinent observations on a collection of … thirty characters. It is character-driven writing at its most original.
In Theophrastus’ playful Characters book, we meet the Flatterer and the Coward, The Tactless Man and the Bore – and many more. Theophrastus paints these people in their manner of walking, speaking, interacting – as they sit at home eating with their families; as they walk the market and barter for goods; as they interact with neighbours and friends. It’s funny because, while cultural and temporal differences are plain, the reader is almost guaranteed to recognise someone – or parts of someone – she knows. Each character sketch is a constellation of points through which one’s imagination can’t help but move, finding both harmony and dissonance with contemporary experience.
The irony in these sketches is that the (almost shy) observer sees things about his subjects that they don’t quite recognise in themselves. It’s a funny dynamic of human life – how others see us in ways that we don’t. It’s an oft-hidden reality that catches us off-guard when we glimpse it.
One of literature’s most astute observers of human behaviour, Marian Evans (aka George Eliot), reflected on this dynamic through the voice of her own ‘Theophrastus’:
“I am obliged to recognise that while there are secrets in me unguessed by others, these others have certain items of knowledge about the extent of my powers and the figure I make … which in turn are secrets unguessed by me.” – Theophrastus Such (from Impressions of Theophrastus Such by George Eliot).
The following character sketches are inspired by Greek Theophrastus’ book and are informed by Eliot’s pathos. These characters represent the garden owners that one may encounter while working as a gardener. They are mash-ups of various personalities, collected to highlight traits which may be more or less recognisable, perhaps even in ourselves. Because isn’t it the case that we see ourselves by reflection, when we unexpectedly catch glimpses of ourselves in others? Sometimes we push others away for that very reason, and other times, the pain of recognition can be a momentous step in self-growth. But, on to the characters!
(I haven’t managed, like Theophrastus of Olde, to sketch out thirty characters – but six will suffice).
The busy-body garden owner
The busy-body (also known as highly-involved) keeps a keen eye on all aspects of garden work, and on those doing the work. He bustles about, providing extra tools and suggestions, instructions and directives. He pays keen attention to time, eager to get every last bit of work for his hard-earned money and nervous should he be short-changed. While he appears suspicious and perhaps overbearing at first, once you have his trust, he’ll back you to the hilt. He’s used to directing a team and feels most comfortable when he’s in charge. His busy direction of all aspects of garden maintenance does reflect his personal investment in his garden, and this is laudable.
The sheepish garden owner
These are the garden owners who never appear because they feel guilty or embarrassed about having someone else do the hard yakka in their gardens (feeling perhaps that they should be doing the work themselves – an unnecessary self-denigration, because who has time for everything?). These gardeners will leave out extra wheelbarrows or tools as an expression of their gratitude, and may (sheepishly) leave long detailed lists of the things they’d like done, with gushing thanks included at the end. These are people for whom asking for help almost feels like a moral failure, but who have courageously recognised that they just need to do so anyway – even if they later avoid looking their workers in the eye.
The not-really-interested garden owner
These gardeners never appear because their garden is far from their minds. It is under their dominion and they simply want it to fall in line. The goal of garden work is not nurturing plants or fostering diverse ecologies, but is to maintain tidy appearances that will graciously fall into the mental background of life – and will look better than their neighbours’ yards. They have an underlying anxiety about others’ perceptions of them, and having the garden well-maintained is one way of giving the message that yes, they are in control! They are coping with life! Albeit without paying much attention to their plants (except to notice when they’re misbehaving).
The we’ve-bitten-off-more-than-we-can-chew garden owner
These are the homeowners who liked the idea of a tree-change, without realising the work involved in maintaining a large plot of land. Where previous owners may have kept a steady hand at the helm, shaping and nurturing the garden in diverse ways, once the new owners move in – it all goes to weeds. They are surprised to learn how much work really does go into land care – and at this point, these gardeners branch off into two streams. One lot shove their garden into the ‘too-hard-basket’ but probably feel pangs of guilt whenever they see it (because no matter how many hours of gardening they pay for, there’s always more to do before they’re really ‘living the dream’); the other lot roll up their sleeves, content themselves with always being half-on-top of things, and take the plunge – getting their own hands in the dirt too. Good on ‘em.
The loitering garden owner
There’s something both sad and sweet about loitering gardener owners, for whom the company you provide is just as important as the physical labour. These garden owners are apt to live on their own; they loiter around as you make yourselves busy in the garden, offering titbits of conversation here and there as you snip away, deadheading their roses and pruning their hedges. Even the sounds of the electric trimmers or the leaf blowers won’t scare them off. They appreciate your work and are happy for your company, and as a gardener, your heart is in these jobs because you know that (a) you are doing work that the owner couldn’t do themselves, and (b) your presence has really made a difference to them, even if the conversation was a little awkward.
The garden-loving garden owner
These are lovely garden owners because they hang around and talk all-things-garden with you as you work, sharing insights which suggest that their plants are beloved friends. You arrive in their yards to find work already done, jobs started, just waiting for the extra boost they’ll get with a few hours of paid contribution. These gardeners value their gardens deeply, no matter how big or small those gardens are, and are always ready to step in and help out when they see you at work. They feel bad when you’re out working in the rain and will come and join you in solidarity. They’re always a pleasure to work for because this is not so much working for them as it is working alongside them.
Back to Eliot’s Theophrastus Such. After the quote mentioned above, Eliot’s Theophrastus goes on to assure readers that his observations of others’ weaknesses and idiosyncrasies are not deployed to mock or denigrate them. Rather, these are always a reminder of his own unrecognised foibles, so that he stands with his subjects in solidarity. Our oblivion to the impressions we make upon others, shows Theophrastus Such, are a site of mutual vulnerability. I think Greek-Theophrastus was aware of this too. He couldn’t have earned the reputation of being a beloved teacher if he didn’t recognise that others were always on a journey. He would have given space for them to grow.
Some people use others’ weaknesses or blind-spots to exploit them, or as evidence of their own superiority – in contrast to the spirit of Theophrastus Such, who sees a reflection of himself in the foibles of others, and recognises the mutual vulnerability that shapes relationality. Empathy enjoins us to hold the follies of others gently, with care – and sometimes with affectionate humour. Admittedly, this is much easier when the other party is gracious with our own shortcomings. The point in a friendship when we can good-naturedly take on others’ caricatures of ourselves – and laugh – is a freeing one.
* The Characters of Theophrastus is available for free online here (The Characters of Theophrastus, trans. and intro. Charles E. Bennet and William A. Hammond. London: Longmans, Green, and Co. 1902). Or listen to the free audiobook (narrated by David Wales) here at Librivox.org
* To read more about Theophrastus’ life and his influence on the modern novel, see: Laura Beatty, Looking for Theophrastus: Travels in Search of a Lost Philosopher (UK: Atlantic Books, 2022).
* Impressions of Theophrastus Such, by George Eliot (Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1878), available here.
*For a public domain version of the work of Diogenes Laërtius (The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, trans. Charles Duke Yonge. London: Henry G. Bohn, 1853) see here: https://archive.org/details/livesandopinions00dioguoft/
The list of Theophrastus’ works can be found at pp. 197–199.