Charmides reading: Is sophrosyne untranslatable?

NOTE: This is the 3rd of a series of posts and discussions of Plato’s dialogue Charmides. To view previous posts, go to the main blog page and scroll down from there. Please feel free to add comments, questions, corrections, etc.

In my last post, I mentioned the historical context of the Charmides, a context that Plato would have assumed all of his Greek readers would have readily have understood. But in addition to this assumption by Plato of his reader’s already understood background, there is also the simple fact that a Greek reader would already have a working understanding of the word sophrosyne. Our situation is a little more complex. Most of us must labor with translated equivalents, which are imprecise at best and misleading at worst. I have noticed a meme that starts in the older scholarship and continues into the present day — that sophrosyne is “untranslatable.” One example is this, from the venerable A. E. Taylor, written in 1908:

The leading forms of virtue are assumed by Plato to be roughly represented by the names justice, wisdom, courage (literally manliness, andreia), sophrosyne. This last untranslatable term has been variously rendered in English by ‘temperance,”continence,”self-control,’equivalents which are all objectionable from the implication of painful self-restraint which they carry with them. Etymologically, the nearest rendering would perhaps be ‘healthy-mindedness,’ a word which has unfortunate associations for the American branch of the English-speaking community. [ Plato by Alfred E. Taylor, London: Constable, 1908; emphasis mine].

By calling sophrosyne “untranslatable,” Taylor must have meant that no single English word can capture all of the connotative subtleties of the Greek word. I agree, but wonder if the Oxford don underestimated the value of standard translated equivalents to communicate much of what the Greeks meant by the word. In fact, if we are trying to understand Plato’s philosophical understanding of the virtue designated by sophrosyne, then the common Greek understanding of its meaning will also mislead. For we anglophones, the English words will have to be our first point of entry, paths to open our thinking up to the human phenomenon that the Greeks called sophrosyne. We do not understand the word unless we understand the experiential reality behind the word, and our openness to that reality is through the English words. To call sophrosyne “untranslatable” is therefore immoderate. Sophrosyne is not perfectly defined by words like “temperance” or “sound-mindedness”, but the sphere of its reality is indicated by those words. We must encounter sophrosyne in ourselves before we can ever hope to define it.

So pay less attention to words and definitions and more to the experiential reality that those purported words and definitions open up. Don’t despair if you don’t know Greek — you speak a language and know first-hand what it is like to be a human-being, which is good enough for our purposes. Our study of Charmides should not be primarily about the dialogue or about its technical vocabulary, but about what is revealed about the way things are.

ASIDE: In case any of you want to know how to pronounce sophrosyne. It is pronounced soff-rah-soo-nay, with the accent on the last syllable. Practice and it will soon roll trippingly off your tongue.


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