In Charmides, Plato posits a term: sophrosyne. The closest we can come to the English translation for this very complex virtue is “temperance.” Temperance is the necessity and the ability to control one’s passions, to act prudently, and to ensure that nothing in life is ever consumed in excess. Sophrosyne is so essential a virtue because it distinguishes the human being from the animal; the latter is incapable of moderation and is guided only by instinct. The human being, however, is able to control, to moderate, and to temper himself or herself.
Politics, like many things we enjoy, is a passion. We can’t help but feel passionate about things we believe in, most especially when they involve a great deal of who we are and what we have at stake. To some people, it’s an opportunity to make income and gain capital, whether it’s social or financial. To others, it’s an opportunity to stand up for what they believe in. To some people, politics becomes an avenue to discuss issues. Still to others, it’s an opportunity to gain leverage and perhaps even popularity.
The difficulty of sophrosyne, in many ways, makes it a quality we can all enjoy. It’s not about denying our passions and self-mortification, as much as it is about knowing the limits to our passion. I cannot be passionate at all if those feelings, emotions, and thoughts are deliberately constructed to spite or to fulfill ends that are less than the common good.
My call, I hope, is clear: to temper your pen.
As a passing “political blogger,” “political commentator,” or “pundit” (whatever you call it), it saddens me that political debate – something we hold in high regard because of its complexities and effects – has to descend every now and then to name-calling, intimidation, and excess. Respect – that attitude that we dismiss every now and then as a sign of weakness – is often disregarded for the sheer joy and pleasure of confrontation and retribution. The “political animal” takes a turn for the worst: the inherent ability to be a dog. Territorial, confrontational, bark and/or bite.
There are infinitely many ways to persuade people into not voting for somebody, or to convince people that Candidate X is the right person for the job. Granted that our passions and beliefs may run counter to others, but there is no need to be acerbic, bitter, or being unnecessarily spicy about it. Society gives us plenty of room to mock and to express disdain without resorting to the idle threat and juvenile mockery.
An entire category of politics – diplomacy – was crafted and perfected precisely because passions (in this case, political passions) need to be tempered to keep debate going, and to keep groups and societies harmonious despite their differences. Entire governments function around the ability of people to get along despite what they believe in and who they support. Entire texts have been written to convince people of a particular belief without having to resort to a message of unneeded disdain. We can pursue and act upon our political passions and further our political convictions without having to be unnecessarily mean.
I do not advocate sugar-coating the message. I do believe, however, that languages are rich enough in words and ways to structure a sentence for us to have a strong, convicted, convincing opinion without having to resort to being base. The elusiveness of temperance should be enough reason for us to reach for it. The discipline of writing comes two-fold: knowing what to write about, and how to write it. With a very good reason of why we’re writing in such a manner, all that discipline can result in a piece that impresses and expresses.
Tempering your pen is not about being dishonest: it’s about being just and fair. It is about communicating what is necessary, without unnecessarily hurting others. It is about supporting a cause or advocacy, without having to do so at the expense of others. In many ways, and perhaps in all ways, it is about being a better person in the pursuit of one’s passions.
I do not practice temperance all the time, but I’m committed to it in the course of blogging about politics. If anything, I am confident and secure enough in my abilities as a writer to write something impassioned, without having to let my political passions get in the way of the right of others to pursue theirs. That begins with tempering my pen, making full use of my abilities, and – for purposes of repetition – live honorably, harm no other, and give each and every opinion its due.