Steering Away from the Shoals


As with so much else, the Greeks had a word for it. In this case the word was sôphrosynê (soh-froh-zi-ni) or σοφροσύνη. Somewhat inadequately translated as “moderation” or, worse, “temperance”, it is derived from the word sōphrōn, “of sound mind”. The implication of the word is prudence, restraint, self control, or, as Plato put it, “the agreement of the passions that reason should rule”. Its opposite is hubris.

Elpis (Hope) is the only good god remaining among mankind; the others have left and gone to Olympos. Pistis (Trust), a mighty god has gone, Sophrosyne (Restraint) has gone from men, and the Kharites, my friend, have abandoned the earth. Men’s judicial oaths are no longer to be trusted, nor does anyone revere the immortal gods; the race of pious men has perished and men no longer recognize the rules of conduct or acts of piety.

From the Greek Elegiac Theognis, c. 6th century BCE.

Plato refined sôphrosynê from its traditional role as restraint of the appetites to a harmony of the soul with the state i.e. society as a whole. From Republic IV:

And he is to be deemed courageous whose spirit retains in pleasure and in pain the commands of reason about what he ought or ought not to fear?

Right, he replied.

And him we call wise who has in him that little part which rules, and which proclaims these commands; that part too being supposed to have a knowledge of what is for the interest of each of the three parts and of the whole?


And would you not say that he is temperate who has these same elements in friendly harmony, in whom the one ruling principle of reason, and the two subject ones of spirit and desire are equally agreed that reason ought to rule, and do not rebel?

Certainly, he said, that is the true account of temperance whether in the State or individual.

Sôphrosynê produces a society that is just and peaceful and a spirit that is not at war with itself. It is the essential virtue of a republic. It is the virtue that enables us to agree.

In art moderation is portrayed with both a goad and a bridle—simultaneously urging to action and restraining (as in the picture above) or with vessels of water and wine, tempering the strength of the wine with water.

Moderation has fallen on hard times in this Dionysian age. We eat too much, drink too much, drive too much, work too hard, use too much energy, and release too much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We are too fat. We are addicted to alcohol, drugs, gambling, and sex. We acquire too many things. We are religious fanatics. We have no use for religion whatever and believe it should be banned from the public square. The solutions proposed for these problems are the most extreme ones. Or none at all. Our political parties are buffeted by their most extreme partisans.

Carrie Nation cartoon

Even the words for moderation have fallen into disrepute. “Moderate” calls up something Hamlet-like, unable to decide, wishy-washy. “Temperance” has been debased by the extremely immoderate temperance movement of the last century (and, my goodness, the latter part of the century before that). “Centrist” suggests splitting the difference between extremes in mechanical compromise, e.g. rather than building a bridge across a river or declining to build, is the centrist position to build a bridge half-way across the river? None of these are really adequate terms.

Narcissism is the spirit of this age and its greatest commandment is “be noticed”. I have no hope that this tendency will change in the foreseeable future. There are too many of us. It is too difficult to get the floor let alone be heard. There is just too much information and there are too many of us clamoring for attention.

I believe that the great majority of my countrymen are moderates. It is not that the majority is silent, it is that it is modest and modesty precludes using a bullhorn.

Moderates prefer seeking consensus to noisy confrontation. This is not precisely a formula for success in the blogosphere and it is no accident that, of the top twenty political blogs, none is moderate nor, of the top one hundred, only a bare handful are arguably so.

When you reward something, you get more of it and that’s as true of vitriol and partisan rancor as anything else and, consequently, the political blogosphere is full of both of them. That the left blogosphere demands autos da fe of heretics can come as quite a shock to journalists like Joe Klein or Time magazine or bloggers like Marc Danziger who had been under the mistaken apprehension that they’d been liberals all their lives. In a recent post at Time Online Joe reports:

But the smart stuff is being drowned out by a fierce, bullying, often witless tone of intolerance that has overtaken the left-wing sector of the blogosphere. Anyone who doesn’t move in lockstep with the most extreme voices is savaged and ridiculed—especially people like me who often agree with the liberal position but sometimes disagree and are therefore considered traitorously unreliable.

Marc has committed the unforgiveable act of apostasy of believing that the Iraqis might have been better off than being abused by Saddam Hussein. Check the comments to this post. However progressive Marc’s view might be in other respects, off with his head!

I don’t believe that any good will come of the bickering, name-calling, or demands for perfect fidelity. However benignly motivated, whether from the left or from the right, agonism provokes antagonism in a constantly escalating cascade of bile.

Moderates can only be true to their natures, urge restraint, and caution our fellows to steer away from the shoals into the broad, open channel and smooth, reasonable waters.

5 comments… add one
  • Chris


    As (I’m guessing) the author of the comments in Marc Danzinger’s post that you found so repugnant, let me first say that I’m disappointed that you’re essentially sniping from the sidelines here, rather than engaging with what I’m saying head-on.

    Beyond that, there are a lot of mischaracterizations in your post that I disagree with, but mostly I just want to repeat my observation that, if Danzinger is attempting “progressive reform,” he’d do far better to pitch concrete suggestions to a progressive audience, rather than reading out a litany of complaints about his supposed allies to the conservatives he almost exclusively hangs out with.

    Dave, it’s easy to throw around terms like “heretic” and “off with his head,” but I’d suggest that relatively little of what I’ve written qualifies as any kind of attack on Danzinger’s liberal credentials – I certainly have my doubts about them, but I’m generally far less concerned about his beliefs than his actions. If that makes me “immoderate” in your eyes, so be it, but I at least want to be hung by my own words, rather than your skewed interpretation of them.

  • Paging Marcus Aurelius, Dave : )

    Nice job, really.


  • The shoal metaphor is very thought provoking and your scholarship gave me much to ponder as I did some tedious work. It is so very difficult to remain in a temperate state when the nation has two very divergent ideas for the future. Radicalism sort of pushes our day which naturally causes voices to rise.

    I try to keep in my mind how the French Revolution plunged into madness as I garner support for a republican revolution I write about on my own site. And see, there I’ve done it..the Andy Warhol syndrome…notice me, notice me.

    Can speech really remain calm and moderate in a nation that succored events like The Boston Massacre into a full fledged revolution? How do we get the attention of a generation that seized power back in the 60’s through riot, bank robbery, and kidnapping?

  • Chris (and Dave) – with all due respect, I’ve made a slew of concrete suggestions to the progressive audience at WoC over the last four years – but because I won’t jump on the “Iraq War was evil” and “Bush is the worst president ever” bandwagons (hint: he’s not a great President, and I’ve been critical of him over his handling of Iraq since 2002 that’s for sure…) – I obviously am not someone who should be engaged on the Left.


  • Chris


    With all due respect, that’s complete BS. There is virtually no progressive audience at Winds of Change – you admitted as much over a year ago, when you responded to my charge that “almost nobody at WoC has any love for the Democrats in the first place” by saying “I’m not convinced that WoC isn’t/couldn’t be a great platform for [reform] – but I fully admit that this is something I’d like to have an answer for and don’t.”

    And, if anything, WoC has become even more partisan since that was written.

    I understand it makes you feel better to think you’re getting dismissed because you don’t toe the line, but the truth of the matter is that you’re just not talking to progressives in the first place. For crying out loud, go argue with Kevin Drum, the American Footprints guys or even the dreaded Matt Yglesias – I’ll bet dollars to donuts they’ll blow off your arguments, but those are the people with the power to change the party.

    As for your suggestions being “concrete,” I suggest interested parties go take a look at AL’s posting history – I haven’t read him much in the past few months, but I’ll wager that rants about the media far outnumber any actual suggestions for the party.

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