BMCR 2005.07.67

Sophrosyne and the Rhetoric of Self-Restraint: Polysemy and Persuasive Use of an Ancient Greek Value Term. Mnemosyne Suppl. 259

Adriaan Rademaker, Sophrosyne and the rhetoric of self-restraint : polysemy & persuasive use of an ancient Greek value term. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. Leiden: Brill, 2005. 1 online resource (x, 375 pages) : illustrations.. ISBN 9789047406983 $115.00.

Adriaan Rademaker (R.) has produced a useful study of the ancient Greek term sophrosyne, examining its use from Homer to Plato. It will serve both as a reference work on the nuances of the term in specific passages, and as a starting point for those interested in the virtue more generally.

As R. notes in his introduction (11), there is a good study of sophrosyne by North that traces out the wide range of meanings that this notoriously multivalent term can convey.1 R. differs from his predecessor by avoiding her diachronic perspective that understands certain senses of a word as later derivatives stemming from an “original” meaning, instead adopting a synchronic approach that seeks to explain the full range of meanings available in the term by the time of Plato. More importantly, while R. sees his study as one that is in line with Cairns’ study of aidos,2 in particular in the decision to examine both the concept and the word (15), R. employs a model of meaning from cognitive linguistics in order to make explicit his methodology and to give a more systematic account of the term’s range of meanings and their interrelationships.

The model R. adopts from cognitive linguistics abandons the more traditional attempt to find a core or essential meaning that is present in all uses of the term. Instead, by adopting Wittgenstein’s metaphor of a “family resemblance,” the overall semantic coherence of a word is explained by finding the particular semantic links between individual senses, although these similarities may not be found in all senses of the word. Thus, one sense of a term will bear a similarity to another, and this second sense will bear a (perhaps different) similarity to a third sense, and so on, forming a chain or network of meanings. This method strives to avoid producing a definition of a word that overly simplifies its range of meanings within different contexts. In order to structure these different senses, cognitive linguists replace the search for core meanings with the search for prototypes. A prototype is a member of a linguistic/cognitive category that is more typical of the category than other members. Other senses of the term will share in the category by virtue of their similarity to the prototype. Hence, if the prototype of bravery is the hoplite resisting the enemy in battle without fleeing, by analogy a sailor can also show bravery by “fighting” a storm at sea, although no actual (human) enemy is involved. An important part of this methodology is to describe how the various senses are semantically linked to one another in order to show (indeed to map, in the form of diagrams) the overall structure of meaning available in the term.

Since the book is long and detailed, I can give only a general summary of R.’s findings, making a few points of what is meant as constructive criticism along the way. In Homer, use of the term sophrosyne and cognates (throughout the study R. links the adjective sophron, the noun sophrosyne, and the verb sophronein together on the grounds that they generally have the same semantic value) is very rare, being limited to four instances. However, this word-group already displays a range of meanings, from “soundness of mind” to “orderly behavior.”

In archaic poetry we find these words used by the elite classes in the face of social change. In such circumstances, sophrosyne is, for non-elite groups, the good sense to adhere to the status quo and (therefore) refrain from social injustice or civil strife. In this political context, Sparta seems to have been particularly associated with the value term.

Turning to classical drama, in Aeschylus sophrosyne and cognates are most often used to encourage others to refrain from violent behavior. As an extension, they are also used to indicate the good sense not to do violence or insult to the gods. They are also used in relation to women to indicate the value of refraining from excessive displays of emotion. In relation to slaves, these terms can also have what R. calls an authoritarian sense, whereby sophrosyne amounts to showing obedience to one’s master.

In Sophocles the term for the most part is defined by negative opposition, in so far as the unbending nature of Sophoclean protagonists typically does not allow them to exhibit the virtue. However, through other characters we see the prudential use of the term, in which sophrosyne means to act in one’s own best interests.

With Euripides we get a more frequent and varied use of the term. Although a crucial sense is “control of desire,” we see, in R.’s system, a total of eleven of his eighteen categories of meaning for the term (on which see further below). What is particularly interesting is that Euripides dramatizes the potential conflict between different meanings of the term. Hence Phaedra in Hippolytus is unable to be sophron in the sense of controlling her desire, yet will kill herself as the most sensible response to her dilemma, a response that Hippolytus himself describes as sophron ( Hipp. 1034). Also, Euripides is one of our richest sources for this value term as it is understood in relation to women, exploring a range of meanings from fidelity to obedience to indulgence of a husband’s desires. My one substantive disagreement here is that R. tends to take at face value passages from Andromache and Medea that suggest that sophrosyne for a woman involved complete and unquestioning acceptance of her husband’s other partners.3 There was obviously a double standard in Classical Athens, but there were also, I think, limits. For example, Lysias, out of respect for his wife and mother, did not lodge his hetaira at home when he wanted to have her initiated into the mysteries, but at an unmarried friend’s home ([Dem.] 59.21-22). A work such as Sophocles’ Trachiniae, in which Deianeira, a self-restrained, loyal and indeed quite passive woman, is driven to foolish action by the extreme lack of sophrosyne shown by her husband Heracles, has similar implications.

Among the historians, Herodotus uses sophrosyne to describe tyrant figures, suggesting that it is the quality they typically lack. R.’s final position here is a bit unclear, since on 194 n. 1 he stresses that for Herodotus sophrosyne was not typically a Greek quality, but elsewhere in the chapter (195, 197, 200-1) he argues that Herodotus does in fact suggest that sophrosyne was typically Greek. In Thucydides, we see the term used in the sense of acting in a manner beneficial to the state, where it is used in political deliberations to suggest the good planning and caution needed to ensure favorable results in international relations. Like Euripides, Thucydides also explores contrasts between the term’s various meanings.

R. treats Aristophanes and the orators in a single chapter on the grounds that they both represent more ordinary uses of these words compared to the high literature of epic, lyric and tragedy. Here the emphasis is upon control of desire, both in sexual practices and in social interaction. The term is also used in the pragmatic sense of being moderate in one’s expenses. Here we see the value of quietism, in which the citizen refrains from the dirty business of city politics and minds his own affairs.

The heart of the study is to be found in chapter nine, in which R. gathers his individual findings to form an overview of the various meanings of sophrosyne. R. lists and describes eighteen distinct senses. What distinguishes these various senses is not only difference in meaning (e.g. “prudence” as opposed to “control of desire”) but also difference in agent (e.g. sophrosyne exhibited by a male citizen as opposed to sophrosyne displayed by a slave). The network of senses is composed upon two axes. The vertical axis moves from the internal and individual (mental sanity) towards more other-regarding senses (towards other individuals, the state and the gods). This gradation allows R. to avoid a strict dichotomy between an intellectual and ethical sense of the term, a dichotomy that has characterized past studies. The horizontal axis records difference in social status, in which men occupy the central position, with women, boys, girls and slaves taking more peripheral positions. (R. also includes the polis along this axis, but as an extension of the category of men.) In his explanation of his diagrams, R. discusses these senses in an order that brings out the family resemblances between them. For example, after examining the prudential sense of sophrosyne, he then looks at sophrosyne on the level of the polis where it denotes good counsel and caution, since these latter senses can easily be understood as the political counterparts to an individual’s use of personal prudence.

R. structures the entire network by determining the prototypes of sophrosyne for each class of individual. For men he argues that the prototype was control of desire, for women fidelity, for boys order and quietness, for girls quietness and for slaves obedience. R.’s establishment of these specific senses as the more dominant ones within the network is generally convincing. Having structured the overall network of senses for sophrosyne, R. then plots the various authors upon the network, thereby concisely expressing by means of individual diagrams the particular emphasis in each author’s use of the term. This is very useful, and justifies R.’s general claim for the explanatory power of his semantic model.

In R.’s establishment of the various general senses of the term, my one major complaint is that he tends to delimit the senses of sophrosyne too narrowly in relation to social status, in particular with regard to women. It seems to me to be impossible to limit sophrosyne as “prudence” to men, since this would suggest that no one else was viewed as having any self-interest or personal agency. Granted that in our sources sophrosyne is a term used by male authors, and so reflects a male conception of what is proper for the various classes of individuals, I see no reason to accept that Greek males uniformly thought that women could not act in their own interests, even if these interests were supposed to be subsumed under their own. In Sophocles’ Antigone, Ismene, typically understood as an example of a properly obedient woman in contrast to her transgressive sister, rejects Antigone’s request to help bury the body of their brother not only because she is obedient to those in power (61-2), but also because it would not be in their interest to oppose Creon. Her concern is that such a course of action will lead to their destruction, and she repeatedly describes Antigone’s plan as one that lacks nous (68, 99). Hence Ismene can be understood as sophron not only in her obedience to her kurios, but also in her prudential concern for survival. There does not seem to be anything particularly “masculine” about Ismene’s attitude.

Sophrosyne understood as moderation in one’s expenses also seems to be a sense that is properly applicable to women as well as men. Here R. is too quick to dismiss the evidence of Xenophon Oeconomicus 7.10-43, and indeed, given this passage’s emphasis on sophrosyne, the absence of any substantive discussion by R. is unfortunate. In 7.15 Ischomachus (and not Socrates, as R. says on 255 n. 4) emphasizes to his new wife that sophrosyne for both men and women involves the preservation of the family’s wealth. And while Ischomachus is certainly an idealized figure, in this regard his understanding of what it means for his wife to be sophron fits quite well with the figure of Penelope, the paradigm of feminine sophrosyne, as she is often presented as preserving, or trying to preserve, the wealth of the household for her husband and son (e.g. Od. 18.274-83, 19.524-31, 23.354-8).4 Ischomachus’ comparison of the good wife to the queen bee (7.32-40) fits well also with Semonides’ bee-woman (7.83-93), who is productive where his other women often waste the wealth of the oikos.

In the final chapter R. shows how Plato makes good use of the polysemy inherent in sophrosyne. In works like Laches, Protagoras and Gorgias, Plato activates different senses of the term to suggest the unity or at least the compatibility of the virtues. Thus, in Gorgias, Callicles rejects sophrosyne as “control of desire,” only to be shown later that sophrosyne (in its prudential sense) involves an ordering of the soul that thereby benefits the individual, and is thus compatible with Callicles’ self-professed concern for arete. At other times, as in Charmides and Republic, Plato instead insists on a restricted, technical sense for the term. Thus in Republic the virtues of justice and sophrosyne are kept distinct (despite the fact that they are closely linked) by having justice mean “to take care of one’s own affairs,” whereas sophrosyne is reserved for a type of harmony by which the different classes of the state, and the different parts of the soul, agree on just what constitutes “one’s own affairs.” Plato links this with the traditional sense of sophrosyne as “control of desire” by describing the virtue as “being stronger than oneself,” which itself can be understood to mean that one part (of the state or of the soul) gives way and is controlled by another. This understanding nicely makes use of another common sense of the term, that of obedience.

The book’s usefulness as a reference tool would be improved if there were more secondary references. For instance, R.’s interpretation (199-200) of the opening of Herodotus’ Histories appears to me to be overstated, and I would have liked to have seen it supported in relation to the literature, but there is only one citation, and that is to a work that is missing from the bibliography (Heath [1990], mentioned on 200 n. 8). Similarly, given the importance of Andromache’s self-presentation in Troades for our understanding of what constituted the attributes of the good wife, some acknowledgement of other discussions of the passage (634-83) would have been helpful. Also, a little more care could have been taken with the editing. I noticed about two dozen misprints (none of major significance). However, a number of secondary works cited in the notes do not appear in the bibliography (e.g. Kroll (1936) cited on 84 n. 23, Lebeck (1971) cited on 112 n. 19, Lattimore (1939) cited on 194 n. 2, Hogan (1972) cited on 205 n. 13, and Tuckey (1951) and Santas (1973) cited on 325 n. 38). There is also very little consistency in the spelling of Greek names, with different forms at times appearing in close succession (e.g. Ithaka on 70 n. 60, but Ithaca on 70 n. 65; Hephaistos on 51 n. 17, but Hephaestus on 53 n. 22).

In conclusion, although at times overly restrictive in attributing different meanings of the virtue to different classes of individuals, by employing a recent and profitable methodology R. has produced a detailed and clear description of this important value term.


1. H. North, Sophrosyne: self-knowledge and self-restraint in Greek literature. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1966.

2. D.L. Cairns, Aidos: the psychology and ethics of honour and shame in ancient Greek literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993.

3. Andromache’s statement ( Andr. 224-5) that she happily breast-fed Hector’s bastards seems overly self-abasing (see W. Allan, The Andromache and Euripidean Tragedy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000, 182). The self-serving Jason is not a reliable source ( Med. 913, 1369) to establish that Medea would have been sophron to have accepted his new marriage.

4. Penelope is certainly sophron in the first instance because she is loyal to her husband, but R. tends to be too restrictive in his understanding of the range of senses in which she is a paradigm for feminine sophrosyne. For instance, he repeatedly cites Troades 422-3 (33, 35, 258, 260), where Penelope is referred to as sophronos gunaikos, as evidence of her prototypical nature as the faithful wife. However, fidelity does not in fact seem to be the central sense of the term as it is used here. Talthybius’ point is that, even if Hecuba detests Odysseus (278-92), at least she will be the slave of a generally good woman. In this instance Penelope is sophron in the sense of being decent towards others.