The Great Conversation: Temperance

By Gabriel Blanchard

Restraint, self-mastery, balance, or paradox, temperance is a subtler virtue than it seems.

The four traditional cardinal virtues are wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance. We discussed courage a couple of months ago, and now light upon temperance.

Temperance is usually thought of as a virtue of sobriety and restraint of pleasures, even of abstinence from pleasures (hence the fact that the nineteenth century movement for completely abolishing alcohol called itself the Temperance Movement). Despite the connotations of the word epicurean today, the historical Epicurus and his followers considered temperance the essential key to pleasure: too much indulgence would lead to suffering in the long term. Their practices endorsed a moderated, understated approach to pleasure that would foster peace of mind. We find a similar strain of thinking many centuries later in Kierkegaard’s Either/Or, in which a sternly moralistic approach to life is contrasted with an intelligent, aesthetic hedonism; and Freud’s description of the development of the ego, which regulates the “pleasure principle” embodied by the id, can be seen in similar terms. Temperance, far from being an obstacle to pleasure, is for these thinkers the habit that preserves and enhances pleasure.

The Stoics, by contrast, treated temperance as not only moderating appetites, but achieving complete mastery over all the passionsnot necessarily rejecting them, but never being overcome by them. In the fourth century and onwards, the Desert Fathers of the Christian faith embarked on a similar project, but with ascetic disciplines far more extreme than any the Stoics had practiced: severe fasts, refraining from sleep, and living alone in wildernesses or even on the tops of pillars.

The archer that shoots over, misses as much as he that falls short, and 'tis equally troublesome to my sight to look up at a great light, and to look down into a dark abyss.

To many of the ancients, as well as to many people today, neither the dispassionate Stoics nor the zealous monks look very temperate at alljust extreme in the other direction from indulgence; which brings us to Aristotle. Aristotle does not fit quite neatly into either the Stoic or the Epicurean traditions, yet he perhaps makes temperance the most important. In the Nicomachean Ethics, with the doctrine of the golden mean, he effectively uses temperance as a guide to virtue as such. Every virtue must be balanced between two opposite extremes. Though the saying “Everything in moderation, including moderation” is usually stated as a joke, Montaigne (a sixteenth-century essayist and statesman) expressed that sentiment quite seriously. “Those who say there is never any excess in virtue, forasmuch as it is not virtue when it once becomes excess, only play upon words … A man may both be too much in love with virtue, and be excessive in a just action.” Perhaps the backdrop of the Reformation, and the religious wars that wracked his native France, did something to move Montaigne to this subtle attitude toward virtue itself.

G. K. Chesterton came almost to a photonegative version of this same attitude. In his early book Orthodoxy, he describes coming to see every Christian picture of virtue as not a median point between extremes, but two extremes held together simultaneously. Applying it to sexuality, he writes:

It is true that the historic Church has at once emphasized celibacy and emphasized the family; has at once (if one may put it so) been fiercely for having children and fiercely for not having children. It has kept them side by side like two strong colors, red and white, like the red and white upon the shield of St. George. … It hates that combination of two colors which is the feeble expedient of the philosophers. It hates that evolution of black into white which is tantamount to a dirty grey. In fact, the whole theory of the Church on virginity might be symbolized by the statement that white is a color: not merely the absence of a color.

Suggested reading:
Siddartha Gautama, The Setting in Motion of the Wheel of the Law
Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics
Edmund Spenser, The Faerie Queene, Book II
Michel de Montaigne, Essays, XXIX
John Stuart Mill, On Liberty
Sigmund Freud, The Ego and the Id


If you liked this essay, take a look at our author profile of Confucius, this student essay on Tolkien, or this two-part series on Aristotle, virtue, and education.

Published on 27th May, 2020.

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