Columns: A good idea from... Theophrastus

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Rebecca Ferguson, Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible Rogue Nation

Film review Tom Cruise, 50, is still like a puppy in this relentless action soap opera

Arts and Entertainment
Rachel McAdams in True Detective season 2

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Off the wall: the cast of ‘Life in Squares’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Books And it is whizzpopping!

Arts and Entertainment
Bono throws water at the crowd while the Edge watches as they perform in the band's first concert of their new world tour in Vancouver

MusicThey're running their own restaurants

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkey's conflict with Kurdish guerrillas in Iraq can benefit Isis in Syria

    Turkish President Erdogan could benefit politically from the targeting of the PKK, says Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: Our choice is years of Tory rule under Jeremy Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Our choice is years of Tory rule under Corbyn or a return to a Labour government

    Yvette Cooper urged Labour members to 'get serious' about the next general election rather than become 'a protest movement'
    Singapore's domestic workers routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals

    Singapore's hidden secret of domestic worker abuse

    David Cameron was shown the country's shiniest veneer on his tour. What he didn't see was the army of foreign women who are routinely exploited and often abused in the service of rich nationals
    Showdown by Shirley Jackson: A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic

    Showdown, by Shirley Jackson

    A previously unpublished short story from the queen of American Gothic
    10 best DSLRs

    Be sharp! 10 best DSLRs

    Up your photography game with a versatile, powerful machine
    Solved after 200 years: the mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army

    Solved after 200 years

    The mysterious deaths of 3,000 soldiers from Napoleon's army
    Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise

    Robert Fisk on the Turkey conflict

    Every regional power has betrayed the Kurds so Turkish bombing is no surprise
    Investigation into wreck of unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden

    Sunken sub

    Investigation underway into wreck of an unidentified submarine found off the coast of Sweden
    Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes

    Age of the selfie

    Instagram and Facebook have 'totally changed' the way people buy clothes
    Not so square: How BBC's Bloomsbury saga is sexing up the period drama

    Not so square

    How Virginia Woolf saga is sexing up the BBC period drama
    Rio Olympics 2016: The seven teenagers still carrying a torch for our Games hopes

    Still carrying the torch

    The seven teenagers given our Olympic hopes
    The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis, but history suggests otherwise

    The West likes to think that 'civilisation' will defeat Isis...

    ...but history suggests otherwise
    The bald truth: How one author's thinning hair made him a Wayne Rooney sympathiser

    The bald truth

    How thinning hair made me a Wayne Rooney sympathiser
    Froome wins second Tour de France after triumphant ride into Paris with Team Sky

    Tour de France 2015

    Froome rides into Paris to win historic second Tour
    Fifteen years ago, Concorde crashed, and a dream died. Today, the desire to travel faster than the speed of sound is growing once again

    A new beginning for supersonic flight?

    Concorde's successors are in the works 15 years on from the Paris crash