Minimalist Philosophy: Sophrosyne

sophrosyneA few weeks ago, while researching my post on areté, I tripped across another interesting concept from classical Greece: sophrosyne.

Sophrosyne (pronounced suh-FROSS-uh-nee, if you’d like to impress your friends) is an ancient ideal involving healthy-mindedness, balance, and moderation. As you can imagine, I was immediately intrigued. :)

According to Wikipedia, sophrosyne “is perhaps best expressed by the two most famous sayings of the oracle at Delphi: ‘Nothing in excess’ and ‘Know thyself.’ The term suggests a life-long happiness obtained when one’s philosophical needs are satisfied, resembling the idea of enlightenment through harmonious living.”

Unfortunately, the word has no direct counterpart in English, and an in-depth understanding requires a reading of Plato’s Charmides, The Symposium, and The Republic. But if you don’t mind a little armchair philosophy, I’ll give you my interpretation of the term, and how it relates to our minimalist journey.

As I see it, there are three main facets to sophrosyne:

  1. Self-knowledge
  2. Self-restraint
  3. Harmony

Or, in my minimalist interpretation:

  1. Knowing what’s enough for you
  2. Choosing enough over excess
  3. Finding joy in enough

Sophrosyne, then, isn’t about self-denial. Rather, it’s avoiding overindulgence (like doing, buying, owning, or eating “too much”) because it truly makes you happier to do so.

Some examples:

Sophrosyne isn’t skipping the Doritos or a second helping, and feeling miserable about it; it’s eating healthy foods, in healthy proportions, because it makes your body feel better.

Sophrosyne isn’t denying yourself that new handbag/gadget/car, while continuing to yearn for it; it’s being excited to preserve some of the Earth’s resources, or put that money into your child’s college fund instead.

Sophrosyne isn’t giving up your TV because it’s “a minimalist thing,” but because it gives you more time to pursue the activities you love.

Sophrosyne isn’t throwing all your stuff away in a no-holds-barred decluttering session; it’s questioning whether each item you own adds value to your life, or if you’d be happier without it.

Sophrosyne isn’t about choosing moderation because you think you should, but because it feels right and delights your soul.

A common misconception about minimalists is that we ditch our material possessions in some bizarre attempt to deny ourselves the “pleasures” of consumerism. I think what critics don’t get is this concept of sophrosyne: that we reject overconsumption because we get more pleasure from not owning three closets of clothes or a houseful of knickknacks. We derive more happiness from saving our space, time, money, or the planet, than acquiring more possessions.

Sophrosyne isn’t about self-restraint for its own sake, but rather the joy it brings us. It’s living a wise, graceful, and balanced life because we wouldn’t have it any other way.

In the time of Aristotle and Plato, sophrosyne was of supreme importance, a virtue to which people aspired. Unfortunately, it’s been lost in our modern age. Today, our society rewards the big, the loud, the radical, the extreme; sophrosyne, in contrast, is all about quiet elegance. I hope, however, that the growing popularity of minimalism—living beautiful lives with less—will spark a new interest in the concept.

Having sophrosyne is like being a finely-tuned instrument, with all our thoughts, values, and actions in harmony. But it goes beyond that: mastering our desires, and avoiding extremes in consumption, attitudes, and behavior, doesn’t benefit only ourselves. Like the melodious note from a plucked string, sophrosyne radiates out to the rest of the world, helping us live in harmony with nature and each other.

I hope I’ve been able to explain this wonderful concept with some coherence. Is anyone else as enamored with sophrosyne as I am?

{If you’d like to learn more about minimalist living, please consider reading my book, The Joy of Less, A Minimalist Living Guide, or subscribing to my RSS feed.}

57 comments to Minimalist Philosophy: Sophrosyne

  • Tina

    My husband found 10 books to give away today. I am pleased. I want to give away some more books we don’t use but they belong to my son. We don’t consume much and are trying to consume less. With age comes wisdom.

  • Chris King

    For a really excellent review of the ancient Greek meanings of sophrosyne, see this Bryn Mawr review, by Brad Levett, of Adriaan Rademaker’s book, “Sophrosyne and the Rhetoric of Self-Restraint: Polysemy and Persuasive Use of an Ancient Greek Value Term”:

  • Tina

    The public library gives away magazines. I take the art magazines for drawing and craft ideas. Then I give the ones I don’t need back. Out of a pile of ten, I may keep 2 or 3. I copy the pages I want and then give the rest back. Junk mail is recycled except for what becomes art or seasonal decorations. A friend makes large paper-mâché sculptures out of old newspapers. I was cutting stars out of colored paper just the other day.

  • Tanya

    This speaks to my soul. I’ve been waiting for the answer to my yearning desire to comprehend and articulate my feelings! this word was able to sum it all up for me. Thank you so much you did a wonderful job!

  • Beverly

    Today I find myself investigating Sophrosine (different spelling) and your article came up… so enjoyed reading it and your perspective!

  • […] and, in turn, new ways to perceive our beautiful world.  I recently came across an amazing blog post by Francine Jay about a classical Grecian concept called sophrosyne. She explains her perception of […]

  • I filled a bag with greeting cards and pretty paper for my friend who volunteers at a nursing home. We have a bag of batteries, light bulbs and electronics to recycle at the village hall. There is a collection box for fabric and one for shoes I passed this morning. Out of date medicines go to the police station. So many things to keep out of the garbage.

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