Greek Philosophy
Greek Philosophy

1. Sophrosynē

Sophrosynē (Greek: σωφροσύνη) is an ancient Greek concept of an ideal of excellence of character and soundness of mind,

which when combined in one well-balanced individual leads to other qualities, such as temperance, moderation, prudence, purity, decorum, and self-control.

2. Ancient Greek literature

In Ancient Greek literature, Sophrosynē is considered an important quality and is sometimes expressed in opposition to the concept of hubris.

A noted example of this occurs in Homer's The Iliad:

When Agamemnon decides to take the queen Briseis away from Achilles, it is seen as Agamemnon behaving with hubris and lacking Sophrosynē.

In Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus avoids being turned by Circe the enchantress into an animal by means of a magical herb, moly (symbolizing, by some accounts, Sophrosynē), given to him by Athena (Wisdom) and Hermes (Reason).

Heraclitus's fragment 112 states:

σωφρονεῖν ἀρετὴ μεγίστη, καὶ σοφίη ἀληθέα λέγειν καὶ ποιεῖν κατὰ φύσιν ἐπαίοντας

Sophrosynē is the greatest virtue, and wisdom is speaking and acting the truth, paying heed to the nature of things.

Themes connected with Sophrosynē and hubris figure prominently in plays of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides;

Sophrosynē is recognized as a virtue, although debased forms like prudery are criticized.

Sophrosynē is a theme in the play Hippolytus by Euripides, where Sophrosynē is represented by the goddess Artemis and is personified by the character Hippolytus.

3. Goddess

The 6th-century BC poet Theognis of Megara mentions Sophrosynē as among the daimona that were released from Pandora's box:

Hope is the only good god remaining among mankind;
the others have left and gone to Olympus.
Trust, a mighty god has gone, Restraint (Sophrosynē) has gone from men,
and the Graces, my friend, have abandoned the earth.

The De Astronomica lists Continentia among the daughters of Erebus and Nyx, who is thought to be the Roman equivalent of Sophrosynē.

4. Plato

Sophrosynē is an important topic for Plato:

It is the main subject of the dialogue Charmides, wherein several definitions are proposed but no conclusion reached;

however the dramatic context connotes moral purity and innocence.

An etymological meaning of Sophrosynē as moral sanity is proposed in Cratylus.

Plato's view of Sophrosynē is related to Pythagorean Harmonia and closely linked with Plato’s tripartite division of the soul:

Sophrosynē is the harmonious moderation of the appetitive and spirited parts of the soul by the rational part (e.g., Phaedrus).

5. After Plato

For the Stoic, Zeno of Citium, Sophrosynē is one of the 4 chief virtues.

Later Stoics like Musonius Rufus, Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius took a practical view of Sophrosynē and share a definition of it as the restraint of the appetites.

Demophilus, a Pythagorean philosopher of uncertain date, wrote:

Ρώμη ψυχής σωφροσύνη αύτη γαρ ψυχής απαθούς φώς εστιν

The vigour of the soul is sophrosynē, the light of a soul free of disturbing passions.

Cicero considered 4 Latin terms to translate Sophrosynē:

  1. temperantia (temperance),
  2. moderatio (moderateness),
  3. modestia (modesty)
  4. frugalitas (frugality).

Through the writings of Lactantius, St. Ambrose and St. Augustine, the virtue's meaning as temperance or proper mixture became the dominant view in subsequent Western European thought.

Sophrosynē, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, is the 4th and final cardinal virtue.