Cardinal Virtues: Temperance


Human nature has not fundamentally changed in the past two millennia, we are still prone to the same weaknesses as our forebears. Temperance has been selected out of all the virtues as one of ringing importance.

Most people have heard of the Seven Deadly Sins but they may never have heard of the Four Cardinal Virtues. Stretching back to Classical antiquity there has long been a philosophical understanding of the human condition that certain behaviours, dispositions and actions can mould and refine a person into something higher, something better. The four greatest of these dispositions or virtues have come down to us as Temperance, Prudence, Courage and Justice.

Temperance is an under-used word today. It translates from the Greek sōphrosynē and can mean restraint, sound-minded, abstention, restriction and self-control or limitation on the desires. Although it became associated with the movement to ban alcohol, especially in the United States, it has a long history within antiquity and Christianity: Plato and Heraclitus, St Augustine, the Book of Proverbs and the Ten Commandments all stress the fundamental importance of self-control. Rash or impatient actions often result in dire consequences in Classical stories. In The Illiad, Agamemnon steals Briseis from Achilles in a moment of ill-judged temper. The fallout results in Achilles sulkily withdrawing from combat to the disaster of the Greek forces. In the view of Christianity temperance is a virtue which allows for the success of chastity, sobriety, humility, piety and self-examination.

But what, if anything, could we learn from the Cardinal Virtues that would be applicable in the here and now? If the ancients were right, and if we accept that Christianity still has a role to play in our societies, then perhaps we should resurrect these virtues? Human nature has not fundamentally changed in the past two millennia, we are still prone to the same weaknesses as our forebears. Temperance has been selected out of all the virtues as one of ringing importance. This is because every society recognises the destructive capacity of our impulses and our desires and no society functions when every person is free to express their desires. Desire unleashed is terrifying. Temperance is the approach which says that self-control is better than being controlled. Self-control creates better human beings, capable of rational thought and action. A conservative society would be one where people control themselves rather than being controlled.

Going about temperance in a practical way is less straightforward to define. Virtues are dispositions which become instincts and are supposed to sink into the soul to help shape and guide correct action and behaviour. There is no blueprint or model to follow. Temperance does not mean, or does not have to mean, strict abstinence. St Thomas Aquinas defines it as “the disposition of mind which controls the passions”. Total abstinence would not be moderation, it would be extreme. Most people recognise the point where they have eaten just too much, drunk too much, not exercised enough or have over exercised. Temperance is allowing that voice of reason to have control, to decline a second or third helping, to have water instead of yet another pint. Cultivating these virtues is like gardening, the rewards come slowly and bear fruit in time with enough hard work. Self-restraint is ultimately a profound indicator of success in life and work and will allow you to save money, pay off debts, retain good health and make good friends.

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We live in an age where unrestrained consumption operates alongside fairly extreme self-control, in certain activities. The new gym and food cultures promote highly disciplined lifestyles to the point of excluding all else. Extreme athletes, endurance runs, zero-carbohydrate or zero-whatever else diets are popular, but this is not temperance. The soul should be well-rounded with a level of discipline on the passions, not inflamed by hyper-control in one aspect of ourselves and not in any other. It is not temperance to drink only fruit juice for a week all the while binging on TV series. Neglecting one part is detrimental to the whole. Our health is compromised when we indulge in photographing every part of our lives, even if those lives are full of nutritious food and active exercise. Tempering is cooling and strengthening, reducing our ego, reinforcing our self-control.

We have it hard in this society when it comes to practising restraint. Everything tells us the opposite. Public virtue has been replaced with public consumption and if you want to resist, you are basically alone. Raising children to have self-discipline is even more difficult when the designers of the advertisements have perfected manipulating the brains and instincts of the young. Moderation is the key here, even in indulgence. Ultimately as we get older we realise that our health is more important than our possessions. Protect it.

Next week: Prudence.

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