Classics Theophrastus of Eresus
by
Han Baltussen
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 April 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389661-0308

Introduction

Theophrastus of Eresus (372/1–282/1 BCE) came from the island of Lesbos (near Turkey) and was originally named Tyrtamos. Like many young men he was drawn to the metropolitan center of philosophical thought, Athens, and he studied briefly with Plato, then an old man (c. 356/5). But he went on to study with Aristotle, who gave him the name Theophrastus, “gifted speaker” (from theo- “divine” and phrazein “to speak”). Eventually they became colleagues and collaborators until Aristotle’s death (322 BCE), at which point he became the next head of the Peripatetic school in Athens (322/1 BCE). Important recent finds in Arabic and Syriac sources and the 1992 edition of the sources for his life and works have given us a better understanding of his ideas, independence of thought, and influence. In addition, new editions of his botanical works and small treatises in natural science also increased our understanding of his approach and thought. His extant works and the fragments show him as a conscientious and wide-ranging scholar and researcher. While incomplete, the evidence still allows us to reconstruct his philosophical activities, for instance, in natural science, biology, psychology, human physiology, logic and rhetoric. He spent much of his time engaged in natural science, a field which had already become very broad under Aristotle. Theophrastus continued to work in several areas but added a considerable number of studies, some on topics of the inanimate world, such as fire, stones, winds and weather signs, as well as on matters of physiology (e.g., sweat, dizziness). He made particular contributions of his own in ethics, botany, and the study of sense perception. A list of his works in Diogenes Laertius 5.42–50 contains some 220 titles, of which we still have his researches into plants, nine short works, one large section of a survey of earlier views, and approximately eight hundred fragments found in later sources. Despite the partial survival of his output he comes across as a productive philosopher and scientist, who managed to safeguard the intellectual inheritance of Aristotle and made his own contributions in logic, metaphysics, natural science, ethics, and the “history” of philosophy.

General Overviews

The past four decades have seen a considerable upsurge in research on Theophrastus, adding many works in English and French to the existing German scholarship. A good place to start your reading on this philosopher is Ierodiakonou 2016 which offers a quick and convenient orientation (online overview). Regenbogen 1940 (in German) gives a magisterial synthesis of the knowledge up to 1940 and is still useful, but primarily for scholars. Sharples 1998 offers a good introduction to his Physics. Schneider 2016 (in French) gives an excellent overview of life and works. Fortenbaugh 1984 is the first modern overview of the sources for ethics. Baltussen 2016 presents a general account of the school in which Theophrastus looms large.

  • Baltussen, H. 2016. The Peripatetics: Aristotle’s heirs 322 BCE–200 CE. London: Routledge.

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    A general and up-to-date account of the successors of Aristotle and how they developed and maintained Aristotelian thought. The study synthesizes the research on the school of the past four decades and pays special attention to the question of the internal coherence of the school and its relation to other schools.

  • Fortenbaugh, W. W. 1984. Quellen zur Ethik Theophrasts. Amsterdam: B.R. Grüner.

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    The first comprehensive analysis of the ethical fragments in a century.

  • Ierodiakonou, K. 2016. Theophrastus. In Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Edited by Edward N. Zalta. Stanford, CA: Stanford University.

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    General discussion of Theophrastus’ life, ideas, and works.

  • Regenbogen, O. 1940. Theophrastos. In Paulys Realenzyklopädie der Antike. Supplement Band 7, cols. 1354–1562. Stuttgart, Germany: Metzler.

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    A probing and comprehensive synthesis of the scholarly understanding of Theophrastus up to 1940. It is a monographic treatment that has stood the test of time, even though we have learned much since. In German.

  • Schneider, J. -P. 2016. Théophraste d’Érèse. Dictionnaire des Philosophes Antiques (CNRS Éditions). Vol. 6. 1034–1120 [+ D. Gutas 1120–1 tradition arabe; J. Lang 1122–3 iconographie]. Paris: CNRS.

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    Most recent overview of his life and work, with a listing of 224 titles in Diog. Laert. (1046–1055) and titles found in later sources (1055–1056), the individual works by subject domains (1059–1118), and commentaries (1118–1120). In French.

  • Sharples, R. W. 1998. Introduction. In Theophrastus of Eresus: Sources for his life, writings, thought and influence. Commentary. Vol. 3.1, Sources on Physics (Texts 137–223). Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill.

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    A recent and most valuable evaluation of Theophrastus’ work, also in relation to the Aristotle. Commentary on the fragments pertaining to Theophrastus’ natural science. See especially xv-xvii and the Afterword (pp. 227–230). With contributions on the Arabic material by D. Gutas.

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