Saturday, August 27, 2011


There are some words that carry such a rich and nuanced meaning that it is virtually impossible to translate them adequately. When they are translated, meaning is inevitably lost. Some of the world’s great insights have been overlooked (and even lost) because of this unfortunate reality.

One such word is the Greek sophrosune. The dictionary indicates that it means: mental soundness, moderation, good sense and self-control. Its cognates also mean: sensible, sober, serious, discrete, prudent and chaste.

This is a lot for a word to mean. Try putting yourself in the situation of a translator who, upon finding sophrosune in a text, had to pick and choose among the many possible meanings. Such a task becomes exasperatingly futile when one realizes that the author did not have in mind just one of these definitions. When ancient authors used sophrosune they most certainly had in mind more than one. In some cases they may have intended all of them.

Take for example Paul’s use of the word in the Pastoral Epistles to Timothy and Titus. These letters were written towards the end of Paul’s life, after he had spent a good amount of time away from Judea. I expect that his time away included a more thorough understanding of both the Greek and Latin languages. Perhaps he had learned to appreciate the significance of the word sophrosune to a greater degree than he had before. It certainly shows up in his later writings more frequently than in his earlier work.

For example, in his letter to Titus (first chapter and eighth verse) Paul says that a bishop must be a “lover of hospitality, a lover of good men, sober, just, holy, temperate”. This is the King James translation, which translates sophrona as “sober”. The New International Version translates the verse such that a bishop must be “hospitable, one who loves what is good, who is self-controlled, upright, holy and disciplined.” Here the translated word is “self-controlled.” The Revised Standard Version indicates that a bishop must be “hospitable, a lover of goodness, master of himself, upright, holy, and self-controlled.” Here it is translated as “master of himself.”

These translations do the best they can but there is obviously a real loss here. Of course a bishop should be a sober man, but this hardly describes everything Paul meant to say. In this loss of understanding, we have also lost sight of the kind of person that such a word implies. For sophrosune describes a person of great character. It describes a person that has control of his/her inner life.

This kind of self-mastery is at the heart of the Christian message. David O. McKay said that “An upright character is the result only of continued effort and right thinking, the effect of long-cherished associations with Godlike thoughts. He approaches nearest the Christ spirit who makes God the center of his thoughts; and he who can say in his heart, “Not my will, but thine be done” approaches most nearly the Christ ideal.”

For Saint Augustine there was a great difference between those with this inner control and those without it. “For as the same fire causes gold to glow brightly, and chaff to smoke; and under the same flail the straw is beaten small, while the grain is cleansed… so the same violence of affliction proves, purges, clarifies the good, but damns, ruins, exterminates the wicked.”

Sophrosune was understood as the antithesis of hubris – that sin of selfish and destructive pride that afflicted many of the ancient world; and sadly, perfectly describes all too many of our own. And I think it is significant that we have retained the word hubris, while forgetting sophrosune. It is human nature to bristle at the arrogant upstart that we recognize in hubris. But we seem to find it altogether inconvenient to gain the mastery of our inner selves that sophrosune requires of us.

And why should we? Nobody seems to care anyway. Not too many generations ago, our ancestors learned about Washington and Lincoln not only as American presidents but as men who had cultivated a noble character. Today they are only considered historical figures. Instead of reading their staid and inspiring words, we learn only of the role they played in the formative events of our country. The strength of their inner selves is never considered.

Our youth grow up wondering what great things they might achieve in their lives, focusing on careers, wealth, beauty and influence. Their heroes are persons that have achieved some level of outer visibility and excellence. We look almost in vain to find the hero that inspires us with inner excellence.

No other writer in modern times has focused more meaningfully on this problem than has Irving Babbitt. He did not use the word sophrosune (I’m not sure if he knew Greek) but it is the major theme of his life’s work. He found it to be a major theme of the Judeo-Christian heritage as well as other Eastern religions and philosophies. He also saw its eclipse starting with Rousseau and Romanticism and growing in our modern world into our love of democratic superficiality.

Recognizing the lack of character in our modern academics, he paraphrases Emerson and Goethe approvingly: “The intellect is fatal to earnestness, says Emerson; Goethe has said it still more wisely that everything that emancipates the intellect without giving us a corresponding self-mastery is pernicious.”

And in his essay on Matthew Arnold he criticizes the inability of our democracy to ennoble anybody. “A glance at a current display of our newspapers and popular magazines suggests that, though we are not fools, we are reading just the things that fools would read.”

Yet for all the insight of Babbitt’s diagnosis – and it often seems right on the mark – he refrains from describing in any detail how this inner check might be developed. He talks about it as though it were self-evident. But it isn’t. Self-mastery, after all, is not only unpopular it is hard to develop. It isn’t something that is rationally acquired or decided upon and then experienced the next day. There is an element of uncertainty involved and it takes time. It requires directing one’s life according to principles that are not always well defined. In a word, it requires faith.

Hugh B. Brown said that “Man cannot live without faith, because in life’s adventure the central problem is character-building – which is not a product of logic, but of faith in ideals and sacrificial devotion to them.”

This is a very important insight – this relationship between character and faith. In fact I cannot think of another time in the history of the world when it takes so much faith to develop self-mastery. There are virtually no societal rewards anymore to someone deciding to gain mastery over their lives. It is a quiet quest of anonymity.

But there has never been a time in the history of the world when it was more needed. David O. McKay once made the contrast between two inebriated men. The first man lived over a hundred years ago and the worst that came of his condition was that he might have run his horse or chariot off the road into a ditch. The second man today may end up rolling his car off of the highway. If he is lucky he will only end up in the hospital form a short period. If less lucky he might lose his life or the lives of others.

In important personal ways there really isn’t much difference between these two men other than the technologies they use and the times in which they live. And yet the differences are very real indeed.

Or consider the inclination to view pornography. A century ago someone with a strong inclination might live his life and never suffer because of this weakness. Because a century ago there weren’t many opportunities to indulge in the practice. Today, though, things are very different. A man with only a slight inclination can end up hurting himself and his family a great deal. He may even be the cause of breaking up his home, or worse. And all of this because of the technology that makes it so easy to get caught up in it all.

Our times are not times to be morally indifferent. We really can’t afford to be. Yet sadly these very same times see so many of us so little interested in being masters of our inner selves. It used to be that a business owner in a small town might establish his character and benefit from it financially. A researcher might insist on high standards and be recognized for it. An athlete might be more concerned about sportsmanship than about winning a game. But these virtues are becoming rarer all the time. And sophrosune has little chance of making a comeback in such a cultural mess. Our democracy has given us all the chance to excel but instead of taking advantage of this opportunity most of us have merely become numbed into apathy. Character to us is something possessed by a novel or an abrasive personality – a character. Moral strength has nothing to do with it.

The small chance that true character has left is if visionary men and women, with enough faith in higher standards, will live a life of unrecognized nobility in order to become a person that few will ever understand. It will require them to rise above our culture and live with an eternal perspective because in our world, sophrosune requires faith.


For the David O. McKay quote see Teachings of the Presidents of the Church, David O. McKay, pg. 218. His example of the two drunk men are on page 160 of his recent biography (by G. Prince and R. Wright) David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism. Augustine’s quote is from The City of God, Book I, Chapter 8. Two of Babbitt’s most important books on the inner check are Democracy and Leadership and Character and Culture. The reference to Goethe is in his essay Are the English Critical in Character and Culture. Hugh B. Brown’s statement is from a talk given by Richard G. Scott in the October, 2010 General Conference, The Transforming Power of Faith and Character.

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