In preparation for my upcoming book club meeting, I’ve been reading through our current selection, Plato’s Symposium. While on Friday I chuckled at a little dialogue I’ve started with myself as a reader over time, I stumbled across a very interesting footnote that I wanted to share.
I love learning about words in foreign languages that don’t have an exact translation into English. The great thing about these words is that is serves as a worldview expanding device that adds to the filters we use to engage with the world. Sophrosune (or sophrosyne as I later learned from Wikipedia) is often translated to mean temperance or self-control. But as this footnote discusses, the world has an added element that sets it apart from self-control.
It carries an added moral character dimension that describes a certain kind of disposition. Implied in the idea of self-control is an element of instability – the self-control is needed to push against some felt desire or want. Were the desire absent, there would be no need for self-control. We don’t think of a person who is not thirsty as exercising self-control because they are not drinking water. Self-control would instead apply to the person who is actively thirsty but must resist imbibing for some reason. There is a force of will that is being applied against a desire to tamp it down.
Thirst for water might be a poor example here since water is necessary for life. Instead, we can think of the addict who is fighting an impulse to consume something they seek to abstain from. When they fight against the impulse, they can be said to be exercising self-control.
By contrast, sophrosune describes a moral quality of a person who is, in some sense, harmonious in their inner life. They don’t have the cravings that create impulses that require self-control. Instead of fighting cravings, as in the case of the addict, they may choose to engage or not engage in an activity without any internal pull towards it.
Whether this is a quality that is possible to attain, I cannot say. But it was an interesting word to learn about as separate from what one typically thinks about when pondering self-control and temperance.
It is sometimes amazing how cyclical social and political problems can be. While I am not pessimistic in our ability to move forward in something that can be recognized as “progress,” I do have some cynical attitudes towards our collective habit to backslide. I realized some time ago that while we espouse enlightened positions, such as “never again,” people as a whole tend to by historically myopic and prone to letting fear get the best of them – or to quote Agent Kay “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky dangerous animals and you know it.”
As of writing, I’m working my way through Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton. Around ten-hours into the audiobook, Chernow is discussing the political maneuvering between Hamilton and New York Governor George Clinton over trying to get the newly-drafted Constitution ratified in 10 States in order to bring it into force. The two sat on opposite sides of the federal government question, with Hamilton believing a strong central federal government was the key to sustaining the American experiment, while Clinton was distrustful of a central government superseding the power of the States. Hamilton had a poor opinion of Clinton, believing Clinton to be only concerned with consolidating his own wealth and power, and only pandering to the populace when elections rolled around.
Chernow gives a striking description of what Hamilton feared, and in a single line spells out a looming threat we are seeing anew in our own modern political discourse. Hamilton worried that “American democracy would be spoiled by demagogues who would mouth populace shibboleths to conceal their despotism.”
Chernow penned those words some fifteen years ago. Whether it’s 1788, 2004, or the dawning of the neo-20’s, the fears expressed in those words caution us that we must remain vigilant against those who seek to exploit our fears to manifest their vision in reality.