Home All Our Most Humble Strengths

Our Most Humble Strengths

written by Sean Doyle 18 February 2013

Through speaking and writing, Sean Doyle, JD, MAPP '07, explores the poetry and science of well-being. Whether it's the work place, parenting, community, home, or hardship, Sean invites us to inject more hope, affection, and meaning into the world. Check out his chapbook, On Being Human. Another book is underway. Watch its progress and let publishers know you're interested via the book page on his website. Full bio. Sean's articles are here.

Forgiveness. Mercy. Prudence. Modesty. The strengths of temperance don’t get as much attention as our more muscular qualities. Yet in a certain sense, maybe this cluster of strengths enables every other strength, and thus makes the good life possible.

Years before release of the book Tuesdays with Morrie, I use to spend Tuesday nights studying an ancient form of Greek with a Catholic priest, Father Clifford Stevens. I worked at the legislature all day. My wife had a corporate job. Our kids were young. My now college-aged son was just learning to read. The study of Greek brought a sense of circling back to my life. As I sat on the couch at home helping Andy sound out words syllable-by-syllable, I shared in his accomplishment and joy each time he discovered that he knew the words laid out before him. My feelings went beyond the basking of a proud father. Sitting in the basement of a church, struggling over passages of Aristotle and Homer, I too felt elation when I suddenly cobbled together recognizable sounds and new concepts from the strange letters on the yellowed pages. I was living his experience and reliving my own childhood. In so doing, I was better able to connect to his joy and thus share it. Thomas Wolfe was wrong. You can go home again.

The formal reason for getting together with Father Stevens was my interest in learning some Greek. But our meetings were so much more. We explored the things that mattered in life. We talked about God and meaning, the struggles of parenthood and work. We read Aquinas. We even discussed the legal arguments Father Stevens made in letters exchanged with US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. The meetings were wonderfully impractical, but possessed the texture of beauty that put them among the essential things.

My Discovery of Sophrosyne

It was through these dialogues that I discovered a concept essential to the classical Greek zeitgeist, for which we have no exact match in English: Sophrosyne (?????????). In translations into English, sophrosyne is most often rendered as temperance. Peterson and Seligman describe temperance as the virtue whose strengths protect us against excess: Forgiveness, Humility, Prudence, Self-Regulation. This is what temperance has come to mean, and it was certainly an aspect of the historical virtue. But sophrosyne implies so much more.

Hamilton and Cairns point out that sophrosyne was the single most important ideal for the Greeks. This one word summarizes the “ideal of excellence of character and soundness of mind combined in one well-balanced individual.” It is a sense of wholeness, a notion of harmonious balance that is at the very core of the two great Delphic sayings: “Nothing in excess,” and “Know thyself.” According to them, sophrosyne meant “accepting the bounds which excellence lays down for human nature, restraining impulses to unrestricted freedom, to all excess, obeying the inner laws of harmony and proportion.” It is the opposite of arrogance, insolent self-assertion, or hubris.

Balance and Healthy-Mindedness

Strengths tend to reside between extremes. As Aristotle pointed out, defending the right and the just is the good between the extremes of cowardice and wrathful vengeance. To be a strength requires balance and proportion. In short, it requires sophrosyne.

One strength of temperance does receive a fair amount of attention: self-regulation. This too depends upon sophrosyne. People often cite self-regulation as the only strength of which we cannot have too much. However, we all know people who over regulate. They might feel it is some deep character flaw if they have an overdue library book. Or they are so intent on making sure their children go to bed on time that they miss opportunities to connect their children with formative figures from their own childhoods. I have done both of these. Rather than being a sign of too much self-regulation, some say this shows a lack of regulation, a failure in our ability to turn it off.

However, this statement sets up a tautology: There is no such thing as too much regulation, because too much regulation is really too little regulation. Huh? In life as-we-live-it, there can be much too regulation. When we catch ourselves overdoing it, the advice should not be to regulate even more. To describe too much regulation as a failure of regulation is to confuse how we use language in the real world.

Positive psychology encountered the same issue when it tried to tell people that happiness really meant eudemonia and not what regular people mean by happiness. The meaning of words is shaped by their actual usage in real life. The shift in the field to using the word flourishing is much more helpful as people look for lessons about how to structure their lives.

The same is true with self-regulation. Let us acknowledge when we are over-regulating and add a dose of sophryune. After all, Peterson frequently stressed that it was not individual strengths that made the difference. What is important is how we use our strengths in combination. Humor is wonderful when coupled with social intelligence to guide its usage at the right times and in the right amounts. Grit, persistence and self-regulation all contribute mightily to well-being, unless they cause so much anxiety in our children that they need to be medicated on their race to nowhere. Sophrosyne provides the balance, proportion, and healthy mindedness.

Perhaps Sophrosyne Enables Them All

Sophrosyne does more than solve the tautology. It also humanizes self-regulation. Whether valid or not, self- regulation is often positioned as a form of holding back, or denying oneself, as in “I must resist the chocolate cake.” However sophrosyne retains all the steadfastness of self-regulation without the sense of denial. Blackburn points out that for Aristotle, a person of sophrosyne is one who can “abstain or indulge appetites to the right degree without a severe effort of will.” It involves notions of rationality and the passions, without pitting them against one another, or setting up passion as a foe we must vanquish. As Helen North points out, sophrosyne is related to the “Greek tendency to interpret all kinds of experience – whatever moral, political, aesthetic, physical, or metaphysical – in terms of harmony and proportion.”

So it may be that sophrosyne is the quality that enables all of the other strengths.

Ultimately, sophrosyne is that condition of orderly arrangement that positions and monitors the parts of the whole, so that the good sought by the person is assured. Sophrosyne empowers and completes us. Of all the strengths, those qualities that make us the most human and grant passage to the good life, the strengths of temperance may be the most important. They are just too humble to say so.


Blackburn, S (2008). The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy . Oxford University Press.

Carr, M. F. (2001). Passionate Deliberation: Emotion, Temperance, and the Care Ethic in Clinical Moral Deliberation (Philosophical Studies in Contemporary Culture). Springer.

Hamilton, E. & Cairns, (1989, 2005). Introduction to Charmides in The Collected Dialogues of Plato: Including the Letters (Bollingen Series LXXI). Princeton University Press.

North, H. (1966). Sophrosyne: Self-Knowledge and Self-Restraint in Greek Literature. Cornell University Press.

Peterson, C. & Seligman, M. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ross, David (1925). The Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle. Re-issued 1980, revised by J. L. Ackrill and J. O. Urmson

Referenced Literature:

Albom, M. (2002). Tuesdays with Morrie: An Old Man, a Young Man, and Life’s Greatest Lesson. Broadway.

Wolfe, T. (1940, 2005). You Can’t Go Home Again.

Photo Credits: All from Compfight with Creative Commons licenses
Excitement of reading courtesy of OakleyOriginals
Temple of Apollo at Delphi courtesy of Alun Salt
Aristotle courtesy of tonynetone
Parthenon courtesy of Ipoh Keia

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Angus 19 February 2013 - 9:41 am

Thank you Sean. This is simply terrific.

Kathleen Bleyaert 19 February 2013 - 10:05 am

What a beautiful all-encompassing expression of the human reality! Your living value for the beautifully-faceted human experience made whole through balance blesses my perspective and encourages me to continue seeking the balance. Thank you.

Sean 19 February 2013 - 11:57 am

Thank you Angus and Kathleen for your kind words. I am glad you enjoyed it!

Juana Velasco 19 February 2013 - 4:55 pm

Amazing insight. Must translate and shared with the Spanish speaking world. Gracias.

Senia 19 February 2013 - 7:06 pm


What a lovely concept.
The way you define it above, it sounds like the calm, centered, zen aspect of life.

Thank you,

Sean 19 February 2013 - 7:45 pm

Hola Juana, Thank you. PPND does have wonderful translators in Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese. I wonder how my interpretation of the Greek (not translation) into English will be rendered in those languages!

Sean 19 February 2013 - 7:54 pm

Senia, your kind comment makes me think of Basho:
“Between our two lives
there is also the
the cherry blossom.”

Oz 20 February 2013 - 1:53 am

Sean – I agree – let’s celebrate self regulation as it underpins everything. Self regulation is a two way construct – what to do and what not to do.

And while we are at it let’s explore the more subtle, and arguably more powerful, emotions of calmness and contentment.

Sean 20 February 2013 - 6:50 am

Thanks Oz. I seemed to remember you liked self-regulation. I love how you labeled “calmness and contentment” as powerful.

Chris Petrini 21 February 2013 - 12:00 am


Excellent article. Temperance, prudence. Very thoughtful. Thanks for sharing.

Bob P 21 February 2013 - 9:17 am

Rather than seeking the middle point between extremes I like the model of transcending the extremes so that I can move appropriately in either direction from the middle point. I feel I can learn from the extremes without embracing them. I think Sophrosyne makes sense from this model too.

Jeremy McCarthy 21 February 2013 - 7:01 pm

Great article Sean. I also find these strengths to be fascinating and important. One other way that I’ve heard people hypothesize that too much self-regulation can be harmful is by protecting us from the learning that occurs through making mistakes or veering away from goals. Most people would prefer to live a more purposeful life through better self- regulation, but there is also a serendipitous element to life that can come through wandering off course.

Oz 22 February 2013 - 2:15 pm

Jeremy – you are looking had half the equation on self regulation. Not only does it include the will not to do but also the will to do.

I suspect America has an epidemic of hypo self regulation – think obesity, lack of exercise, high divorce rates etc

Of course some people over regulate but these are few and far between

Sean 23 February 2013 - 1:04 am

Chris, thank you. I know how thoughtful you are and that means a lot.

Sean 23 February 2013 - 1:08 am

Bob, I love the idea of transcending the extremes. I had not heard it put that way before, but in a certain sense I do think it is consistent with the notion of Sophrosyne. Thanks.

Sean 23 February 2013 - 1:12 am

Thanks Jeremy, That is great. I wholeheartedly advocate wandering off course. That is where the wonder happens.

Jeremy McCarthy 26 February 2013 - 8:36 pm

Oz, my comment above does not apply to only half of self-regulation. it doesn’t matter whether you are using your self-reg for “do” goals or “don’t” goals. The point is that self-control is only as good as the goals that you are controlling towards. Sometimes, we get benefit when we veer off of a goal or stumble into a new one. This is the opportunity cost of too much self-control. I agree with you that too much self-control is rare, I’m only making the philosophical case for why more is not always better.

oz 27 February 2013 - 2:46 am

Jeremy – perhaps you need self control to control self control

Jeremy McCarthy 27 February 2013 - 11:20 am

🙂 In the words of yoda: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QSN5TPKMJ24

Richard Anderson 6 March 2013 - 8:43 am


This is a very interesting piece and reminds me that perhaps sophrosyne is another term for integrity upon which all human qualities hinge.

Sean 8 March 2013 - 9:07 am

Hi Richard, Interesting thought. There certainly is a relationship between integrity and the Greek notion of sophrosyne, but there are not the same. Thanks for raising the idea! I’ll have to think through that relationship more.

Sean 8 March 2013 - 9:24 am

Jeremy and Oz, I’ve enjoyed following the discussion and have had several other people reach out to me separately saying they also thought that too much self control happens, but that it is probably rare. The conversation has been great because it made me realize that I probably hang out in different circles than the rest of you. I am a lawyer, I work with lawyers, I have a lot of lawyers among my friends – Being over regulated does not seem rare. I see a lot of people who are so regulated that it cripples all spontaneity, throws them off when the unexpected happens, and interferes with relationships. (Certainly this is not all lawyers – I married one who taught me spontaneity!) I understand the argument that they need to learn to regulate their regulation – I just think that the tautology is not helpful (the cure for too much is more). Here is where an ancient concept can give us a new language that resolves the tautology.

Clifford Stevens 1 June 2013 - 10:49 pm

Sean – I’m happy to learn that you and sophrosyne have been getting along fine. I am at Boys Town in my latter years, working on a biography of Father Flanagan of Boys Town. I’d love to hear from you.

Father Clifford Stevens

Sean 3 June 2013 - 7:29 pm

Father Stevens! I am so glad you found both this article and me!


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