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Sôphrosunê is the Greek virtue of self-control, or temperance, a virtue that Aristotle says lies between self-indulgence (akolasia ) on the one hand and insensibility (anaisthêsia ) on the other. In its earliest uses (Homer) the word means "soundness of mind," "prudence," "discretion," and is related to the verb sôphronein, combining sôs, safe, and phronein, to think, a verb related to phrên, an archaism for mind (literally, "midriff," "heart," "the seat of thought," according to the Greeks).

Although Plato dedicated an entire dialogue (Charmides ) to a discussion of the meaning of sôphrosunê, the notion of self-mastery is central to his ethical theory and he invokes it in many contexts, ranging from the Gorgias to the Republic to the Laws. Plato's central claim is that self-mastery is more than the mere abstention from certain forms of physical pleasurethat was the popular and sophistic characterization of the virtuehe "exalts" it (semnunôn, Laws 710a5) by equating it with phronêsis, practical wisdom. Already in the so-called "early" or "Socratic" dialogues (among which the Charmides may be counted) Plato had spoken not only of self-control but of all the virtues as reducible, in some way, to knowledge of one kind or another. Like the other "early" dialogues, the Charmides ends in aporia, puzzlement, about what sôphrosunê "really" is, but the suggestion is quite clear that it has to do with knowledge of what is the objectively best way for one to live. When, at Gorgias 491e, Callicles scorns self-control as a mere convention valued only by stupid, foolish people (êlithious ), Socrates mounts an argument to show that those who cannot master their own desires and inclinations cannot master anything, a theme he takes up again in the Republic.

Aristotle regards temperance as moderation regarding pleasures and pains, and he loosely associates this virtue with courage as the two virtues of the non-rational (alogon ) part of the soul (Nicomachean Ethics II.7, 1107b58; cf. III.1012 1117b231119b10). Aristotle notes that temperance applies more to physical pleasures and pains than mental, and rather more to pleasure than to pain. On Aristotle's account, the temperate person does not crave pleasures more than is right, nor does he crave the wrong sorts of pleasures. The self-indulgent, by contrast, will crave either greater quantities of physical satisfaction than is right, for example, more food than he needs for healthy sustenance, or else he will crave the wrong sorts of physical satisfaction. Aristotle maintains that the other vice opposed to temperance, insensibility, is not merely rare but quite unnatural in humans as well as other animals. The point of both temperance and self-indulgence is the satisfaction of desire, in the one case correctly achieved in the pursuit of human flourishing, in the other a disordered pursuit of pleasure for its own sake rather than for one's natural end. Insensibility, by contrast, is an outright denial of one's basic physical needs and, by extension, a contravention of one's natural end.

Post-Aristotelian philosophy is quite heterogeneous in its treatment of ethical issues. The central conception of the virtue of self-control still has to do with controlling one's desires, though in certain cases (see, for example, SVF 1.200201) it is connected more directly to the foregoing of pleasures. For the Stoics, sôphrosunê was counted among the cardinal virtues along with courage, prudence, and justice. Since their highest good was a life lived in accordance with nature (kata phusin ) the wise person is one whose understanding of nature and his place in it leads him to a kind of unity with nature, and they defined sophrosynê very generally as practical wisdom concerned with choice and avoidance (Plut. Stoic. rep. 1034ce). The Epicureans, according to Cicero (De finibus 1.14.478), associated self-control with peace of mind and harmony, by freeing us from the disruptions and consequences of an unbridled pursuit of pleasure. This has value, according to them, not in itself, but because it secures greater pleasure over the long run.

See also Aristotle; Hellenistic Thought; Homer; Pain; Plato; Pleasure; Virtue and Vice.


Macintyre, Alisdair. "Sôphrosunê : How a Virtue Can Become Socially Disruptive." Midwest Studies in Philosophy 13 (1988): 111.

North, Helen. Sophrosyne and Self-Restraint in Greek Literature. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1966.

Rademaker, Adriaan. Sophrosyne and the Rhetoric of Self-Restraint: Polysemy and Persuasive Use of an Ancient Greek Value Term. Leiden: Brill, 2005.

Santas, Gerasimos. "Socrates at Work on Virtue and Knowledge in Plato's Charmides." Exegesis and Argument: Studies in Greek Philosophy Presented to Gregory Vlastos. Phronesis suppl. vol. 1 (1973): 105132.

Young, C. "Aristotle on Temperance." Philosophical Review 97 (1988): 521542.

Scott Carson (2005)