Sophrosune: A Higher Power for Freethinkers
By John L.
Introducing Sophrosune [So-fro-SU-nay], a goddess of Ancient Greece, who personifies virtues germane to us in recovery. She is the spirit of moderation, self-control, temperance, restraint, and discretion. Sophrosune was one of the good spirits who escaped when Pandora opened the box that contained all the evils of the world.
As long as I can remember I’ve been a Hellenist, a lover of Ancient Greece, and therefore familiar with sophrosune — especially from two great Plato dialogues, Phaedrus and Symposium, where sophrosune represents the willing constraints of Love.
The philosophical, political, scientific, legal, and artistic foundations of Western Civilization were erected in Athens. We pay tribute to Greek ideals: respect for the freedom of the individual, the pursuit of physical and intellectual excellence, and so on.
Only recently did I consciously connect sophrosune with addiction recovery — as a result of an exchange in the AA Atheists and Agnostics discussion group. The topic for the week was Humility. On 8 July 2014 Sean at Hay on Wye wrote:
Last night at my home group we discussed Step 7 – Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings. (We discuss a step every month)
Our secretary did it from the 12 and 12 (that is, Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, for those not in the know). I hate that book … it is total rubbish. You’d think Uriah Heep himself had written Step 7 there … humility, humility, humility … of that dreadful destructive “woe is me” variety. Well, “woe was me” prior to AA and i’m fkuced if I want to be like that in sobriety….
I share Sean’s sentiments regarding the 12 & 12, especially the first section, where Bill W. interprets his Steps. The Traditions are another matter, and I have great respect for them, excepting only the second one, which is marred by gratuitous religiosity. Unlike the Steps, the Traditions developed from group experience and had no single author — but the Traditions are another topic.
“Humility” has various meanings. Sometimes it is taken as a synonym of “modesty”. A “modest”/“humble” person does not exaggerate his virtues or over-estimate his abilities. All good enough.
But humility also has other meanings, which are less appealing: low self-esteem, self-abasement. When used as a verb, “to humble” people means to lower them, to push them down. The root etymology of “humility” is the Latin humus (dirt): it follows that to humble others is to treat them like dirt.
I consider Bill W.’s chapter on “Step Seven” one of the most odious in the 12 & 12. In the second paragraph he proclaims:
Indeed, the attainment of greater humility is the foundation principle of each of A.A.’s Twelve Steps. For without some degree of humility, no alcoholic can stay sober at all.
I strongly disagree, having known newcomers who were sick and frail, broke, homeless, frightened, confused, filled with self-loathing. The last thing they needed was to be humbled. Instead, they needed hope and encouragement, kindness and understanding. I have seen many such newcomers develop into strong and self-confident people — with sobriety and the encouragement of the Fellowship.
For those who are followers of Nietzsche, and I am one, “humility” is one of the cardinal virtues of “slave-morality” — a morality which sanctifies weakness and sickness, which is based on resentment, which says no to life.
In his post, Sean mentioned Uriah Heep, a character created by Charles Dickens in his novel David Copperfield. The character is known for cloying humility and obsequiousness; he makes frequent references to his own humbleness:
I am well aware that I am the umblest person going. My mother is likewise a very umble person. We live in a numble abode. (Uriah Heep in Charles Dickens, David Copperfield, ch.16.)
At the same time, Heep is dishonest and treacherous. His humility is merely a mask for his evil machinations.
Henrietta Seiberling — the woman who started the Alcoholics squad within the Oxford Group in Akron, Ohio, and who, as much as anyone, should be considered a co-founder of A.A. — associated Bill W. with Uriah Heep:
According to her [Henrietta Seiberling’s] later and highly unflattering recollections, Bill had shown up that day in uncouth clothing, and he had stood hunched over instead of fully erect. “He laughed too loudly,” she said, “and showed too many teeth even when talking. He had this mannerism of rubbing his hands together and a simpering smile — a regular Uriah Heep.” (Matthew J. Raphael, Bill W. and Mr. Wilson, p. 105)
Reading the 12 & 12 commentary on Step Seven, it becomes clear that Bill W. is not talking about modesty, but rather the humbling or abasing of his followers. He goes so far as to say that serious character flaws, with humility at the head of the list, “made problem drinkers of us in the first place” and that such flaws “must be dealt with to prevent a retreat into alcoholism once again.” This is the exact opposite of the “biogenic approach” of James Milam (Under the Influence), according to which alcoholism itself, an addiction to ethyl alcohol, is the primary problem, not merely a symptom of psychological (or moral) problems.
While preaching humility for others, Bill W. has no low opinion of himself. He alludes to “the full implication of Step Seven: ‘humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings.’” as though these seven words — which he had written himself — were truly profound. I think not.
The pernicious bottom line of Step Seven is Bill W.’s declaration that we can only be sober through the intervention of a supernatural being:
As long as we placed self-reliance first, a genuine reliance upon a higher Power was out of the question. That basic ingredient of all humility, a desire to seek and do God’s will, was missing.
Enough for humility. A better virtue for us in recovery is sophrosune, which has something in common with the better qualities of humility. Both humility and sophrosune are opposed to such things as arrogance or extreme egotism, but there are important differences. Within limits, sophrosune is entirely compatible with confidence and self-esteem, with success and victory.
The great classical scholar and populariser, Edith Hamilton, had this to say on sophrosune:
This conception [man’s free choice] of what freedom means dawned upon the Greeks. The quality they valued most — the Greek word is sophrosuné — cannot be expressed by any single English word. It is oftenest translated by self-control, but it meant more than that. It was the spirit behind the two great Delphic sayings, “Know thyself” and “Nothing in excess”. Arrogance, insolent self-assertion, was of all qualities most detested by the Greeks. Sophrosuné was the exact opposite. It had its nature, as Aristotle would say, in the excellent and it meant accepting the bounds excellence laid down for human nature, restraining impulses to unrestricted freedom, shunning excess, obeying the inner laws of harmony and proportion. This was the virtue the Greeks esteemed beyond all others not because they were moderate lovers of the golden mean, but because their spontaneity and ever-changing variety and ardent energy of life had to have the strong control of a disciplined spirit or end in senseless violence.
That was the Greek ideal, and the result was their freedom. The idea that only the man who holds himself within self-chosen limits can be free is one of their great legacies to us. (Edith Hamilton, The Echo of Greece)
Sophrosune is consonant with self-mastery, self-knowledge, treating others fairly and appropriately, realizing one’s limits and boundaries, discretion, temperance, and clear-headedness; it means having a healthy mind in a healthy body (mens sana in corpore sano); it means tolerance (Live and Let Live).
One caveat: although sophrosune is about moderation, this does not apply to drinking. For us recovering alcoholics, our lives depend on total, life-long abstinence — staying away from the First Drink a day at a time.
Since Sophrosune is by nature a reasonable and tolerant goddess, I don’t think she would mind being called Sophie, if this were done with affection and respect. And since Sophrosune is a goddess as well as a virtue, might she not be a candidate for Higher Power?
But before any of you decide to worship the goddess, let me explain how it’s done. The Greek way of praying is very different from the Christian. When Christians pray, they do so on bended knees, with head bowed, hands folded, and eyes closed. The attitude is one of submission, as before an Oriental despot (which indeed Jehovah was).
In contrast, an Ancient Greek might pray with head upraised to the sky and arms uplifted. The attitude is one of pride, joy and alertness — at the same time with reverence to the deity. I imagine that one would pray to Sophrosune in a quiet place, sitting or standing comfortably, and making appeals in a simple and straightforward way.
If it seems that I, as a secular humanist, am going soft on religion, I stress that sophrosune is fundamentally an ideal and a virtue, and a lot better than that nasty old humility.
I look forward to the time, in a closed A.A. meeting, when someone will share: “… my Higher Power, whom I choose to call … [dramatic pause] … SOPHIE!”
The featured image at the top of this post comes from the speedwritingfairy website.
John L. was born and raised in Nebraska.
He attended Harvard College (AB 1963), majoring in Social Relations (Sociology, Anthropology and Psychology). In New York City he worked as a market research executive, writing on the side. He was in the antiwar movement since 1965 and the Gay Liberation movement since July 1969. He founded Pagan Press in 1982 (“Pagan” denoting western Classical Antiquity). For a decade, beginning in 1985, John was a leading writer for the New York Native, which was then the foremost gay newspaper. He has a dozen books to his credit. His writings have been widely translated.
John dates his alcoholism from his first bender in 1958 to his last drink in 1968. He considers himself a loyal, but by no means uncritical, member of AA. His latest book, A Freethinker in Alcoholics Anonymous, was published in June 2014. It was favorably reviewed by Thomas B. in AA Agnostica.
John has his own Pagan Press website which has a section called Alcoholism: Recovery without Religiosity. You can read more about his love of Greece in The Greek Spirit, which is based on a sermon he delivered at the Unitarian Universalist meeting house in Provincetown on May 23, 1999.
John now lives in Dorchester, Massachusetts, a part of Boston.