Control and prudence- meditations on the 14° and 17° Delphic Laws

14) Control yourself (Αρχε σεαυτου)

“Arche” comes from the verb archo, whose two main meanings are “to start, to begin, to be the first” and “to control, to be in command”. Surely the two meanings must be considered, as they are self-clarifying. The individual meaning can be  explained recurring to the hierarchy existing among the various faculties of the human being (by Plato expressed with the tripartite theory of the soul). From the lower, we have: Eros (the appetitive), Thymos (the emotive or spiritedness) and Logos/Nous (mind and reason- the philosophical quality of the soul). What is more higher must dominate and guide the lower levels; not by chance, this verb may also mean “to guide, to show the path”: the Nous in us must guide the other faculties. It is as to say “rule yourself by yourself”. The sense of a true beginning is now clear and explained: this is the first step toward self-realization. On a more general level,  here returns the theory expressed by Plato in the Politeia: those in which the noetic/rational faculty dominates are those appropriate to rule over the state and over those who have mixed or inferior qualities as predominant in them. For this motives the ruler, the Archon, is the one who shows the way to all people:eleutherias tei Helladi archein”, to give the signal of freedom to Hellas.

This rule is very important, as it teaches that man conquers the world by conquering himself, starting by developing an indifference to pain and pleasure, through meditation.  Wisdom occurs when reason/Logos controls passions, not otherwise. We must not try to extinguish emotions; rather, we must be able to transform them by a resolute ‘askesis’ that enables a person to develop clear judgment and inner calm. The Logos, individual and universal reason, is inherent in all things. Living according to Logos and Virtue is to live in harmony with the Divine order of the universe.


17) Exercise wisdom/prudence (Φρονησιν ασκει)

“Phronesis” is a very important word, mostly in the philosophical vocabulary; it is commonly translated with “thought, mind, practical intelligence, prudence, wisdom”. It has a different import than sophiathe other word designating wisdom- because sophia is the ability to think and to understand the universal laws of the universe and involves reason related to the universal truths. The phronesis is the ability to think about a particular end/goal and find the means to achieve it successfully: having phronesis is both necessary and sufficient for being virtuous, because prudent persons cannot act against their “better judgment.” Thus phronesis is a great ethical virtue, but not only: like the rays of the sun illuminating the visible things, so does realization illuminate the most inner secrets of the human nature and this is the process Plato calls phronesis. The highest wisdom that is acquired through phronesis, ultimate realization, is not subject to rational thinking (nous) or reason (dianoia)– not a “knowledge” proper (episteme) – therefore cannot be expressed by means of rational language. Moreover, in the Statesman, Plato weighs the relative merits of rule by wisdom (phronesis) and rule by law: as the differing translations of phronesis suggests, Plato does not confine his treatment to the practical sphere; even in the intensely political passage of the Statesman there are far-reaching reflections on the nature of humanity and the world. These reflections explain what we are and what our world is such that there is a need for this cognitive capacity. Thus in this virtue of the mind the universal and the particular meet – through phronesis a particular action may be dictated by universal reasons.

This law has greatly to do with the acquirement of a necessary virtue in order to reach the greatest Good, and it indicates a long road, since, as Aristotle warns us, it requires a long maturation: “prudent young people do not seem to be found. The reason is that prudence is concerned with particulars as well as universals, and particulars become known from experience, but a young person lacks experience, since some length of time is needed to produce it”. The law instructs us to exert always this virtue of the mind, because only with constant askesis we will be able to develop the highest form of wisdom, sophia. As Plato says: “For it does not at all admit of verbal expression like other studies, but, as a result of continued application to the subject itself and communion therewith, it is brought to birth in the soul on a sudden, as light that is kindled by a leaping spark, and thereafter it nourishes itself.”

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