Thursday, 24 June 2010
A stupid man does not speak
(A statue of Theophrastus in Eresos)
In earlier times a scientist used to be quite different from now: ancient Greeks like Theophrastus and Aristotle were all round scholars. They did not specialize in just one thing, but researched everything that came their way. I can easily understand that when you come from an island like Lesvos, you need a lot of time just to study nature there.
Theophrastus is especially known for his study of plants. His surviving books ‘De causis plantarum’ and ‘De historia plantarum’ are our first sources of botanical knowledge. But not all his work has survived. If we are to believe past writers who studied his works, this Lesvorian scientist wrote over 200 scientific books about various subjects such as about perspiration and body odours, about tiredness and dizziness, about mourning and melancholy. He wrote about animals that bite or sting or are jealous, about the education of a king, about winds, storms and water; he wrote about metaphysics and minerals - including volcanic and semiprecious stones, about silver and copper and many more things.
So it is understandable that just before he died, Theophrastus complained that there was not enough time in a single life to study all the world’s problems.
He started his studies of philosophy on Lesvos, and then left for Athens where it is thought he continued his learning at the school founded by Plato and where he met Aristotle. After Plato’s death he followed Aristotle out of the city, and around 345 BC he returned to Lesvos, this time with Aristotle following him. It is thought that while Aristotle studied the animals of Lesvos, Theophrastus started out on his extensive study on plants but when Aristotle was appointed tutor to the then fourteen year old Alexander the Great, Theophrastus followed him to Macedonia.
Theophrastus not only was a good researcher, he was a much praised orator. His original name was Tyrtamus (in those time Greeks were not yet named Yorgos, Yannis or Dimitris), but because of ability to ‘speak like the gods’ he got the nickname Theo (God) phrastus (talk). Not only did he talk well, but he studied the people he talked to. That is evident from another work that, like his books over plants, has survived: ‘Characters’.
This little book is an amusing satirical prose work on human behaviour and even though it was written more than two thousand years ago it is clear that human beings have not changed much since his time: the Ironical Man, the Flatterer, the Garrulous Man, the Boor, the Complaisant Man, the Reckless Man, the Chatty Man, the Gossip, the Shameless Man, the Penurious Man, the Gross Man and so on. So many characters that it is very easy to find something of yourself. In Holland we would call it ‘psychology from the cold earth’, in this case it is psychology from the Lesvorian earth.
Nowadays there are few people who can stand up in comparison to the industrious writers and wise philosophers from Antiquity, like Theophrastus and Aristotle. One contemporary who may come a little close is the greatest (and still living) Greek musical maestro Mikis Theodorakis, with his many compositions - including protest songs from the dark times of the colonels regime - that all Greeks still know by heart and, of course, his biggest success ‘Zorba’s Dance’ from the legendary movie ‘Zorba the Greek’ (1964) from Michaelis Kakoyannis is known all over the world..
Thanks to his protest songs Theodorakis is loved by nearly all Greeks. But I wonder if he really is still such a wise man. At the end of April he wrote something (on his website) about the crisis in Greece that really shocked me: that the Americans that are behind the current economic crisis and it worries him that they have become such good friends with Turkey. Together with the Central Bank of Europe and countries such as Germany (led by Angela Merkel) they are trying to get Greece down on its knees which will destroy the Greek people.
I flipped through the pages of ‘Characters’ from Theophrastus, but I could not really find one that fitted Theodorakis. As well as his character studies, Theophrastus was widely known for his sayings. He once said to a man who did not say one word during an elaborate dinner party: If you are a stupid man, you have done well (not to speak), but if you are an intelligent man, you behaved stupidly. A wise saying, but Theodorakis proves that even intelligent men can say stupid things. You perhaps might think that Theodorakis, once the voice of the Greek people, is now is on the side of the rich – the ones who know the skilful art of tax evasion, the practice that has brought Greece to near bankruptcy.
(with thanks to Tony Barrell)
@ Smitaki 2010