Matt Perryman

The “odd-ball” Greek word that explains constant nerd meltdowns

By Matt Perryman

On lists of the four cardinal virtues of character from the ancient world, you’ll find a strange entry called “moderation”.

Some translators will call it “temperance”.

The ancients valued this quality highly enough to rate it with justice and courage, but you might wonder what’s the ruckus.

The problem is in the translation.

Moderation and temperance call to mind humorless prune-faced scolds out to destroy all fun and laughter. Sort of like the humorless regime of manager-robots we live under today. Puritanism always tempts a human soul with fantasies of power.

Anyhow, since I consider myself neither humorless nor a scold, I don’t care for those words. Over the years my preference taught me to go for the original untranslated Greek.

The word for this virtue, as you’d find it in Plato, Aristotle, and Zeno of Citium, is sophrosyne.

If you must translate it into English, “self-discipline”, “self-control”, and “self-mastery” are more accurate to the intended meaning. No prune-face required.

If the value of this isn’t clear to you, the Greeks understood sophrosyne as essential to a well-lived life for three main reasons.

One— The virtues concern character, a person’s habitual patterns of thought, desire, and action. A person living sophrosyne exercises appropriate self-control in matters of appetite and emotion.

Like all the virtues, things go wrong when you have too much or too little. An imbalance in self-control can lead to undisciplined sloppiness or uptight humorless scolding. Sophrosyne is a middle way between the two extremes.

Two— Sophrosyne is a virtue of character, not intelligence. Mastery of the self and discipline can benefit from a high IQ, but these are two different qualities. Extremely smart people can be unsuccessful life-failures or unlikeable neurotics if they don’t possess sophrosyne. (Just see any comment thread on LinkedIn.)

Three— Exercising control over emotions and appetites is key in any complex society. That is even more important in our “information economy”. You’re under constant attack by sorcerers in their steel towers cooking up spells to enchant your attention. If you aren’t exercising disciplined control, somebody else is.

Living inside your own head, as many intelligent people do, disconnects a person from their own feelings and body-awareness. It is no small surprise to watch people lose control as their emotions overwhelm them.

The more “rational” people become, the more emotionally and physically unstable they are, which isn’t rational at all.

The punchline is, this happens precisely because they prioritize the intellect and give no second thoughts to character.

Matt Perryman 

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