(Historic Lives: The Ancient World, Prehistory-476)
0111200400-Theophrastus.jpg Theophrastus (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Greek scientist and philosopher{$I[g]Greece;Theophrastus} Successor of Aristotle as head of his school, the Lyceum, Theophrastus became father of the sciences of botany, ecology, and mineralogy. He also wrote literary sketches of human psychological types.

Early Life

Theophrastus (thee-uh-FRAS-tuhs), originally named Tyrtamus, was born in Eresus, a small city-state on the Greek island of Lesbos, near the coast of Asia Minor. His father was Melantas, a cloth-fuller. He studied under the philosopher Alcippus in Eresus, later traveling to Athens to broaden his intellectual horizons. It is not known when he became Aristotle’s student. It was Aristotle who called him Theophrastus, “he of godlike speech,” a compliment to his polished Greek style. According to tradition, both men studied under Plato, but in Theophrastus’s case this study must have been brief.

Theophrastus was in his mid-twenties when Plato died. Since Plato had not made Aristotle head of his school, the Academy, Aristotle moved to Assos at the invitation of its ruler, Hermias, and stayed three years. Theophrastus followed him there. When the Persians threatened Hermias, Theophrastus took Aristotle to the relative safety of his native island, Lesbos. The men were only twelve years apart in age, and the relationship between them was as much that of friends and colleagues as that of master and disciple. Soon Philip II, King of Macedonia, invited Aristotle to come there as tutor of his son, the future Alexander the Great. He accepted, and Theophrastus went with him, remaining until after Philip’s death seven years later.

Life’s Work

In 335, Aristotle returned to Athens and founded a school at the Lyceum, a cult center with a colonnade and park, where the Peripatetic philosophy flourished under his leadership for thirteen years. Theophrastus lived there, discussing, lecturing, and writing. It was a creative period. Alexander was conquering the East as far as India, and philosophers who went with him, at first including Aristotle’s nephew, Callisthenes, sent back scientific specimens never seen before in Greece. Not least among these were seeds and living plants that were tended in the garden of the Lyceum and studied by Theophrastus. His books on botany thus contain descriptions of the plants of India. He traveled through Greece collecting plants and making observations of natural phenomena.

Around the time of Alexander’s death in 323, Aristotle retired to Chalcis, and a few months later he also died. His choice of Theophrastus as his successor at the Lyceum proved to be a wise one. At this time Theophrastus was about fifty years old, and statues give some idea of his appearance. He was a vigorous, healthy man, but lines around his eyes and the hollows of his cheeks suggest the heavy responsibilities of leadership and the hard work of empirical research. He remained at the Lyceum as scholarch (senior professor) until his death in about 287. His will provided for the maintenance of the Lyceum garden, where he asked to have his body buried. He designated Strato of Lampsacus, known as “the physicist,” his heir as head of the school.

Theophrastus taught some two thousand students, among them Demetrius of Phalerum, who became ruler of Athens and presented Theophrastus with the land on which the Lyceum and its garden were located. Thus the school came to possess its own real estate, instead of leasing its grounds from the city. This step was important, because many Athenians regarded Aristotle and his followers as pro-Macedonian; Theophrastus had even been charged with sacrilege in 319. He had managed to stay in the city, and the reestablishment of Macedonian power in Athens two years later had made Demetrius governor. Demetrius was not popular, and when his rule ended in 307 a law was passed forbidding the operation of philosophical schools without special permission. Theophrastus then had to leave Athens, but the law was repealed within a year, and he was able to return.

Theophrastus produced his most important writings during his years at the Lyceum. He continued to revise them until the end of his life. The titles of 227 works by Theophrastus have been recorded, but only a small fraction have survived. They fall into three major categories: scientific, philosophical, and literary.

It is in science that Theophrastus made his most significant contributions. Here he continued the work of Aristotle, achieving important insights of his own. He pointedly repeated Aristotle’s statement that “nature does nothing in vain” and added his own comment, “Anything which is contrary to nature is dangerous.” In describing natural objects, Theophrastus established sets of opposing characteristics, such as cold and hot, wet and dry, male and female, wild and domestic. This method is typical of the Peripatetic school and is derived from Aristotle. In some respects, however, such as his emphasis on the autonomous purposes of living things and his avoidance of the ideas of final causation and the prime mover, he rejected Aristotle’s authority and marked out an independent line of investigation.

His longest extant writings are the nine books of Peri phytikōn historiōn (translated in Enquiry into Plants and Minor Works on Odours and Weather Signs, 1916; often designated by the Latin title, De historia plantarum) and the six books of Peri phytikōn aitiōn (translation in De causis plantarum, 1976-1990). Aristotle had written on animals; Theophrastus’s works are the first careful treatment of botanical subjects. Enquiry into Plants describes the parts of plants and the characteristics of more than five...

(The entire section is 2366 words.)