Sophrosyne: Self-Knowledge and Self-Restraint in Greek Literature

Helen North
Volume: 35
Copyright Date: 1966
Published by: Cornell University Press
Pages: 412
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    Book Description:

    From its first appearance in the Homeric poems to its transformation into a Christian virtue in the fourth century, the concept of sophrosyne played an important role in ancient thought. Described by Helen North as "the harmonious product of intense passion under perfect control," sophrosyne became a supreme virtue to some writers and a sign of weakness to others as it was viewed in the light of changing political, social, economic, and religious conditions. With a combination of careful scholarship and elegance of style, North identifies the nuances of sophrosyne and traces their development, not only through all the major works of Greek and Roman literature and philosophy, but in political and epideictic oratory, epigrams and inscriptions, and selected examples of Christian literature as well.

    From the time of Plato until the end of antiquity, both pagans and Christians found their best metaphor for sophrosyne in the image of the charioteer restraining and guiding his spirited horses. This idea of sophrosyne as a positive and exacting virtue has often been overlooked by modern scholars. North examines in detail the reasons why the concept was advocated by so many ancient writers, philosophers, and statesmen. As a civic virtue, as the virtus feminarum, as a topic in rhetoric and a canon in literary criticism, and in relationship to education, tragedy, religion, and a variety of allied subjects, sophrosyne moved through Greek, Roman, and patristic literature-a subject for debate and a standard of conduct. The fluctuating classical interpretations of the concept were reflected in its mythical and historical exemplars, as well as in the moral and intellectual qualities that were allied with, or opposed to, sophrosyne in ancient thought.

    This critique is a valuable contribution to classical studies not simply as the history of an idea but as an illumination of the concept itself.

    eISBN: 978-0-8014-6675-5
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Preface
    (pp. vii-xii)
  3. Table of Contents
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  4. Bibliography of Abbreviated Titles
    (pp. xv-xxi)
  5. I The Heroic and the Archaic Periods
    (pp. 1-31)

    DRAMATIC poets, orators, and philosophers of the fifth and fourth centuries B.C. often drew upon epic poetry, especially the Trojan cycle, for exemplars of the virtues and vices, as they were understood in the classical period. When models of sophrosyne and its antitheses were sought, a remarkable diversity appeared: Nestor, Menelaus, Diomedes, and Odysseus are the epic exemplars of sophrosyne in Sophocles, Isoc- rates, and Plato, while Achilles and Ajax represent its opposite.¹ The choice of models is instructive in several ways. It points to the differing facets of masculine sophrosyne,² if such widely divergent heroes might all be said...

  6. II Tragedy
    (pp. 32-84)

    SOPHROSYNE, as we learn from Theognis, owes its first notable development beyond its Homeric beginnings to the stimulus afforded by conditions in the polis. Tragedy, too, is at least in part a product of these conditions, and it is no accident that the first great flowering of sophrosyne in Greek literature occurs in the work of the tragic poets. Many studies have demonstrated what tragedy owes to the conflict that occurred when the heroic individual encountered the restrictions imposed by the world order—whether manifested in religion or in the framework of the polis.¹ The characteristic expression of these religious...

  7. III The Age of the Sophists
    (pp. 85-120)

    RATIONAL criticism of traditional values and unfettered speculation about ethics, politics, and religion were conspicuous activities of the first generation of Sophists, whose influence in Athenian intellectual life had already been manifest for at least a decade before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian war.¹ Their modes of thought had a powerful—often a disintegrating—impact on such concepts as justice, piety, and sophrosyne, which up to now had based their claims for the most part on religious or social sanctions or on uncritically accepted rules of conduct. Sophrosyne entered upon a new stage of its development under the rigorous scrutiny...

  8. IV Xenophon, the Minor Socratic Schools, and the Attic Orators of the Fourth Century
    (pp. 121-149)

    AT the close of the fifth century the concept of sophrosyne included a wide range of nuances, most of which had developed under the pressure of the great forces at work—especially in Athens—during that period of rapid change. These influences were the continued unfolding of Attic democracy, the conflict between oligarchic and democratic factions in the Greek states, the Peloponnesian war itself, the flowering of tragedy and comedy, and the sophistic movement, together with the reactions it provoked. In the fourth century, too, it is possible to identify certain influences—again chiefly Athenian—that shaped the further growth...

  9. v Plato
    (pp. 150-196)

    IN spite of the more spectacular and extensive influence of Isocrates on his own generation, it does not need to be demonstrated that Plato’s impact was ultimately both greater and more lasting. His place in the history of sophrosyne exemplifies his sovereign effect on Greek thought in general, for with him the development of this concept reaches a climax. Not only did he reconsider most of the earlier interpretations of the virtue which had emerged from the archaic and the classical worlds—now shattered for ever by the crises of the late fifth century—and reintegrate them into a new...

  10. VI Philosophy after Plato
    (pp. 197-242)

    DURING the centuries after Plato, significant innovations in the concept of sophrosyne belong entirely to the philosophical schools. Neither literary nor popular usage in Hellenistic and Graeco-Roman times went beyond the connotations developed in the classical period; and although the whole range of these connotations was maintained here and there in literature, we note a greater emphasis on the motive of self-control, a corresponding decline in other meanings, and an especially marked change in the political implications of sophrosyne. Even among the philosophers, only a small number took a view of sophrosyne which was in any way original.¹ The Epicureans...

  11. VII Literary and Popular Usage after Plato
    (pp. 243-257)

    IF Greek literature after the close of the classical period yields no startling development in the concept of sophrosyne, it nevertheless offers a wealth of allusions in poetry, prose, and inscriptions which reveal the pervasive importance of this excellence. The Fragments of New Comedy, elegy, epigram, versified Cynic diatribe, and Theocritean idyll—to mention only those remains of Hellenistic poetry that contain references to sophrosyne¹—present a remarkably unified view. Sophrosyne is nearly always interpreted as the control of appetite, usually erotic. Menander, for example, normally employs the word sôphrôn with the meaning “chaste” and applies it indifferently to men...

  12. VIII Sophrosyne in Rome
    (pp. 258-311)

    OF all the forms of Greek aretê, sophrosyne proved the most difficult to assimilate to the virtus Romana.In its origins—social and political, as well as temperamental—it was entirely foreign to Rome. At the deepest level, sophrosyne is related to the Greek tendency to interpret all kinds of experience—whether moral, political, aesthetic, physical, or metaphysical—in terms of harmony and proportion.At a level more susceptible to historical analysis, it is an expression of the self-knowledge and self-control that the Greek polis demanded of its citizens, to curb and counterbalance their individualism and self-assertion. And at a level still...

  13. IX Sophrosyne in Patristic Literature
    (pp. 312-379)

    IF the naturalization of sophrosyne in Rome was difficult and only intermittently successful, its conversion to Christianity involved even greater problems and in the end produced a still more thorough transformation. Among these problems the most serious was that which confronted the early Church at every turn during the first four centuries, when she was attempting to assimilate substantial portions of pagan philosophy—namely the fundamental conflict between faith and reason. To identify moral virtues based on natural reason with virtues originating in Divine Grace and to integrate the Greek concept of aretê into Christian morality, required the best efforts...

  14. Appendix: Imagery Related to Sophrosyne
    (pp. 380-386)
  15. Subject Index
    (pp. 387-389)
  16. Index of Ancient Authors
    (pp. 390-391)