'Saving the Mind': An Etymological Inquiry into the Cognitive-Behavioral Function of the Ancient Greek Value Sōphrosynē
Sōphrosynē is a word with deep cultural significance. Genres as diverse as epic, tragedy, history, and philosophy speak about it as an ideal of human behavior. Yet, the traditional etymology (‘soundness of mind’) overemphasizes its cognitive or intellectual aspects, at the expense of its behavioral or emotional aspects.Drawing on linguistic, anthropological, and psychological studies of archaic Greek culture, I here propose a new etymological understanding of sōphrosynē that also accounts for its ancient association with emotions and behavior.I find support in the language of Homer and hitherto neglected evidence from personal names beginning in Sō-. I conclude that sōphrosynē is best explained not as a normal cognitive state (‘sanity’), but as a cognitive-behavioral achievement: namely, the verbal action of ‘saving the mind’. This prototype accounts for both the word’s meanings ‘sanity’ and ‘self-control’: the self-controlled person ‘saves her mind’ (action), whereas the sane person ‘has a safe mind’ (state). Each meaning represents, so to speak, different sides of the same linguistic coin.
The results of this investigation are far-reaching. By abandoning an intellectualist account of the Greek word sōphrosynē, we are in a better position to understand the idea or value denoted by it. The interpretation ‘soundness of mind’ is quite symptomatic of our own cultural distance: it seems to be dictated by a culture that gives preference to the cognitive or intellectual (‘mind’) and sees it as susceptible of health (‘soundness’). In other words, our common sense has freely assumed that the archaic Greeks shared the same model of the mind as we do. On closer inspection, however, it becomes clear that they located mental activity not in the head but in the chest: more specifically, in the lungs and the heart. This pulmo-cardiac theory of the mind is based on the observation that a variation in mental activity corresponds to a variation in respiration. Since breath moves briskly within those organs in moments of emotional unrest or cognitive indecision, it was identified with the thought-impulse of the thinking and feeling person. If so, the word sōphrosynē testifies to a holistic conception of human and animal consciousness, where body and mind are regarded as such an interdependent unity that ‘self-control’ entails a real psychosomatic achievement.