THEOPHRASTUS

ca. 371-287 B.C.

Greek philosopher

Theophrastus was a student of Aristotle and succeeded him as head of the Lyceum, the school of philosophy that Aristotle founded in Athens. Theophrastus wrote on an enormous variety of subjects, but only a few of his works have survived. Among these are writings on botany and zoology, a collection of character sketches, a short work on metaphysics*, and fragments on law and political science. Theophrastus challenged several of Aristotle’s teachings, rejecting some and correcting others.

Theophrastus was born in Eresus on the Greek island of Lesbos. He probably joined Aristotle while the philosopher lived in Assos, a city in Asia Minor located near Lesbos. Theophrastus followed his teacher to Athens and took over the Lyceum when Aristotle left the city after the death of his famous pupil Alexander the Great.

Theophrastus probably thought that he was preserving Aristotle’s teachings, but he actually made some significant changes to Aristotle’s theories. He rejected the idea of the Unmoved Mover, the name Aristotle gave to an eternal, unchanging substance that he believed explained the movements of the universe. Theophrastus also argued that philosophy could not be used to explain all aspects of the natural world.

In the fields of botany and zoology, Theophrastus studied the behavior and habitat of living creatures rather than their physical characteristics. His best-known work, Characters, deals with human behavior. The work metaphysics branch of philosophy concerned with the fundamental nature of reality contains a series of 30 keenly observed character sketches that describe various types of personality, most of them undesirable. Theophrastus, for example, describes the “Superstitious Man,” who puts a sacred laurel leaf in his mouth before going out for the day and takes dreams very seriously. If a cat crosses his path, he stands stock-still until someone else has passed, or he continues on his way only after throwing three pebbles across the road. (See also Education and Rhetoric, Greek; Philosophy, Greek and Hellenistic.)

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