Theophrastus of Eresus

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Theophrastus of Eresus

372?-287? b.c.

Greek Scientist and Philosopher

Theophrastus was a scientist and philosopher who made significant contributions to nearly every area of thought and science, and in particular the study of botany and ecology. Originally named Tyrtamus, he received the nickname Theophrastus, meaning "divine speech," from Aristotle (384-322 b.c.). Theophrastus was an extremely prolific writer who tackled a variety of subjects. His treatises were in-depth and thorough. He is responsible for writing well over 200 documents on the subject of botany alone.

Born in Eresus on the island of Lesbos, Theophrastus was originally a pupil of Plato (427?-347 b.c.), though became attached to Aristotle after Plato's death. When Aristotle retired from the Lyceum (an academy founded in Athens by Aristotle), he appointed Theophrastus as his successor. While Theophrastus studied very diverse issues, he is best known for his work with plants. He has often been referred to as the first scientific botanist, and two of his practical, yet influential, books on the subject have survived into modern times.

Theophrastus wrote two seminal works in the field of botany called On the Causes of Plants and On the History of Plants. In these texts, he outlines he basic concepts of morphology, classification, and the natural history of plants. These works seemed to be aimed at the gardener, so they were quite practical in nature rather than being theoretical. His ideas on this subject were accepted without question for many centuries. Theophrastus was also a great advocate of science in his day and wrote many of his treatises with this in mind. Another area where he seemed to have a significant amount of influence was in the field of ecology.

It does not seem that the beginning of the field of ecology can be traced to any one historical event, but many authorities consider Theophrastus to be the father of ecology because he was the first to describe the interrelationships between organisms and the environment. While his descriptions are not ecology in the modern sense, he does deal with plants from within their ecological groups. Ecology was an extension of the field of natural history, and certainly he played a crucial role in its development. Theophrastus was not only interested in the living world, but he was also interested in studying the physical world as well.

Theophrastus wrote the oldest known document regarding the primary classification of over 70 different rocks and minerals. This work is still considered to have value, even though it is over 2,000 years old. It is considered by many to be the most influential text ever written in the field.

Theophrastus was one of the few students who fully embraced Aristotle's philosophy in all subject areas. He was the first person in the history of logic that was known to have examined the logic of propositions seriously. His contributions to this area and to other fields of philosophy were significant. As previously mentioned, Theophrastus wrote on a wide variety of subjects and even provided some of the most popular character sketches ever written.

His book, Characters, consists of 30 brief character sketches in which he defined an undesirable personal quality and then went on to describe the traits of a man who exemplified them. This was a widely read manuscript throughout the Renaissance and was even made into a popular play.

While much of his work has been lost to history, one thing that is certain is that Theophrastus was an industrious writer and thinker who made considerable contributions in nearly every area of philosophy and science. He died in around 287 b.c. after heading the Lyceum for 35 years. Upon his deathbed he is purported to have lamented that human life was too short, as he was just beginning to gain insights into its problems.


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Theophrastus of Eresus

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