One day, Laura Beatty came across the Characters of Theophrastus, a collection of thirty sketches of negative personality ‘traits’ by a lesser-known associate of Aristotle. Intrigued by their depictions of everyday life, she began what would turn into a ten-year project to retell the story of his life and explore his place in Western thought. The result is Looking for Theophrastus, a first-person narrative of Beatty’s travels to places of significance to the philosopher, including Lesbos and Athens, and an account of her intellectual journey through the fragments he left behind.
It is a canny subject for a book. Theophrastus was highly significant in Greek philosophy as a pivot between Plato and Aristotle at the end of the fourth century BC and the Stoics, the Epicureans and other Hellenistic schools that arose in the third; his work on categorising plants was ground-breaking. However, unlike his more famous contemporaries, he has received little in the way of public attention. Through six chapters – ‘The Man’, ‘The Invention of Science’, ‘The Backdrop’, ‘The Works’, ‘Patterns’ and ‘The Teacher’ – Beatty, a prize-winning novelist, reconstructs Theo-phrastus’s personality and achievements, offering sketches of him at different stages in his life: the boy who ‘quietly folded his clothes’ at night; the young scientist ‘famed for [his] industry’; the ‘soft’ teacher known for his ‘finely groomed’ appearance and eloquence in the lecture hall.
Few details of his life are known with certainty. Theophrastus was born in around 371 BC and grew up on the island of Lesbos. He spent many years with Aristotle, who was about twelve years his senior. It is unknown how they met; Beatty selects the tradition that they both studied at Plato’s Academy. She imagines their first encounter: amid the ‘usual crowd’ of aristocratic Athenian boys, Aristotle looked up ‘in sudden astonishment’ upon hearing ‘the flair, the elegant, effortless passages pouring from [Theophrastus’s] eighteen-year-old mouth’. And Theophrastus ‘looked … through the keyhole of those blue eyes and found himself falling’. It takes a writer of some imagination to conjure such moments, though the drama feels slightly overdone.
After Plato died in around 348 BC, Aristotle and Theophrastus moved to Assos, a city on the coast of Asia Minor near Lesbos. There, they embarked on the monumental task of studying natural phenomena in exhaustive detail in order to explain their causes and their relations to each other. They seem to have divided the project between them: ‘Aristotle chose fish and animals, Theophrastus plants and stones.’
One of the most interesting aspects of the book is Beatty’s attempt to imagine what it must have been like for Theophrastus to construct a taxonomy from scratch. Inevitably, he made errors: for instance, he attributed the sudden appearance of airborne seeds to the arrival of rain. This might seem ‘nonsensical’ to us, but at the time, it was one of the better explanations. As Beatty rightly observes, ‘it is so difficult to un-know our knowledge.’
In 342 BC, Aristotle travelled to Macedonia to tutor the future Alexander the Great. Theophrastus may or may not have gone with him, but Beatty supposes he did, describing in romantic detail the intrigues of Philip’s court, the response of the anti-Macedonian Demosthenes and the boy behind the myth of Alexander. By about 335, Theophrastus was back in Athens, where he lived and worked, succeeding Aristotle as head of the Lyceum, until his death in about 287.
Beatty is ‘bored by dead things’, by which she means historical relics, such as most of the terracotta fragments on display in the museums she visits. Instead, having read the texts and travelled to Greece, she adopts the unconventional method of looking for hints of Theophrastus in the artefacts that catch her eye and in the resemblances between his experiences and her own. The narrative progresses along a sort of meandering course that shifts between digressions and character sketches and across epochs. Halfway through, Beatty introduces the ‘philosophical principle’ of the marine biologist Ed Ricketts, a close friend of John Steinbeck, that life is best characterised in terms not of causes and effects but of ‘an infinitely varying and repeating series of relationships between things’. This principle seems to have inspired the book’s structure and the author’s search for patterns, which sometimes make the narrative hard to follow. However, it also provides an intriguing counterpoint to another theme: the literary influence of the Characters and, related to this, the correspondences between scientific observation and the novelist’s eye for detail.
Beatty praises the precision of the quotidian detail in the Characters and the recognisability of its figures, who are ‘like something out of a novel’, as well as Theo-phrastus’s use of direct speech to illustrate what his types would say. ‘You mustn’t expect thanks from the common people,’ sneers the oligarchic man, while the chatterbox rambles on about the olden days, foreigners and the weather. Looking for ‘stepping stones’ between Theophrastus and the present, she traces the influence of the Characters on later writers, from
St Jerome via Chaucer, George Eliot and Virginia Woolf to Elias Canetti.
Beatty’s epigraph, taken from W G Sebald’s Austerlitz, invites comparison between the two writers. Her style, with its first-person commentaries, long passages in the present tense and repeated use of the dramatic apostrophe, is arguably more intrusive than his. One of her more Sebaldian passages, and one of the more successful, is a discussion of Louis Daguerre’s 1838 photograph of a Paris street. Owing to the long exposure time, all but two of the figures on the street have vanished because they were moving too fast. Beatty uses this as a metaphor for the difficulty of bringing the fleeting past to life without falsifying it.
In other words, in attempting to be a ‘ghost-raiser’, the biographer risks becoming a historical novelist. But then, as this ambiguous book suggests, between myth and history, fact and fiction, there have always been shades of grey.