PhilosophyCenter PhilosophyCenter | Musings
PhilosophyCenter | Musings

Sophrosyne

Avoid loud and aggressive persons,
they are vexatious to the spirit.
| Desiderata, Max Ehrmann

Sophyrosyne

The Greeks regarded sophrosyne (soh-fruh-SOO-nay), generally translated somewhat unsuccessfully as “moderation” or “temperance,” to be among the highest virtues that a person could achieve. Plato explores it at length in his dialogue, Charmides, where it appears to be related to grace, self-awareness, humility, respect for human limitations, the pursuit of excellence, self-possession, rationality, love for truth, social conscience, and conformity with the principles of harmony and proportion—all aspects of a character in which the various elements of wisdom (sophia) are brought together (syne).

In the political arena, Plato goes as far as asserting in the Republic that the city-state would never be free of evil until philosophers became kings or kings embodied the spirit of philosophy. Since philosophy is “the love of wisdom,” and sophrosyne is the coming together of the various qualities associated with the practice of wisdom, this amounts to saying that the city-state would be in harmony only if those in positions of power were self-possessed, mature, humble individuals guided by reason and an overriding concern for the common good. Wisdom, then, would be the North Star and compass heading to guide the ship of state across the often tumultuous sea of political life. By that reckoning, those who are pugnacious by nature, who prize winning above all else would be unfit to lead the people, as would those for whom profit is the highest priority. Put another way, a CEO may pilot a company to market dominance and enormous profitability without a shred of wisdom. Apart from having to answer to a board of directors and perhaps indirectly to shareholders, CEOs operate much like kings, often despots, with no checks on the power they wield save those imposed by conscience. In far too many companies, the CEO rules as though without conscience, and much harm is done as a result, proving that profitability is no more a measure of the condition of a company’s soul than it is of an individual’s. Amazon, for example, is by far one of the wealthiest, most recognized companies in the world, yet on Jeff Bezos’s watch, it has been guilty of imposing sweatshop conditions in its warehouses so severe that some workers have lost their lives, hate groups have been allowed to market products that promote racism and incite to violence, and like many multinational corporations, Amazon has managed to monopolize whole industries, routinely violate the privacy of its users, and evade paying its fair share of taxes. So much for concern for the common good.

One could say fairly that companies such as Amazon are the inevitable result of organizational leadership absent philosophical vision and values. The problem becomes even more serious when the same failings of character infiltrate government, where power is concentrated, and reckless decisions may cost people their health, their families, their civil liberties, even their lives. Such is the evil that those without wisdom can do without so much as turning their head.

Deficiencies of this sort abound in varying degrees. In 1968, Stephen Karpman, a student of transactional analysis founder Eric Berne, devised what subsequently became known as the Drama Triangle, a social model comprising three destructive roles that many adopt in dealing with conflict: the victim, the persecutor, and the rescuer. Thousands of philosophical counseling sessions have shown that these three are the favorite personae of the disordered soul, and that the simple awareness and rejection of these roles can go a long way in restoring sophrosyne. The Drama Triangle is something of a Bermuda Triangle of the psyche. Good things get lost there. Without sophrosyne, without self-possession and the humility that recognizes and accepts and works with human limitations, even our victories soon turn against us. This may be the basis of the ancient spiritual idea that the gods favor the humble person, and that pride—hubris, in the Greek view—goeth before a fall, leading inevitably to suffering and tragedy. All three drama-roles depend on a reactive stance that is barely conscious, highly opinionated, and resistant to instruction until years of misery have sufficiently pounded and softened the clay. When we are immersed in the role of the victim, the persecutor, or the rescuer, we are not present. The images of our past woundings project onto the screen of experience like Plato’s shadows on the fire-lit wall of the cave, so that we cannot see things as they are. Victims, for example, do not see their complicity in their incessant trials; persecutors are blind to the innocence of those they are convinced mean them harm; rescuers rush in to “help” with no awareness that they are running roughshod over essential boundaries and robbing those they would help of life lessons needed for the cultivation of responsibility, agency, and self-respect. As long as we continue to engage from within the Drama Triangle, now victim, now persecutor, now rescuer, life remains unsympathetic, unfair, a relentless repetition of missteps and misfortune.

There is a way out. In matters of the disordered soul that is not yet beyond rehabilitating, a little mindfulness goes a long way. Nothing more is required than the willingness to begin practicing self-awareness, so that we can come out of immersion in destructive roles and hold up a hand to them. No, we must begin to say to the constricted self we have been, I have given you too much of my life. I will accept responsibility for my suffering and quit playing the victim. I will persecute no one, for each carries a burden, and each is caught up in a story that may well be more painful than my own. I will abandon the futile vocation of rescuing others, since when I am truthful with myself and with them, I know that I am in no position to determine or dictate what they need, and even with the best of intentions, I am more likely to interfere and earn resentment than I am to save them. I choose, then, to save the one person I can—myself. And soon, practicing this humility, this acknowledgment and honoring of limitations, this truthfulness, we shake off the strangulating coils of drama, come back to our better nature and the living present, and discover firsthand why the ancients valued sophrosyne above all else.