Charmides reading: the Etymology of Sophrosyne

NOTE: This is the 4th 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.

I would like to attempt an etymology of the word sophrosyne. Although there is scholarship enough to make my attempt  plausible, I do not think it is altogether necessary to get the philology right. The purpose of my etymology is opening up understanding rather than nailing down the actual trajectories of word. (Plato wrote an entire dialogue, Cratylus, based on playful etymologies.) Take all this with appropriate moderation!

Sophrosyne is compounded from two Greek roots, sophron and syne.

Let’s begin with the suffix, since it is easier. Adding “syne” to the end of an adjective turns that adjective into an abstract noun. So dikaios (just) + syne = dikaiosyne (justice). Sophron (sound-minded) + syne = sophrosyne (soundminded-ness). So -syne works similar to the English suffix, “-ness”. Easy enough.

Now to the adjective, sophron, which I just translated provisionally as “sound-minded” since this gives a sense of the two words that comprise it: soos and phren. Both of these roots are interesting, so let me take them in order.

Soos is from the adjective saos, meaning “safe,” “protected” or “healed.” It is the root of the words for “savior” (soter) and salvation (soteria) in the New Testament. [Plato/Socrates’ etymology of sophrosyne in the Cratylus, 411e,  is that it comes from “salvation (soteria) of wisdom (phronesis)”.] It is one of the roots in Socrates name, which roughly etymologizes to “saving power.” (By the way, Socrates’ father’s name was Soproniskos, which has sophron as a root obviously. One of Socrates’ sons was also given this name.) Soos comes from a verb, saoo, which means “to save, protect to heal”. In my provisional translation of sophron, I translated the so- prefix as “sound.”

Phren is more interesting, having a meaning that goes back to pre-Homeric understandings of human anatomy. That it did come to mean something like “mind” I do not dispute, but its original meaning was more corporal than that. There is controversy among Homeric scholars as to the exact anatomical referent of phren — or phrenes, since it is most likely used in the plural — but there is no doubt that it originally mean a part of the body, and not the part above the neck. In Hippocrates, it designated the diaphragm, the panel of muscle that separates the lower organs of the abdominal cavity from the chest (or thoracic cavity). Plato also seems to use the word as referring to the diaphragm (translated below as “midriff”) in the following passage:

“Wherefore, since they scrupled to pollute the divine, unless through absolute necessity, [69e] they planted the mortal kind apart therefrom in another chamber of the body, building an isthmus and boundary for the head and chest by setting between them the neck, to the end that they might remain apart. And within the chest—or “thorax,” as it is called—they fastened the mortal kind of soul. And inasmuch as one part thereof is better, and one worse, they built a division within the cavity of the thorax— [70a] as if to fence off two separate chambers, for men and for women—by placing the midriff (phrenes) between them as a screen. That part of the soul, then, which partakes of courage and spirit (thymos), since it is a lover-of-victory (philonikos), they planted more near to the head, between the midriff (phrenes) and the neck, in order that it might hearken to the reason, and, in conjunction therewith, might forcibly subdue the tribe of the desires whensoever they should utterly refuse to yield willing obedience to the word of command from the citadel of reason. And the heart, [70b] which is the junction of the veins and the fount of the blood which circulates vigorously through all the limbs, they appointed to be the chamber of the bodyguard, to the end that when the heat of the passion (thymos) boils up, as soon as reason (logos) passes the word round that some unjust action is being done which affects them, either from without or possibly even from the interior desires, every organ of sense in the body might quickly perceive through all the channels both the injunctions and the threats and in all ways obey and follow them, thus allowing their best part [70c] to be the leader of them all. And as a means of relief for the leaping of the heart, in times when dangers are expected and passion (thymos) is excited—since they knew that all such swelling of the passionate parts would arise from the action of fire,—they contrived and implanted the form of the lungs. This is, in the first place, soft and bloodless; and, moreover, it contains within it perforated cavities like those of a sponge, so that, when it receives the breath and the drink, it might have a cooling effect and furnish relief and comfort [70d] in the burning heat. To this end they drew the channels of the windpipe to the lungs, and placed the lungs as a kind of padding round the heart, in order that, when the passion (thymos) therein should be at its height, by leaping upon a yielding substance and becoming cool, the heart might suffer less and thereby be enabled the more to be subservient to the reason (logos) in time of passion (thymos).” (Timaeus, 69d-70d, translated by W.R.M. Lamb, available in Public Domain on the Perseus Project website.)

In this passage, Plato is clearly designating the phrenes as the diaphragm that divides thorax and abdomen. But I believe Homer considered the phren to be the chest cavity itself:

But Patroclus in turn rushed on with the bronze, and not in vain did the shaft speed from his hand, but smote his foe where the midriff (phrenes) is set close about the throbbing heart.” — Iliad, 16:481

Imagine the chest as a bottle: its bottom is the diaphragm; its sides, the ribcage. Like a bottle, it has a neck with a mouth; its stopper is a combination of tongue and teeth. Inside this bottle is a gas under the pressure of heat. The bottle is the phren, that can be sound or leaky. The gas it contains is the psyche, meaning both “breath” and “soul”. The thermal characteristic of this gas is the thymos. Anger (menis or kholos or even thymos) is the building of heat in this bottle, the phren, which if not vented in a controlled fashion can lead to an explosion:

“With rage his black heart (phrenes) was wholly filled, and his eyes were like blazing fire.” — Iliad, 1:103

So associated was anger with thymos in the phren, that thymos can often be translated roughly as “anger”. (This metaphor of anger-as-like-a-gas-under-pressure is still contemporary.) For Homeric heroes, this heated gas under pressure, the thymos, was not an emotion, but life itself. The loss/absence of spirit (thymos) is death. The phren was the organ of protection and control of this life-force, channeling its drive and energy in desirable directions. The thymos is the fuel of striving, but it always threatens to break out in competitive strife. It is the source of courage and the pursuit of honor. It is highly excitable by the heat of the contest and by perceived threats to its honor before others. (The Girardian in me would say the thymos is highly mimetic, if not mimetic desire itself.) Plato, in the above passage, mentions the “victory-lover”, the philonikos, as the personification of this region of the body. The phren controls the thymos by either venting it appropriately or dampening it through the cooling effect of the lungs. (Courage and moderation press against each other like force and counter-force.) I believe that the word phren was usually written in the plural (phrenes) because it includes the two lungs as this moderating/cooling agency. Because of its agency over the passions, it became functionally equivalent to our understanding of “mind”. For Homeric man, the mind of a human being is in his chest!

The phren is then a container of passion, both anatomically and functionally. So our combined etymology is: soph + phren + syne = sound/healthy/safe + container of passions + -ness….”Sound-minded-ness”.

I find that noticing the physiological correlates for emotions is an aid to self-understanding. Even if our anatomical paradigms are different from Plato, the human passions that he is inscribing upon the body’s activity are still roughly our own. When the need to practice self-restraint arises in you, where do you feel it in your body — when you need to check anger, say? What bodily feelings correspond to the moderating force in you and what corresponds to that which is moderated in you? Can you feel your way into your own body in this case?


6 thoughts on “Charmides reading: the Etymology of Sophrosyne

  1. Bios is the life of one individual and zoe is the life force in general. I feel that this Greek word/concept that you are discussing is a physiological rendering of the moderation of the strong, life force that we all have moving within us and that when our emotions get too extreme or out-of-control that we need a harmonization or temperance or “averaging out” of them. Hence, it is a quite handy and practical word quite useful for us. Amazing how there can be a lesson within the origin of one word/concept. Thank you for your deep and detailed discussion.

    • Thanks for the comment, Liz. I am interested in your conception of sophrosyne as harmonization or “averaging out” of otherwise out-of-control emotions. That does seem to reflect how moderation/temperance works sometimes. One danger in using the English equivalents is that they have the connotation of “timid” or “tepid” or even as a type of weakness. I mentioned parenthetically above that courage and moderation are often considered to be incompatible by the Greeks. Plato was striving for a notion of each such that they are complementary. The “averaging out” notion tends in the direction of being tepid, whereas in “harmonization” we could have spiritedness that remains spirited.
      Regarding the difference between bios and zoe, I’m not so sure. My New Testament studies lead me in your direction, that zoe is the type of life that can be shared and that admits of degrees, whereas bios is just bare life, a quality we share with plants. My Aristotle studies lead me in an entirely different direction: if he makes a distinction — and I’m not sure he does — he reserves zoe for bare life (root of zoon, “animal”) and bios for the sharable political activity of humans. If there is a distinction, it is slippery and inconsistent. Careful thinking needs the very distinction you mentioned: I’m just not sure that zoe and bios have always represented that distinction, much as I wish it did.

      • It seems to me that while we should be on guard against misreading the texts, at the very least the idea of a distinction between bare life (existence?) and shared life (community?) exist both in modern and ancient understanding. I’ve always thought life alone was not worth much while life together was worth a great deal. Not that aloneness should be excluded from our experience or that the value of bare life or existence is worthless. Rather, I consider those values subordinate to the value of community, togetherness and intimate connection with others.

  2. Right — I think Liz and I both claim the distinction is important. As a biological reality, it seems that bare life is a precondition of shared life. But in the realm of value, I think you are right — bare life is subordinate to shared life. And as a human reality, shared life is prior. Did I put that right?

    We might think about how this distinction that we are making relates to sophrosyne, particularly when the dialogue dives into self-knowledge. Can what we are calling “bare life” reach self-knowledge or does that require “shared life”? Is sophrosyne a biological fact or a social fact?

    • I’m a bit uncomfortable with saying biological OR social. As beings of fleshiness, our social constructs are likely tethered to our flesh, so I think I prefer mere existence OR social existence. The self, which all of us are, cannot properly exist alone. So sophrosyne can’t be discovered with the self without its proper context amongst others. I would go so far as to say even the person stranded alone will find another or perish. Moderation might be possible to demonstrate in solitude, but I sense it would lose its value without another to test it against.

      In short, it’s a social fact because we are social creatures.

  3. Obviously our sociality requires our biology and our biology has sociality built in to it. I don’t think anyone here is claiming it is an either/or. On the contrary, (falsely) treating our sociality as a dispensable adjunct to our individuality is exactly the mistake of thinking it an either/or.

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