Columns: A good idea from... Theophrastus

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The Independent Culture
A FEW DAYS ago, I met a woman who told me, "I know someone just like you." "Really," I said (offended). "How do you mean, just like me?" "Well, you know, little hair, a bit gauche, into books. He even wears a big grey coat like yours in winter. It's uncanny." This kind of thing should make one happy. It should be lovely to hear that there is a near clone out there, a soulmate, someone to talk to and go clothes shopping with. But, in actuality, it can be quite horrible, given the strength of our desire to feel special, different, unique.

Unfortunately, there are simply far more people in the world than there are types of people. After a certain age, you start recognising the types, carbon copies of other people you already know: the bald literary guy, the buckteethed sweetie, the short, red-faced, right-wing snob. Someone you meet at the office reminds you of someone you knew at school. On holiday, you get to know someone who is the spitting image, in face and character, of a friend from home. Soon you find yourself saying to certain people, "I know someone just like you..."

This phenomenon must have struck the ancient Greek philosopher Theophrastus (c371-287BC), because he wrote a book called the Characters in which he tried - for the first time in history - to list all of the main human types (rather as Aristotle had tried to identify the main animal types). In his list, he included the miser, the show-off, the choleric and the superstitious man - and reading him today, it's frightening how clearly you can recognise people you know in 1999 in the descrip-tions of Ancient Greeks. "The superstitious man typically tries to guard against pollution by constantly washing his hands and sprinkling himself from a sacred spring," Theophrastus wrote, "and by chewing leaves of the sacred laurel; these precautions keep him busy the whole day. And should a cat chance to cross his path, he goes not a step further until he has tossed three stones across the road or until somebody else passes by... Any time mice have gnawed holes in his barley sack, he consults some interpreter of omens about what should be done; and when the answer is `Send it to the shoemaker's for a patch' he refuses to listen - he turns away angrily and atones with a sacrifice. He is also likely to keep purifying his house all the time; owls hooting while he is out for a walk upset him, and tombs, dead bodies and women in childbirth seem like terrible omens."

I know someone like this. She doesn't chew laurel leaves, and her anxieties are psychological rather than religious, but she's recognisably the same type that Theophrastus had in mind.

In a sense, it's an affront to our dignity to realise that we are just "types", standard collections of traits that keep cropping up throughout history. Yet perhaps we shouldn't feel too depressed, for along with the realisation that we are not so special comes the thought that neither are are we so alone.