BMCR 2024.06.10

The virtue of agency: sôphrosunê and self-constitution in classical Greece

, The virtue of agency: sôphrosunê and self-constitution in classical Greece. New York: Oxford University Press, 2023. Pp. 400. ISBN 9780197663509.



Despite its ubiquity and central importance to ancient Greek moral, ethical, and political thought, the concept of sophrosune has been the subject of surprisingly few book-length studies. Christopher Moore’s recent monograph is thus a very welcome addition to the study of sophrosune, as it aims to resolve some of the problems arising from the virtue’s inherent ambiguity. In addition to its attendant “canonical” virtues of justice, wisdom, and courage, sophrosune is involved in a constellation of related character traits and cultural values such as piety (eusebeia), shame (aidos), self-control (enkrateia), moderation (metriotes), orderliness (kosmos, kosmiotes, eutaxia, eunomia), gentleness (praotes), and obedience (peitharchia). Moore demonstrates how the indeterminate boundaries of sophrosune were under constant discussion, determination, and deconstruction in classical Greece.

The tenor of the book is largely philosophical and at its core pivots around Plato’s and Aristotle’s discussions of sophrosune. Moore contextualizes these intense philosophical discussions diachronically and in a wide range of sources in six preliminary chapters, leading up to three chapters on Plato and a chapter on Aristotle. The book is rounded out with a chapter on the Pythagoreans, a chapter on “Sophrosune for Later Women”, and an epilogue meditating on the issue of translation. Also included is an appendix of funerary epigrams from the 6th to 4th centuries BCE that involve sophrosune, with translations.

Moore combines philology and philosophy to produce the book’s main arguments. The reader will find close attention to lexical trends, manuscript traditions, authorial attributions, and alternate readings combined with step-by-step analysis of a given text or author’s presentation of sophrosune. However, the reader of this book need not be an expert in either philosophy or philology, as Moore’s approach to the material and his engaging writing style are accommodating to non-specialists.

Chapter 1 (‘Debating a Virtue’) serves as an introduction and illustrates his argument about his conception of sophrosune through brief analyses of passages from Herodotus, Euripides, and Aristophanes. Following this he describes how his work departs from and engages with earlier studies of sophrosune and Greek virtue as well as the overall trajectory of the book. Building on the major English-language studies by Helen North (1966) and Adriaan Rademaker (2005), Moore makes a significant contribution to the topic primarily in his conceptualization of the word sophrosune. This word is often translated as “moderation”, “temperance”, “prudence”, “self-control”, “soundness of mind”, and (Moore’s preferred translation) “discipline”. Because of its wide semantic field, the word is separated into intellectual and moral capacities, a distinction made by North and followed by Rademaker. The latter scholar ultimately finds eighteen different categories of usage for the term and its derivatives. In contrast, Moore argues persuasively that the term does possess unity as a concept despite its variety of meanings: “sophrosune denotes the faculty of acting only on authoritative desires” (p. 16) and “the virtue of acting rather than merely behaving, with due appreciation of all the relevant considerations, even if one’s field of attention is captivated by only a few of them” (p. 21). This is perhaps no help to those looking for a neat translation of the word, but it is a crucial advancement in understanding the concept on its own terms, as the logic behind the concept is prioritized over circumstantial definition. A secondary argument emerges in the book as well, that an understanding of sophrosune must be connected to the ideas of selfhood and self-constitution. Moore situates his work among those of scholars such as Bruno Snell, A. W. H. Adkins, and Bernard Williams, suggesting that sophrosune has a more central role in the formation of the self in ancient Greece than has thus far been recognized.

The following chapters (2-5) provide context for the philosophical debates of the 4th century BCE and later around sophrosune. Chapter 2 offers an etymological and lexical overview of the use of the term from the Archaic to the Classical Period, taking as representative samples Homer, Theognis, Pindar, Aeschylus, and funerary inscriptions. Chapter 3 engages in close textual analysis of a fragment of Heraclitus (though not all scholars agree on the authorship or exact wording of the fragment), arguing that Heraclitus was one of the first in the literary record to view sophrosune as an important, and indeed the greatest, virtue. In Chapter 4 Moore turns to tragedy to argue that Euripides is the earliest instance of a non-philosophical text engaging in critical discourse about sophrosune. He studies the way this virtue is deployed in Euripides’ Hippolytus and Bacchae, showing how these two plays interrogate the idea of sophrosune in connection to piety and sexual behavior. Chapter 5 surveys sophrosune in the writing of Critias, Antiphon, Thucydides, and Democritus. These four authors, Moore argues, each describe how sophrosune is involved in self-constitution in different ways, from suppressing harmful desires at the personal level to entire cities taking principled, strategic positions in the Peloponnesian War.

In Chapter 6, Moore turns our attention to philosophy by attempting to recover Socrates’ own influence on the discourse of sophrosune in the 4th century. Aristophanes, Antisthenes, the Platonic Alcibiades and a collection of reports in Stobaeus are summoned as witnesses to Socrates’ (potential) reputation for embodying and encouraging in others an ideal form of sophrosune that to some was misguided. At the very least, Socrates caused some reflection on the virtue. At this point, Moore’s study of sophrosune becomes less contextual and historical and more analytical. Chapter 7 brings into focus the oft-neglected Xenophon as a bridge between the less theoretical early Socratics and the more theoretical Platonists, as well as a theoretical middle ground between the positions taken by Plato and Aristotle. Moore deals specifically with the shades of difference between sophrosune and enkrateia, arguing that, within Xenophon’s Socratic works, the two are (usually, but not always) distinguished: enkrateia consists in the suppression of bad or inappropriate desires that makes way for acting on other ones through sophrosune. Plato will go on to ignore this distinction while Aristotle will lean into it to produce a narrow account of sophrosune.

Chapters 8-10 are all about Plato. Moore argues that Plato’s vast body of work, in which sophrosune is constantly examined, defined, and contested (usually aporetically), demonstrates the difficulty of defining what exactly it is and the wide array of available solutions to this problem. Chapter 8 deals with competing ideas of sophrosune as a practical virtue: how does it guide our actions with a view toward ourselves and/or others (or neither)? Of note is Callicles’ objection in the Gorgias, that sophrosune is tantamount to obedience and suppression of the self, on the premise that the self is equal to the sum of one’s desires and all desires are equal. In light of this objection, Socrates reconfigures his argument to diminish the role of desire-suppression and augment the agential aspect of doing good through sophrosune. The role of agency is borne out further in the Republic and the Charmides, the subjects of Chapter 9, in which Moore suggests that sophrosune in these dialogues is what allows for cooperation among those brought together into society by justice. Finally, in Chapter 10, Moore examines the formulation of sophrosune in the Statesman and the Laws, in which its epistemic value comes under question. At no point does Plato seem to come to a satisfying or definitive conclusion about what sophrosune is or does, but its agential focus comes through clearly in Moore’s analysis.

The final three chapters (11-13) demonstrate the ways Aristotle and the Pythagoreans tried to place clear categorical limitations around an otherwise blurry concept. In Chapter 11, Moore argues that Aristotle’s primary conception of sophrosune, developed in the Eudemian Ethics, amounts to the moderation of bodily desires, especially the pleasures of touch, so as not to hinder one’s intellectual capacities (phronesis). According to Moore, this description is too limited because it does not adequately account for desires outside of the bodily ones; furthermore, this usage of sophrosune is inconsistent throughout Aristotle’s corpus, and its narrowness does not accord with more expansive usage in other contemporary sources. Chapter 12 shows how Pythagorean thought aimed to put sophrosune into action as the core civic value for an ideal society. Chapter 13 addresses the issue of women’s sophrosune in a text ascribed to a woman named Phintys of Sparta and in a letter by Iamblichus. Though it falls outside the temporal scope of the book, this chapter is particularly important as it addresses the problem of what happens when one’s agency is limited by external forces, such as one’s husband. Moore argues that sophrosune can still be seen to endow women under the control of their husbands with some amount of agency.

The overall argument of the book and presentation of the material are convincing and compelling. I only have minor criticisms concerning the selection of primary sources. The overabundance of source material is a challenge for anyone studying sophrosune, and Moore has made prudent decisions on the whole. But while he does an excellent job of foregrounding the discussions of sophrosune in Classical literature by looking to the 5th century and earlier, for the 4th century the almost exclusive shift in focus to Socratic/Platonic philosophy gives a skewed impression of the intellectual activity around virtue and moral character going on at the time (at least in Athens).

A case in point: Moore points to Isocrates to counter the idea that sophrosune’s range of meanings narrowed in the later 4th century (pp. 268-269), but Isocrates has his own philosophical quirks. For lurking below the many examples of sophrosune cited from his corpus is a somewhat enigmatic and intentionally provocative statement at the end of Against the Sophists that justice and sophrosune cannot be taught to those with “bad” natures (Isoc. 13.20-21). Consequently, Isocrates has a more specific idea of the nature and distribution of sophrosune among human beings than initially appears. To my mind, this does not mark Isocrates as the ideal representative of common usage, and indeed warrants further exploration of an Isocratean vision of sophrosune. Reference to the Attic orators and/or the ephebic inscriptions from the late 4th century might have served Moore’s purpose better.

This example, however, does not reveal a weakness but rather a strength of this study in its applicability to an even wider range of texts, authors, and genres than one book can present. Moore’s theory of sophrosune lays the groundwork for both large-scale analyses of authors not treated in this study, such as the orators, as well as finer-grained arguments that can emerge from the texts already under question. We might wonder, for example, whether the differing definitions of sophrosune that he isolates in the Republic and the Laws could be related to the texts’ relationship to each other, whether we treat them as complementary texts, the Laws as a “redo” of the Republic, or somewhere in between. Moore has produced a thought-provoking exploration of sophrosune, and I recommend it to anyone interested in questions of virtue, moral philosophy, or the intellectual history of ancient Greece.


Works Cited

North, H. 1966. Sophrosyne: Self-knowledge and Self-restraint in Greek Literature. Cornell University Press.

Rademaker, A. 2005. Sophrosyne and the Rhetoric of Self-restraint: Polysemy and Persuasive Use of an Ancient Greek Value Term. Leiden; Boston: Brill.