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.

25 Responses

  1. Sam M says:

    This is great! I’m so grateful to have found this community. I’m sober 18 years and come into my nonbelief/atheism over the last 10 years and have been pretty fervent for the last 5 or so.

    I regularly shudder at all of the God talk in meetings-especially in TX where I have lived the past 2 years. I’ve become pretty vocal at my opposition-both bc I have a high opinion of my opinions and I want any potential frail & frightened atheist newcomer not to get scared away or despairing of the religiosity and know that AA can 100% work for them-as long as they’re able to do some manipulation & interpretation of the 12 Step basic texts.

    Have never heard of Sophrosune and I love her. Think next time I share I’m going to say “…my Higher Power who I choose to call Sophrosune…”

    As for humility’s meanings, I’d never really noticed the groveling/subjugating nature of it’s use in the 7th step, but for sure that’s what he’s getting at. But, as alluded to by another comment, I agree that humility in the modesty sense is essential in recovery, and it fully seems Bill W. is using it that way in his comments:

    “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.”

    Basically it’s a need to relinquish our big shotism, which in my experience is almost universally present in AAs in some form or another. Giving rise to one of AAs myriad aphorisms: Only an alcholic can look down his nose at someone while lying in the gutter.

    I’m constantly reminded of the need for me to seek humility-in the modesty sense, mostly bc my natural tendency to deep down and subtley be an arrogant know it all asshole that feels superior to almost anyone. Thanks to another natural tendency to suffer the pitfalls and repercussions of this kind of attitude, I’m routinely reminded that I’m just “another Bozo on the bus” as we say sometimes in Atlanta AA meetings. And that’s the best and healthiest place for me to be-a man among men, a worker among workers. There is no groveling or apologizing in seeking this kind of humility- it’s simply a need and important desire to stay “right sized”. Thus helping to maintain a balance of high self-esteem and “modesty”

    This a wonderful article. What a great venue to parse the absurdities and inconsistencies in AA philosophy. Cheers everyone! Keep fighting the good fight.

    Hope to see some of you in Nov at the WAFT convention.

  2. Neal says:

    Concerning Bills Quote: “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 actually completely agree! The “newcomers who were sick and frail, broke, homeless, frightened, confused and filled with self-loathing” obviously haven’t been humbled enough! I know I hadn’t.
    I would agree that this article is an awesome lesson in Greek philosophy and I loved reading it. Humility, being humbled and humiliated. Being restrained back into being a member of humanity is what saved my life from crippling addiction and resentment towards the faithful. My arrogance had to be smashed and I continue to take self inventory.
    Bill, though frequently wrong, was misquoted in this article. Nietzsche was also misused in my opinion. Yes, Christianity is a slave morality, a cult of human sacrifice, a celebration of servitude. But lets not forget Nietzsche went mad and his work was used for some real nasty political work.
    To add criticism here I’d say Sophie isn’t going to perform any miracles as ordered in the steps. To quote Bill and defend him again, if a mere life philosophy were sufficient to stay sober we’d of all been cured a long time ago. Don’t get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this informative article but I wont condone the forsaking of humility. Are you guys kidding me? Humility is about the only thing that saved this militant atheists life.

  3. Jim H. says:

    Sounds cool.

  4. Bull says:

    Interesting article. I find nothing binding in any of Bill’s writings, concerning the nature of a higher power. If one looks carefully, Native people here in America have had several sobriety movements. I have followed the Red Road for eight years now, and seeking our Creator on our feet, facing the sun, is my favorite way to start my day. One of my elders in Montana described humility as being who you are, no more, no less. I find this helpful in my self-denigrating moments. The Red Road doesn’t have any written mythology per se, but there are authors now who have put into print the philosophies and life ways of the first People on turtle island. If you wish, read them with care, as many are written and translated by white folks, and much of the nuance and true meaning of the original language is lost or distorted. One of our foundational beliefs is that no person can tell another what to do. I am responsible for the relationship I have with my Creator, nobody else. On a very tangential note, on one of the Stargate SG-1 episodes, a character makes an eloquent statement that simplifies our role as humans. “The Universe is so vast, and we are so small, the only real control we have is whether we do good or evil.”

  5. Christopher G says:

    Thank you, John, for this educational piece. I found this online out of curiosity and found it additionally interesting.
    especially the Roman equivalent of, Sobrietas, the goddess of temperance and sobriety.

  6. Thomas B. says:

    Per usual, John, an exemplary essay, full of free-thinking verve — what fun to imagine someone raising head and hands skywards to forthrightly intone “My Higher Power, “Sophie . . . !~!~!

    It reminds me of a quip a friend at the beginning of a meeting the other day said, “Just once, I wish we could open with a moment of laughter . . . ”

    Of late, whenever my home group opens and ends with the Serenity Prayer, which is our group conscience, I loudly chant, Goddess, grant us . . .”

    When I pray to a make-believe deity, I much prefer to petition a gentle, life-enhancing, sensuous goddess than a wrathful, vengeful, merciless male god. Thank you for another goddess archetype to supplement the goddesses and fairies of my Celtic heritage.

    One of the anti-heroes of my youthful Christian heritage is the writer, social activist and mystic, Thomas Merton, a Trappist Monk and priest at Gethsemane Monastery in Kentucky. During his youth, he was a profligate rake both at Cambridge University, fathering a child, and Columbia University. In January of 1966, he prayed fervently to the Virgin Mary to teach him how to experience love. Several months later while in the hospital recuperating from back surgery he fell madly in love with a student nurse 25 years his junior, who was engaged to an Air Force pilot in Vietnam. For a year they had a passionate love affair, which Merton ended when he recommitted to his vows and remained in the Trappist Order. I wonder, could have been an example of the power of prayer?

    Whenever I can I visit his grave at Gethsemane Monastery in Kentucky. The first time I was there in 2002, I was able to spend some time at his Hermitage deep in the woodlands of the monastery, where he spent many days and nights reading, contemplating, and writing. It was filled with handwritten notes describing the propensity of Christians to literally and figuratively browbeat themselves. They were variations on the theme, “Please pray for me, a miserable, worthless, horrible sinner!”

    You rightly point out how Bill through much of his writing about the program and steps mirrors this pernicious requirement for true Christian piety as apparent in much of the language of the Big Book and the 12 & 12.

    Later writing, in both correspondence and Grapevine articles indicate that Bill changed, moved considerably away from his earlier Christian orthodoxy. Nell Wing, the first AA archivist, and he at the time of this death were working on a book about spirituality based on the philosophy of Plotinus. I wish we were able to gain access to this in the AA archives. Maybe when I visit New York later this summer I will stop by the AA Archives and initiate a request to view it.

    • John L. says:

      Thanks. Like your friend, I’m put off by the “moments of silence”, never sure what I should do. One group I attend occasionally, Crossroads, has plenty of laughter. Some of the speakers, when they tell their story, could almost qualify as stand-up comedians. There’s enough gloom in the world without getting more of it at meetings.

  7. Michael says:

    Being a sincerely humble person and being humbled or humiliated by others are two very different things.

    I do agree with Bill W., I could only find peace when I understood my alcohol ego, my inflated self worth coupled with very low self esteem. It took time and sitting through a lot of meetings. I don’t see this topic as having anything to do with atheism and agnosticism necessarily.

  8. Pat N. says:

    Thanks, John – we need all the good models/concepts for What Keeps Us Sober available. I’ll remember this lady.

    I consider much of Bill W’s writing to be pretentious garbage. He gets my full respect for providing the energy needed to get AA started and moving in the early days. But I generally don’t like his assumption that he could tell me what I needed.

    Like so many others, I have rewritten the 12 Steps into a usable format. My current focus is on the concept that I am NOT powerless over alcohol. What I am is powerless over the 2nd drink and its successors – as long as I avoid the 1st, there’s no problem. I’m also thinking my inventory should be of my BEHAVIORS, good and bad. Those I can define and modify – I can’t do squat about illusory “morals, wrongs, and character defects”. Finally, I don’t need some illusory “spiritual” plateau to start helping others. I can do it now.

    By the way, I think the root word for humility is the same for human and humor – it can be a positive idea indeed.

    • Daniel says:

      To me humility is simply being totally honest with myself and with you. I cannot stay sober unless I practice these principles. Cheers Daniel

    • John L. says:

      Thanks. Back in the late 1960s and early 1970s some in the Greenwich Village groups strongly urged that 4th Step inventories should include one’s strengths or virtues as well as one’s weaknesses of “character defects”.

  9. Robert W. says:

    Boy! Aren’t we all a bunch of highly educated thinkers. Isn’t it possible that I can profit from whatever fable I tell myself if I can apply to myself? Maybe there is no certainty, no God, no right and wrong but who cares. The way we live our lives makes so much noise that people can’t hear what we’re saying anyway. So I’m looking at your feet not your jaw.

  10. life-j says:

    thanks. I think it is good to have pointed out to what great extent AA’s concept of humility (even though you almost stress the debasement part too much) is basically adopted from christianity’s need for debasement.
    What I would hope for in a sequel would be a philosophy which is not tied into any historical philosophy.
    Sophrosune – besides being unpronounceable comes with its own baggage of greek mythology and philosophy, and we try to align ourselves with it in attempt to have something, something other than what aa pushed on us, to hold on to, when we really shouldn’t have to have any religious or philosophical superstructure to hold on to.
    I have now been reading Deng Ming Dao’s 365 TAO for a number of months, and like almost everything about it, other than that it is chinese, and I’m not. I have nothing against the chinese – on the contrary, and 365 TAO only gives me more respect, but it is a foreign land, and a foreign philosophy. I’m going to keep on with it, because it is so far the thing best suited to my way of thinking, there is practically nothing I take offense to, but often things that, like, make me go huh? You know? – to express it in common, almost a bit too common western terms. That’s because though the author is contemporary, and even an american chinese, the philosophy still belongs to a different time and place.
    It must be possible for us to develop a school of thought which is contemporary, and local to our way of thinking – without succumbing to any temptation to surrender to the lowest common denominator.

    • Tommy H says:

      Use 365 Tao daily for a couple more years and you will, if you are anything like me, see where it fits the modern world.

      I’ve been using it for about 15y and love it.

      Keep at it.

      • life-j says:

        Tommy, sure, I see that easily already, that’s why I read it, only I was remarking on how we seem to have this drive to dig our spirituality out from old sources, maybe we have such spiritual paucity that we are not able to make our own? Or maybe there are just too many competing attempts?
        so here John digs up something obscure from old greece, sounds like it’s rather on the sympathetic side, but it’s just odd that the crustimony proceedcake is to go dig for our spirituality in old sources, as if that somehow makes it particularly worthy, rather than somehow developing our own. And yes, that goes for TAO too. I do the same thing. Isn’t it odd, though?

    • John L. says:

      To me, sophrosune is universal and timeless, not bound to any historical time. place, or ideology. Not everyone is an admirer of Ancient Greece, or needs to be. I am one.

      “Sophrosune” [So-fro-SU-nay] is not difficult to pronounce if one speaks French or German. The accented third syllable is pronounced like the French “u” in “tu” or like the German Umlaut in “Tür”. The first two vowels are pronounced pretty much like the first two vowels in “sophomore”, if enunciated distinctly; and the final vowel (not a diphthong) is pronounced like the “e” in Italian “cane” or the second “e” in French “bébé”.

      Of course, “Sophie” is easier to pronounce.

      My friend Beert, retired head of a Classics department, who considers pedanticism one of his hobbies, explained the pronunciation of “sophrosune” to me in considerable detail. If anyone really wants to know about omegas, omicrons, etas, upsilons, and all that, I can relay his information.

  11. Tommy H says:

    Very thought-provoking.

    Thanks, all.

  12. JHG says:

    The language of the steps – powerless, unmanageable, needing to be restored to sanity by a power greater than ourselves, turning our will and our lives over to the care of God, admitting the exact nature of our wrongs, humbly asking God for the removal of our character defects – is code for “we are sinners who can only be saved by a gracious and loving God.”

    Sobriety is ultimately about building a life that is solid, stable, satisfying, and viable by virtue of the fact that it is based in reality. Most of us need help from other people to get there, but it is our job to do the legwork.

    In the spirit of Nietzsche, among the virtues embodied by Sophrosune would surely be an embracing of human mortality and a rejection of any claim to be in possession of eternal truth. Being committed to living in the here-and-now, accepting life as it is, and not looking for meaning in transcendental reality represents an approach to a life of recovery that is far more robust than depending on a higher power.

    • John L. says:

      I wholeheartedly agree with your comment — especially the second paragragh, which concisely and eloquently describes what sobriety is about and why we need the Fellowship. Sobriety should indeed be based in reality.

  13. Joe C says:

    I will read anything John writes with care. Joseph Campbell wrote, in The Power of Myth, “Mythology is not a lie, mythology is poetry, it is metaphorical. It has been well said that mythology is the penultimate truth -penultimate because the ultimate cannot be put into words. It is beyond words.” The tale of “Sophie” is poetry. To look towards a Sophrosunian way of seeing and being would be a worthy higher purpose for any AA or other 12 Step member.

    I think of Annie Lennox singing with Aretha Franklin, “Sisters are doing for themselves…” when I think of the contribution of great Freethinking writers in AA today. In a recent episode of Rebellion Dogs Radio, I celebrated a few of the great books of late from doubters/skeptics in AA and the larger 12 & 12 community. They are not awaiting permission – but rather, doing it for themselves (or ourselves as these unselfish acts have a way of stimulating identification and liberation). Many of these works have been celebrated on this site, too. I find John’s book well articulated and mind-expanding. I didn’t have to agree with everything to appreciate the soundness of his fundamentals.

    I see here some range that extends my appreciation for his contribution to AA. Maybe a follow up to Don’t Tell will be a collection of Agnostica posts including this one and be entitled, Do Tell.

  14. MarkInTexas says:

    John L,

    Thank you. So, I’m not the only one who sees the Christian notion of “self-abasement” for what it is. Under that scheme, “man” must be denigrated, man must become that evil worm that should/must apologize for his/her existence.

    I often contrast Greek “humility” with the perverse Christian understanding of this term found throughout our literature.

    “Be Thou Not an apologizing-for-life, groveling, defeated and submissive worm.” A good dose of Nietzsche’s “Antichrist,” and “Genealogy of Morals” is good medicine for the atheist or other type of nontheist who finds himself/herself in AA, loving the fellowship and help, but rejecting the fake “moral” self denigration, and self-flagellation in Wilson’s conception of things.

    My eventual “surrender” to the undeniable fact about myself, that I was utterly defeated by alcohol, and for some reason if the problem were to be solved it would require positive, rational actions and help from others, came as I grew in my understanding of Greek, and Roman Stoic impulses to “Know Thyself,” and to the HONEST inventories regarding the facts of my case.

    I’m now four months away from 5 years sober. I am still an open atheist in a traditional AA home group. I’m open about that because I value Honesty over acceptance, and am open the other nonbeliever who walks in, sees the stuff on our walls, listens to folks, and then is tempted to say…”oh, hell no, I’m out.”

    Thank you for your essay! Best Regards

    • John L. says:

      And thank you for your compliments. I’m delighted to find others in recovery who have been influenced by Nietzsche. I love his aphorism: “The trodden worm curls up. Thus it reduces its chance of being stepped on again. In the language of morality — humility.” (Nietzsche, _Twilight of the Idols_, 1889, in H.L. Mencken. _A New Dictionary of Quotations_.

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