What is Sophrosyne?

zandvoort-100552_1920For the past several weeks, I have been conducting an in depth study of Paul’s letter to Titus. As I have been studying the epistle, I have come across the Greek word σωφροσύνη (sophrosyne) several times. Due to its prominence, I decided to look it up. What I found excited me.

Sophrosyne was a key concept in the ancient world. The Greeks believed that it was something that all should seek. In fact, several of Plato’s dialogues are concerned with the subject, especially Charmides and The Republic.

The concept can be partially described by the famous sayings of the Oracle of Delphi: “Nothing in excess” and “Know thyself.” Although the English language does not have an equivalent word, it is used many times in ancient texts, so we can come to a basic understanding of the concept. Also, it is useful to know that it is typically translated as self-control, temperance, restraint, or sober-mindedness, though meaning is lost in these translations.

In The Republic, Plato argues that there are three parts to the human being. There is the mind, which has an appetite for truth and wisdom. There is the spirit, which is responsible for our desire for honor and recognition and for our anger. And there is the body, which desires food, sex, money, etcetera. The ideal man has the proper balance between each of these, which is achieved through knowledge and reason.

Someone who has sophrosyne is aware of and in control of his appetites. He does not allow himself to eat more than he wants, nor does he try to satisfy all of his sexual cravings. He does not need wealth, except for as much as is necessary for him to live. He does not allow the opinions of men to stop him from doing what is right, and he does not allow himself to become so angry as to become destructive. Put shortly, he does not allow his desires to control him. He knows what he is feeling and uses his reason to determine how and whether he should act upon those feelings. His spirit, soul, and body are aligned. He is balanced.

When Achilles was blinded by rage, he did not have sophrosyne. When Dido was blinded by love, she did not have sophrosyne. More recently, when Gollum became enslaved to the ring, he lost his sophrosyne. Even more recently, when Jordan Belfort, the main character of The Wolf of Wall Street, became enslaved to money, drugs, and lust, he lost his sophrosyne.

Essentially, anything that hampers our ability to self-govern decreases our sophrosyne. Conversely, anything that increases our ability to self-govern increases our sophrosyne. Knowledge, wisdom, sobriety, and freedom from addiction, then, are key to sophrosyne.

Titus 2:12 tells us that God’s grace teaches us to live with sophrosyne. In fact, Titus 2 tells us that the old men, old women, young men, and young women alike are to have sophrosyne. This, it says, is what is becoming of sound doctrine.

With that in mind, I have resolved to become more self aware. I want to know what I am feeling and understand my desires. I choose to control my desires, not to let them control me. I strive to eliminate excess and to live with only that which adds value to my life. It is my aim to learn to have sophrosyne.

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