The Characters of Theophrastus


Jean de La Bruyère (1645–96) was a French essayist and moralist whose Les caractères de Théophraste, traduits du grec, avec les caractères ou les moeurs de ce siècle (The characters of Theophrastus, translated from the Greek, with the characters or the morals of this century) is a masterpiece of French literature. Employed as a tutor in the royal household of Louis XIV, La Bruyère observed first hand the vanity and pretensions of the aristocratic society around him. His work consists of a translation of the treatise by the Greek writer Theophrastus (circa 372–288 BC), and a series of character sketches and topical essays relating to contemporary France written in the style of Theophrastus. La Bruyère published the first edition of his book in 1688, which was followed by no fewer than nine successive editions by the time of his death in 1696. He not only expanded and revised the text from one edition to the next; he also amended it during printing, further enriching it with ever more variety. The copy presented here is one of three rare copies of the first printed drafts, and thus reflects the very basic starting point from which the work evolved. La Bruyère's book inspired a wave of imitators, causing the influential monthly Le Journal de Trévoux to remark in 1701: “The entire country of letters has been invaded by characters.”

Last updated: January 8, 2018