welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


Looking for Theophrastus by Laura Beatty

Chad Trainer hunts for a lost thinker.

In the mid-fourth century BCE, Athens was between its peak as an imperial power and its decline into one more of Alexander the Great’s colonies. The prosperity of Athens’ Periclean age was a century in the past, and had been followed by a twenty-five years war with Sparta, resulting in Athens’ defeat. The renowned Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides were by then playwrights of the past.

Philosophy was a comparatively late bloomer. Socrates was executed in 399 BCE. Plato’s Academy, which has been called the first European university, was established about a decade after Socrates’ trial. Roughly twenty years after the Academy started, Aristotle, then in his late teens, left his native Stagira for Athens to study under Plato.

While at the Academy, Aristotle became acquainted with a younger student, Tyrtamos, from the Greek island of Lesbos. Aristotle eventually dubbed him ‘Theophrastus’, which means ‘Divinely spoken’. He not only became Aristotle’s student, but also Aristotle’s successor at the Lyceum, the school Aristotle founded in Athens around 335 BCE.

Theophrastus is probably most famous as the author of the Characters, a sketch of thirty types of person; but he also made contributions to botany comparable to those Aristotle had made in zoology. Theophrastus’s botany was thorough enough that, as recently as the eighteenth century, the taxonomist Carolus Linnaeus employed his botanical writings as his starting point.

Laura Beatty’s Looking for Theophrastus: Travels in Search of a Lost Philosopher (2022) is not an academic work intended for scholars or specialists. Rather, in her own words, it’s “in the tradition of a thieving magpie,” aspiring to “look at the past not as a discrete and separate place, but as something vitally connected to today.” As such, her goals are more literary than philosophic: she’s more interested in contextualizing Theophrastus by depictions of the original atmospheres and activity of his life than she is in explaining the details of his philosophy. “Theophrastus,” she muses: “I’m still trying to find you, still looking for things as you would have seen them” (p.98).

Found him
Theophrastus © Singinglemon 2009 Creative Commons 2

According to Beatty, while Aristotle was fond of systems, Theophrastus was enamored of variety. Theophrastus’s “instinctive vision of things seems to be that they are more random, more varied and more unpredictable than systematization will allow” (p.59). The world of plants and the world of humans are closer to one another for Theophrastus than for many other philosophers: he referred to the earth being in heat, and to seeds having pregnancies; or a plant’s growth can be lazy, forward, hubristic, or sullen (p.88). And his botany includes plants’ medicinal properties, as well as how to prepare the ground, plant, and prune them.

In the third quarter of the fourth century BCE, Macedonia posed a military threat to Athens. Aristotle, having known Macedonia’s King Philip personally (Aristotle’s father was physician to Philip’s father, King Amyntas II), was suspected of Macedonian sympathies, so he thought it prudent to depart Athens. As legend has it, it was at the invitation of Hermias, ruler of Atarneus, that Aristotle, Theophrastus, and a certain Xenocrates, made their way first to Assos in the Troad and then out to Mitylene on Lesbos, where they immersed themselves in zoological and botanical research. But the idea that Theophrastus accompanied Aristotle to the Troad and back to Lesbos has never been historically substantiated. Nor has it been confirmed that Theophrastus then accompanied Aristotle when Philip summoned Aristotle to tutor his son Alexander. But such considerations do not deter Beatty from imagining in rich detail the nature of such sojourns. To the extent that Looking for Theophrastus takes us on a tour that is merely an imaginative reconstruction of the events in Theophrastus’s life, this book is historical fiction.

The evidence does suggest that Theophrastus valued his works on botany more than his Characters, but it is clearly his Characters that most interests Beatty. She is convinced that “there is something in the Characters that has always appealed to the novelist” and that “the Characters were commandeered by rhetoricians who saw the usefulness of the character study as an attribute of persuasive speaking or writing.” After covering the fate of the manuscripts of the Characters throughout the centuries, she seeks a “line that I can throw securely back and along which I can haul Theophrastus into the present. I stick to its stepping stones, through the early Christians to Chaucer and through Chaucer to the novel, to George Eliot.” This search for Characters makes for a thirty-page excursus.

Philip invited Aristotle to Pella to educate his teenage son in 343-2 BCE. My favorite part of the book is where Beatty details the differences between a life of zoological and botanical research in Assos, and courtly life with Philip of Macedon. On the latter she reflects “Everything is power and politics, and everyone is trying to be noticed. I can’t help worrying about Theophrastus. You won’t like it, I can’t help telling him. It is everything you don’t believe in” (p.113)… “You mustn’t mind not knowing who your friends are because everyone now is caught up in this tide of self-interest and advancement” (p.131)… “The philosophers were busy, not just with their teaching and writing and researching, but also absorbing a different set of conditions; life under an active and expansionist tyranny” (p.136). Among the developments Beatty depicts in rich detail are the mixed feelings in Athens about Philip’s selection of Aristotle to be Alexander’s tutor, and the turbulent politics of Philip’s imperial designs.

When Alexander was ascending to power, the role for Aristotle and Theophrastus became unclear. Athens was sufficiently anti-Macedonian that their safety there would be dubious. And as for Theophrastus’s final fate, ‘the evidence runs out’.

At this stage in Beatty’s book the headiness of her prose can be a bit much. She ponders: “history, however it’s told, isn’t the same thing as a living person – if a person is what you are trying to find. Nevertheless, there is a feeling, sometimes, that if it could be established, if it could be made solid enough, history might work as a backdrop, against which something more shimmering, like a person, might be thrown into visible relief” (p.152)… and so on for eight pages, culminating in the words: “You have to feel the past’s resistance to the present build and build until suddenly, in some thought or turn of phrase, like a flash of lightning rooting itself in the ground, Theophrastus will leap the divide. Just for a split second, there he will really be, with all the strangeness and brilliance of how he was in his own time, intact” (p.160). I do not pretend to have fathomed these words.

Beatty’s musings may sometimes be overdone, but in fairness to her, Looking for Theophrastus ought to be assessed in light of the modesty of its declared aims. Beatty disclaims any aspiration to having scholars or specialists as her audience, and makes no pretence that her objectives are more philosophic than literary. Her contextualizations of Theophrastus are rich and entertaining. With that said, Beatty has not only provided us with a book of potential interest to the literary set, but also a book of value to scholars and specialists during their more recreational moments.

© Chad Trainer 2023

Chad Trainer is an independent scholar engaged in a study of the history of philosophy. He is the author of Reflections on Russell: Musings on a Multidimensional Man.

Looking for Theophrastus: Travels in Search of a Lost Philosopher, Laura Beatty, Atlantic Books, 2022

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X