The world is made up of two groups of people. People who think people can’t be reduced to types, and those who know they can.
The father of character typology was a philosopher with a name you probably haven’t come across: Theophrastus. He was the student, right-hand man and eventually the successor of Aristotle, yes, Aristotle! Theophrastus shared many of Aristotle’s interests but fewer of his works survive, which partly explains why he is less well known. Yet, two of his surviving works proved to be enormously influential: firstly, his studies of plants (which founded the entire science of botany), and secondly, his book of character types.
Theophrastus was an eminently practical and down-to-earth sort of philosopher with keen observational skills and a great sense of humour. If you had to choose someone to sit next to at a dinner party, Theophrastus would make a great choice.
If you were out and about in public with Theophrastus, he would be able to point to different character types, naming each type and giving you a detailed description of how each one typically speaks and behaves. Theophrastus identified thirty types in all, just from watching the citizens of ancient Athens going about their daily lives, and he describes these types in his work Characters. His descriptions are presented with cutting insight, conciseness and a good dose of humour.
What’s amazing is that these character types are still recognisable, from ancient Greek society to today. To demonstrate this, Lecturer and Convenor of Ancient Greek Dr Sonia Pertsinidis has assembled five types of friends you probably (most definitely) have.
Dr Pertsinidis’ new book is Theophrastus' Characters: A New Introduction, which will be launched at the ANU Classics Museum on Friday, 24 May.
Type 1: The Rumour-Monger
The Rumour-monger is the sort of friend who sees you and asks with a smile "Where have you been", and "What's news" and "How are you?" but before you can answer he butts in and says "Have I got some news for you!" Then, without giving you a chance to respond, he says "Haven't you heard? Well, I have a treat for you". And he tells you some made up, half-baked story that he heard from someone who heard it from someone else, so that you can't possibly verify the information. And if you ask him, "do you really believe this?" he'll say that he has it on excellent authority. And he adds "This is for your ears only" but of course, he has already told the same story to everyone he knows.
Type 2: The Boastful Man
The Boastful Man will stand around in busy places and talk loudly about his numerous foreign investments, and his vast money-lending business, and how much he has gained and lost, and while he is exaggerating this beyond all proportion his bank account is empty. He will talk about his trips to foreign cities and the precious items he brought home, even though he has never been out of his home city. He will approach people selling expensive goods and pretend that he is a customer. Although the house he lives in is rented he will tell the innocent listener that it belonged to his father and that he proposes to sell it because it is just too small for the scale of his hospitality.
Type 3: The Chatterbox
The Chatterbox is the sort who sits down next to a complete stranger and begins talking about his wife, and about the dream he had last night, and how people nowadays are not as good as they were in the old days, and about what is on sale at the market, and how we need more rain, and that life is hard, and how he threw up yesterday, and what day of the month it is, and the dates of all the holidays coming up. If you let him go on he will never stop.
Type 4: The Ungrateful Grumbler
The Ungrateful Grumbler is the sort who says to someone bringing food for him, “Why didn’t I get invited to dinner instead?” When his girlfriend is kissing him tenderly, he says to her “I wonder if you really do love me?” When it is raining, he complains that it did not rain sooner. If he finds money in the street, he says “But I have never found a wallet”. When his friends put together some money for him and one of them says “Cheer up” he answers, “How do you mean? When I have to refund every one of you and be grateful for the favour?”
Type 5: The Tactless Man
The Tactless Man is the sort who comes to have a long discussion with you when you are busy. He serenades his girlfriend when she is suffering from a fever. He approaches someone who has just taken on a big loan and asks him for money. He arrives to give evidence in court after the case is closed. As a guest at a wedding, he makes a speech against marriage. When you have just arrived home after a long journey, he invites you to go for a walk. He brings along a higher bidder when you have just sold the item. When the audience has got the point, he gets up to explain it to them all over again.
Read Dr Sonia Pertsinidis’s writings on her blog Aesop's Fox, and follow her on Twitter @aesopsfox1.