Our Most Humble Strengths

** This post first appeared on Positive Psychology News Daily.

Forgiveness. Mercy. Prudence. Modesty. The strengths of temperance don’t get as much attention as our more muscular qualities. Yet in a certain sense, maybe this cluster of strengths enables every other strength, and thus makes the good life possible.

Excitement of reading

   Excitement of reading

Years before release of the book Tuesdays with Morrie, I use to spend Tuesday nights studying an ancient form of Greek with a Catholic priest, Father Clifford Stevens. I worked at the legislature all day. My wife had a corporate job. Our kids were young. My now college-aged son was just learning to read. The study of Greek brought a sense of circling back to my life. As I sat on the couch at home helping Andy sound out words syllable-by-syllable, I shared in his accomplishment and joy each time he discovered that he knew the words laid out before him. My feelings went beyond the basking of a proud father. Sitting in the basement of a church, struggling over passages of Aristotle and Homer, I too felt elation when I suddenly cobbled together recognizable sounds and new concepts from the strange letters on the yellowed pages. I was living his experience and reliving my own childhood. In so doing, I was better able to connect to his joy and thus share it. Thomas Wolfe was wrong. You can go home again.

The formal reason for getting together with Father Stevens was my interest in learning some Greek. But our meetings were so much more. We explored the things that mattered in life. We talked about God and meaning, the struggles of parenthood and work. We read Aquinas. We even discussed the legal arguments Father Stevens made in letters exchanged with US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. The meetings were wonderfully impractical, but possessed the texture of beauty that put them among the essential things.

My Discovery of Sophrosyne

It was through these dialogues that I discovered a concept essential to the classical Greek zeitgeist, for which we have no exact match in English: Sophrosyne (σωφροσύνη). In translations into English, sophrosyne is most often rendered as temperance. Peterson and Seligman describe temperance as the virtue whose strengths protect us against excess: Forgiveness, Humility, Prudence, Self-Regulation. This is what temperance has come to mean, and it was certainly an aspect of the historical virtue. But sophrosyne implies so much more.

Temple of Apollo at Delphi

Temple of Apollo at Delphi

Hamilton and Cairns point out that sophrosyne was the single most important ideal for the Greeks. This one word summarizes the “ideal of excellence of character and soundness of mind combined in one well-balanced individual.” It is a sense of wholeness, a notion of harmonious balance that is at the very core of the two great Delphic sayings: “Nothing in excess,” and “Know thyself.” According to them, sophrosyne meant “accepting the bounds which excellence lays down for human nature, restraining impulses to unrestricted freedom, to all excess, obeying the inner laws of harmony and proportion.” It is the opposite of arrogance, insolent self-assertion, or hubris.

Balance and Healthy-Mindedness

Strengths tend to reside between extremes. As Aristotle pointed out, defending the right and the just is the good between the extremes of cowardice and wrathful vengeance. To be a strength requires balance and proportion. In short, it requires sophrosyne.

 

Aristotle

   Aristotle

One strength of temperance does receive a fair amount of attention: self-regulation. This too depends upon sophrosyne. People often cite self-regulation as the only strength of which we cannot have too much. However, we all know people who over regulate. They might feel it is some deep character flaw if they have an overdue library book. Or they are so intent on making sure their children go to bed on time that they miss opportunities to connect their children with formative figures from their own childhoods. I have done both of these. Rather than being a sign of too much self-regulation, some say this shows a lack of regulation, a failure in our ability to turn it off.

However, this statement sets up a tautology: There is no such thing as too much regulation, because too much regulation is really too little regulation. Huh? In life as-we-live-it, there can be much too regulation. When we catch ourselves overdoing it, the advice should not be to regulate even more. To describe too much regulation as a failure of regulation is to confuse how we use language in the real world.

Positive psychology encountered the same issue when it tried to tell people that happiness really meant eudemonia and not what regular people mean by happiness. The meaning of words is shaped by their actual usage in real life. The shift in the field to using the word flourishing is much more helpful as people look for lessons about how to structure their lives.

The same is true with self-regulation. Let us acknowledge when we are over-regulating and add a dose of sophryune. After all, Peterson frequently stressed that it was not individual strengths that made the difference. What is important is how we use our strengths in combination. Humor is wonderful when coupled with social intelligence to guide its usage at the right times and in the right amounts. Grit, persistence and self-regulation all contribute mightily to well-being, unless they cause so much anxiety in our children that they need to be medicated on their race to nowhere. Sophrosyne provides the balance, proportion, and healthy mindedness.

Parthenon

Harmony and proportion

Perhaps Sophrosyne Enables Them All

Sophrosyne does more than solve the tautology. It also humanizes self-regulation. Whether valid or not, self- regulation is often positioned as a form of holding back, or denying oneself, as in “I must resist the chocolate cake.” However sophrosyne retains all the steadfastness of self-regulation without the sense of denial. Blackburn points out that for Aristotle, a person of sophrosyne is one who can “abstain or indulge appetites to the right degree without a severe effort of will.” It involves notions of rationality and the passions, without pitting them against one another, or setting up passion as a foe we must vanquish. As Helen North points out, sophrosyne is related to the “Greek tendency to interpret all kinds of experience – whatever moral, political, aesthetic, physical, or metaphysical – in terms of harmony and proportion.”

So it may be that sophrosyne is the quality that enables all of the other strengths.

Ultimately, sophrosyne is that condition of orderly arrangement that positions and monitors the parts of the whole, so that the good sought by the person is assured. Sophrosyne empowers and completes us. Of all the strengths, those qualities that make us the most human and grant passage to the good life, the strengths of temperance may be the most important. They are just too humble to say so.

References

Blackburn, S (2008). The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy . Oxford University Press.

Carr, M. F. (2001). Passionate Deliberation: Emotion, Temperance, and the Care Ethic in Clinical Moral Deliberation (Philosophical Studies in Contemporary Culture). Springer.

Hamilton, E. & Cairns, (1989, 2005). Introduction to Charmides in The Collected Dialogues of Plato: Including the Letters (Bollingen Series LXXI). Princeton University Press.

North, H. (1966). Sophrosyne: Self-Knowledge and Self-Restraint in Greek Literature. Cornell University Press.

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification.Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ross, David (1925). The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle. Re-issued 1980, revised by J. L. Ackrill and J. O. Urmson

Referenced Literature:

Albom, M. (2002). Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson. Broadway.

Wolfe, T. (1940, 2005). You Can’t Go Home Again.

 

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5 Comments

  1. michael felberbaum

    Been enjoying your posts on the positive psychology news. Look forward to your future writing.

  2. Hey. I want to drop you a quick note to verbalize my gratitude. I have been watching your site for several days and I appreciate the way you have built your website.

  3. It’s always refreshing to see/hear of another alive soul in the world embracing and genuinely espousing a perspective of observing and supporting others (and self) through the qualities of strengths, virtues and character which lead to living more fully human.

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