The goddess Sophrosyne (part 2)


Part 2 of an article in two parts

‘Sophrosyne is the greatest virtue, and wisdom is speaking and acting the truth, paying heed to the nature of things.

Heraclitus, fragment 112

In the first part of this article, we explored the many-sidedness of sophrosyne and the necessity to honour this many-sidedness if we are to utilise its power for personal transformation. We looked at how our culture has a tendency to violate such archetypal complexities through its insistence on one-sided rational concepts. We also saw how an essential part of this practice involves opening ourselves to more deeply experience the natural tensions inherent to our existence.

Working the image

And yet, opening to these tensions is again but one side of sophrosyne. Which is not masochism. That is, amplifying the tensions is not where sophrosyne ends, is not what it is about. Tension is simply the sine qua non, the condition without which the practice of sophrosyne cannot begin. Without tension, there can be no sophrosyne. But furthermore, only so-called fecund tensions can facilitate transformation. So sophrosyne involves working these tensions. That is, noticing where they are not fecund, sensing where they are, and ‘stalking’ them to come deeper into their fecundity. But mostly, it is simply containing them for some time, in such a way that their fecundity may blossom into transforming energies.

For the most part, this work, this journey involves us feeling our way into the dark, without knowing the right direction. Requiring from us to persevere while we have no guarantee that we're ‘doing it right’. But quite mysteriously, our direction emanates from working these tensions in such a way that they are not depotentiated. That is, by engaging them in such a manner as to not dull their potency. Which involves courage, for tension means discomfort. Doing this is a large part of what the arts of Alchemy, Jungian and Archetypal Psychology are ultimately about. Whole traditions spanning millennia of brilliant minds devoted themselves passionately and earnestly to these questions.

Now perhaps we glimpse what is involved when Heraclitus states that sophrosyne is the greatest virtue. Maybe then, there is truth after all, in that moment when we ‘see’ that ‘all of life is a matter of balance.’ As if we truly are glimpsing an important key to unlock our minds' entanglements! If only we can articulate our flashing vision in its full richness and intricacy, without losing our way in one-sided concepts.


‘These tensions are central to sophrosyne. Many-sidedness means tension, means paradox. A core paradox then is that the most essential element of sophrosyne involves consistently sensitizing and awakening ourselves to this ‘live-wire’ tension inside us, emanating from our dance with the everyday world.’

Sophrosyne, Sophia, Aletheia

In the fragment that initiates this article, Heraclitus flows from sophrosyne to wisdom, via truth. Being Heraclitus, this does not denote a linear, causal process. But rather a poetic positioning together. A many-directional, intertwined involvement of intricacies.

Central to cultivating sophrosyne is wisdom. Or rather, cultivating wisdom. Which we do through ‘speaking and acting the truth.’ Both of which are actions. That is, truthful activity rather than passivity is required to cultivate wisdom. Moreover, what is deeply significant here, is that Heraclitus uses the word aletheia for ‘truth’. Literally, aletheia means ‘the state of not being hidden’ or ‘the state of being evident’.1 We can also translate it as ‘unclosedness’. Or ‘unconcealedness’. Or, ‘disclosure’.

This clearly implies that to cultivate wisdom it is required that we reveal ourselves to the world and others, especially our significant others. Doing this activates the required discomfort, those tensions at the heart of the alchemical process. It involves ‘standing in one's truth’. Living one’s truth. Also called ‘living a path of heart’.

Founder of Archetypal Psychology, James Hillman said, ‘that favourite axiom of psychology "know thyself" is not sufficient for living soulfully, "revealing thyself" is required’.2 Just as we are, right now. With all our imperfections. A risk we often don’t embrace because we prioritise materialistic outcomes rather than surrendering to our only meaningful journey in life: living by our truth, so making mistakes, and so learning and deepening.

So, wisdom is a process of becoming rather than a fixed point of achievement. Which is only activated by surrendering into that journey where our character and our lives are shaped by a process largely beyond our control. Reveal thyself means ‘go out there and be.While being witnessed. Express yourself fully, from your imperfections. This involves letting go of controlling your actions and speech to achieve desired outcomes. And surrendering into the processes this provokes in you and in your relationships with others and the world. Living like this is key to what it means to prioritise soul rather than prioritising ego.

The golden mean

Hence, Aletheia as truth is not so much ‘correspondence to verifiable facts’. Rather, it is the place inside us where we are ‘coming from’. This ‘place’ fundamentally involves openness (‘unclosedness’). Through cultivating openness, we become wise.

Aristotle, who was born about a hundred years after Heraclitus died, gave us the very useful metaphor of ‘the golden mean’ for the kind of openness we need to cultivate here. Basically, it says openness is that ‘middle space’ between the extremes of excess and deficiency. We close ourselves down when we embrace extremes. That is, when we catch ourselves ‘steering’ our beings or behaviours into extremes, we open into ‘coming back to the middle’. And so we discover the art of ‘balance’.

Thing is, ‘coming back to the middle’ is a kind of letting go. Embracing psychological extremes often relieves us from the tensions of opposites. We feel ‘more solid.’ Coming back to the middle often feels like opening to ‘not having solid ground beneath our feet’. And yet, when we surrender into this ‘groundlessness’, we discover the art of moderating tensions without depotentiating them. And so also facilitate the tensions to ‘release their fecundity’ into transforming who we are, deep down.

Significantly, Aristotle's golden mean is virtually echoed identically in the Confucian text, the Chung Yung, often translated as ‘the middle way’, or ‘the doctrine of the mean’. How magically meaningful that completely different and unconnected worlds came up with nearly identical ideas at roughly the same time!

Living with a broken heart

The groundlessness and the surrender involved in practicing Sophrosyne has an eroding effect on the ego and its need to always be in control. We see this meaning depicted exactly in the I Ching archetype of Modesty. Modesty is said to be ‘that process in the I Ching most highly valued by the ancient holy sages.’ But let's be clear: this modesty is not the ‘weak good nature’ with which our culture has violated its true meaning. Rather, true modesty is the product of ‘aeons of self-cultivation,’ as is evident from the archetype's central metaphor: a proud, high mountain worn down over time until it is levelled with the earth.3

The erosion of ego, like the erosion of soil, is a gradual process of ‘being chafed away.’ Keen awareness of this fact is essential. Because then may we awaken the willingness to surrender into this often painful process and the time it takes. Only when we have ‘been levelled with the earth,’ do we understand, for example, why the Buddhists speak of the ‘ruthlessness that is central to true compassion.’ True compassion is strength, not pity.

So, it is significant that the hexagram of Modesty teaches that we cultivate this erosion through ‘augmenting that which is too little and reducing that which is too much.’ Again closely echoing Aristotle, even though these ideas precede Aristotle by thousands of years! This then, is how we open ourselves to be chafed away. Our resistance against this natural process is what ‘closes us down’.

This openness to being ‘chafed away’ inevitably renders us increasingly raw-hearted. When Chogyam Trungpa speaks about openness, he emphasises that ‘rawness of heart’, or ‘living with a broken heart’ is fundamental to what he calls ‘spiritual warriorship’.4 The Chung Yung puts the cultivation of ‘human-heartedness’ (jen) at the centre of ‘the middle way’.5 That is: we are sensitive and affected, we experience life deeply and intensely. Which also renders us more alive. Without raw open-heartedness, the practice of ‘balance’ is senseless. Which is why Euripides so mocked Jason's ‘sophrosyne’.

Invoking ‘Her’ presence

As we have seen, Heraclitus imagines cultivating sophrosyne to be intricately entwined with cultivating wisdom. But this is not just any ‘wisdom’, because again, the Greeks had several forms of wisdom. He specifies the form of wisdom called Sophia. It is significant that she is wise. And that she is feminine. It points to a certain mood in our cultivation of sophrosyne. A certain hue in how we perceive, in ‘how we look’ at our experiences. Or a certain gentleness of ‘touch’, as we open ourselves to dance with the fray of the world and others. This illustrates why mythology has to be stories, because only stories have the power to reveal the multi-dimensionality of character. We cultivate Sophrosyne by allowing the character of Sophia to permeate our beings, through speaking and acting truthfully.

Then we discover that Sophrosyne too is feminine. We see this where she is referred to as one of the daimona who flew back to Olympus when Pandora opened that jar. So ‘our work’ amounts perhaps to a form of prayer, a form of sacrifice to invoke again the presence of Sophrosyne and Sophia here in our hearts, our minds, our beings. That would be ‘sacrifice’ true to its original meaning of ‘making sacred’. Allowing the gods to live us. And this being psychology, we're not talking literal gods. But the images that convey their essences. Whether they ‘actually exist’ is not important. Their images render them alive with profound psychological power: if we attend to them adequately, they become animated in our beings.

Cultivating this femininity in our beings is accentuated by Heraclitus’s image that we learn to dance on the level of the nature of things. As if the nature of things, and the fray of it, resonate into a kind of music that ‘we can tap into’ and dance to. Like whirling dervishes. Sometimes slow and harmonic, sometimes fast and frenetic. Thing is, we do not cultivate the presence or spirit of what Heraclitus points to when ours is simply a surface-dance. With the appearances of things. When it is only a materialistically ‘outcomes-based’, so-called ‘functional’ dance. To ‘heed the nature of things’ requires that we go deeper, that we penetrate under the skin of things, into the unknown, beyond the immediately visible. This requires a certain gentleness, a certain ‘feeling into’ things, a certain receptivity, while we dance.

James Hillman said that the integration of the feminine signals the end of therapy. Which is equally difficult for the men and women of our culture. A culture steeped in a particularly misogynist form of Titanic masculinity that permeates our tiniest, most mundane, everyday habits. Our materialistically functional, crudely goal-oriented fixations that justify abandoning our feelings and deeper values, are fundamentally harmful to the soft femininity of being.

So, cultivating sophrosyne is core to that ‘advanced’ Jungian work of ‘anima integration’. Anima being archetypally feminine. The spirit of what animates our deepest nature. As it is instrumental to what James Hillman describes as ‘the cultivation of a sense of soul.’ She, my anima, my soul. Psyche, who longs to be reunited with her lover, Eros. Cultivating sophrosyne is how we wake up to our experience of her eroticized presence everywhere, no longer settling for her exile from our boardrooms of power, nor from our soul-dead ego-controlled inner and outer worlds. Ensouling again our most mundane everyday realities with her presence. Lady Soul, the feminine heart of humanity, of all existence. Sophronsyne, a great virtue indeed!


1. See a description of Aletheia here, on Wikipedia.

2. The Myth of Analysis, by James Hillman.

3. Cf. I Ching, or Book of Changes, by Richard Wilhelm, translated by Cary F. Baynes.

4. Shambhala - The Sacred Path of the Warrior, by Chogyam Trungpa.

5. A History of Chinese Philosophy – Volume 1, by Fung Yu-lan.

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