Self-discipline and the Marshmallows

Every man, if he is ever to maintain his inner freedom and succeed in life, should fight – a lasting and victorious fight- against his instincts and his base desires. Ancient Greeks had also reached this conclusion and expressed it in the following quote: «Οὐδεὶς ἐλεύθερος ἑαυτοῦ μὴ κρατῶν». ” No man is free unless he is a master of his own self” – that is, no one is free if he cannot curb or control his evil tendencies.

Nowadays we tend to forget this realisation under the influence of mass advertising, which for many years has been bombarding everyone’s soul and mind with the very opposite, albeit self-gratifying- message: “Listen to your heart”, ”Live your dreams “,”Be guided by your heart’s desires “,” Break the bonds of obligation “. These intimations are at best characterised by naivety and ignorance of some of the most elementary rudiments of human nature, which, at least in the ancient Greek tradition, have been known for thousands of years.


Plato and the Distinction of the Soul into Three Parts

According to Plato the human soul consists of three parts, λογιστικόν (reason), θυμοειδές (spirit) and ἐπιθυμητικόν (appetite). In the part of reason reside the cognitive functions of man, that is, the rational reason; the emotions reside in the spirit and the desires in the appetite part. When the two lowly parts of the soul obey the demands of the rational reason, then man becomes self-governed.

Being a wise teacher Plato himself, to make his disciples understand his position, he likened the soul of man to a chariot, so as to help his disciples grasp this notion. The place of charioteer is held by reason, while the spirit and appetite parts are in place of the horses. When the base desires are subordinate to the charioteer of rational reason, then the chariot of the soul fares well, otherwise Phaethon’s doom awaits it.


Fateful Phaethon

He was the son of the Sun himself. He once wished to lead his father’s chariot without his permission. But the horses, sensing his inexperience, dragged the chariot aimlessly wherever they wanted. As the risk of the youth scorching the earth was imminent, Zeus intervened by killing Phaethon near the river Eridanus.



What the story teaches us

The truth of the above is confirmed by this story. Two characteristic incidents are worth mentioning: during the meeting of critical importance of Greek leaders in which the final decision was to be taken, the decision on whether the Greek fleet would remain united in the Straits of Salamis to face the Persians or be scattered so that everyone could go wherever they fancied, Themistocles argued in favour of staying;

at one point tension arose and the general leader, Spartan Eurybiades, full of anger, lifted his hand to strike Themistocles; he, keeping his composure, answered with the well-quoted: «Πάταξον μέν, ἄκουσον δέ».”Hit me, but hear me out first!” That was it: Eurybiades was “disarmed”, Themistocles’ opinion prevailed and on the following day the Greeks triumphed over their enemies!

As opposed to this, lack of self-control resulted in Alexander the Great’s, hot-blooded and under the influence of wine, killing his friend Cleitus, who had saved him from certain death in the battle of Granicus!


The Marshmallows Experiment

The fundamental role of self-discipline in a man’s life was also scientifically verified by Walter Mischel (1930 – 2018), a psychologist at Stanford University.

In the late 1960s and early 70s he began conducting a psychological experiment. He gathered up 600 children, varying from 4 to 6 years of age. He led them to a relatively secluded room, away from any sort of distractions. A dessert to each child’s liking (marshmallows, biscuits, cookies) was placed on the table. The children would enter the room one by one. The researchers informed them that they could eat a piece of sweets if they wanted to. But if they waited for 15 minutes until the experimenters returned, they would be rewarded with another one.

Several different attitudes had been recorded: the minority of the kids ate the sweets right away, once the door was closed. Some children covered their eyes so they could not look at the temptation, others tried to distract themselves by turning their chairs around. Some of them patiently waited throughout the 15 minutes that the researchers were away. All children continued to be closely monitored for the next years to come. It was observed that the infants who were patient enough to wait for the second dessert, in their later life had on average: a lower body mass index (BMI), lower substance addiction rates, higher grades in school exams, even lower divorce rates!

Self-discipline as an Education Tool

Awareness of the importance of self-control in our lives is a first important step. We also have to bear in mind that it is a cultivated virtue; all that is required is the will and the persistence to set limits and gradually curb our desires and impulses. Then – and that is of the utmost importance – we need to explain to our children (and our students) the value of that virtue.

Our living example and well-structured and documented argument will help us convince our children of the value of self-discipline. Then, having secured their consent, we will be plan and organise their everyday life by setting the appropriate limits they are so much in need of. Thus they will escape from the domination of their base instincts and mass advertising and will be successfully set on the road to true freedom.



Γεννήθηκε στή Θεσσαλονίκη τό 1970 καί μεγάλωσε στίς Σέρρες. Τό 1992 ὁλοκλήρωσε τίς σπουδές του στό τμῆμα Κλασσικῆς Φιλολογίας τοῦ Α.Π.Θ. Τήν διετία 1994-96 ἐργάστηκε στό Παπάφειο Ἵδρυμα Θεσσαλονίκης ὡς φιλόλογος καί παιδαγωγός...

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