The Virtue Of Temperance
Temperance is the first virtue that perfects man’s ability to act well with one’s self from within one’s self.
For it brings order to the concupiscible appetite, and thus to the emotions of love, hate, sensible satisfaction, desire, aversion and sorrow as they bear upon a pleasant good.
Temperance is primarily about desires for the greatest pleasures, and the greatest pleasures result from the most natural operations, which are those that have as their purpose the preservation of the individual and the preservation of the species.
That is why the greatest pleasures are to be found in the consumption of food and drink and in the union of the sexes. And so temperance is properly about “pleasures of meat and drink and sexual pleasures.” These pleasures, moreover, result from the sense of touch. Thus, temperance is principally about the pleasures of touch, and secondarily about the pleasures of taste, smell, sight and sound insofar as the objects of these latter senses, ie., the smell of food, the sight of a beautiful body, etc., are conducive to the pleasurable use of things that are related to the sense of touch.
The measure of temperance is the order of reason. The determination of the mean of reason depends upon the real needs of the present time. It depends upon intelligible human goods (life, truth, beauty, leisure, sociability, religion, etc). As we said above, the good has the aspect of an end. Human goods are intelligible ends. A good life on the whole is one that is ordered to its proper end, which is the possession of God. The good of virtue consists in that order; for the proper end of a thing is the rule and measure of whatever is directed to the end, and everything within the human person is to be directed to the supreme end, which is the possession, in knowledge and love, of the Supreme Good.
But there are a number of intelligible human goods that motivate the human person who is himself ordered to this supreme end, and the pleasurable activities of eating and drinking are evidently ordered to the intelligible end of human life, that is, its preservation. The rule and measure of sexual desire will also be discovered in the intelligible ends of the sexual powers.
In the case of temperance, therefore, the real needs of this life constitute the rule of reason that makes temperance a virtue. Thomas writes:
“Wherefore temperance takes the need of this life, as the rule of the pleasurable objects of which it makes use, and uses them only for as much as the need of this life requires.”
The mean of virtue here is not a real mean, as in the case of justice, but a mean of reason. The mean of justice is often a real mean, for instance, if one is robbed of twenty dollars, the real mean between excess and deficiency will be twenty dollars, not fifteen, and not fifty. But determining the mean of temperance is not so simple a matter. One cannot say that 8 ounces of Corn Flakes constitute the mean of temperance when it comes to eating a bowl of cereal for breakfast. The mean depends upon the needs of the individual person and his circumstances. A large breakfast may very well be reasonable for the mailman who is required to walk twenty kilometers that day, but it may be excessive for the one who is only required to drive a bus.
Furthermore, the mean of reason in this case does not refer to a measure that is based on the strict needs of this life. St. Thomas understands necessity in two ways. There is the necessity of that “without which something cannot be at all.” But there is also the necessity for something “without which a thing cannot be becomingly.”
Temperance embraces both meanings of necessity. Some things, Thomas argues, are a hindrance to a person’s health and to a “sound condition of body.” Temperance makes no use of these, despite the availability of Malox or any other medicines designed to combat the effects of unhealthy eating so as to allow others to continue to enjoy the foods that do so much harm to the stomach or the arteries, etc. But temperance makes moderate use of those things that are not a hindrance to health and a sound condition of body, and uses them according to the demands of the situation in which one finds oneself. It is thus not contrary to temperance to desire other pleasant things that are not strictly necessary for health, as long as they are congruent with the demands of place and time. So for instance, it is not necessarily immoderate to snack on potato chips or popcorn while watching a movie with some friends, or to enjoy some appetizers at a Christmas party.
Insensibility is one vice opposed to temperance. Pleasure itself is not evil, but is part and parcel of the natural operations that are necessary for man’s survival. Hence it is fitting and reasonable that we make use of these pleasures to the degree that they are necessary for our well-being (our own, or that of the species). To reject pleasure to the extent of omitting things that are necessary for our preservation is unreasonable and immoderate. Moreover, the use of reason depends upon the health of the body, and the body is sustained by means of food and drink. It follows that the good of human reason cannot be maintained were we to abstain from all pleasures.
Intemperance brings about an arrest of emotional development, a personality arrest, so to speak. Thomas refers to intemperance as a childish vice. Unchecked concupiscence is like a child in a number of ways. Anyone who has raised children knows that a child left to himself does not attend to the order of reason, for example in his choice of food, or in his choice of things to play with. Taking a child to a department store can be very taxing; for there is virtually no end to what a child thinks he needs. In the same way intemperance strays from the order of reason. Moreover, a child left to his own will becomes more self-centered. Similarly, the concupiscible power left to itself, without the governance of reason, gains strength and becomes less and less able to subject itself to the direction of reason, like the spoiled child. Finally, intemperance is like a child in its remedy. A child is corrected by being restrained. So too, it is by restraining concupiscence that we moderate it according to the demands of virtue. As we said above, failing this one cannot successfully cultivate the other three virtues, especially justice, which perfects the will. The will must be free, but a person who is at the mercy of his own concupiscence is not a free man, but a slave.
There is a certain beauty in the child, the beauty of innocence and docility. But there is nothing beautiful about a spoiled child. Similarly, temperance brings about a spiritual or moral beauty to the person who has cultivated it, a beauty that Thomas calls “honesty”. Intemperance destroys the clarity and beauty that belongs to temperance. Now beauty is the result of harmony and due proportion. Beautiful prose, for example, is harmonious and clear. It is the lack of clarity that diminishes the beauty of a piece of prose. Intemperance, in the same way, is a disorder, or lack of harmony between reason and the concupiscible appetite. This lack of due harmony gives rise to a certain disgracefulness. For intemperance is the most repugnant to human excellence, since genuine human excellence is essentially related to those abilities that are most characteristic of the human person, namely, intelligence and will. But intemperance is about pleasures that are common to man and brute animal. The intemperate man, as he moves away from reason, approaches the bestial level. Now as he moves away from reason towards the sentient level, the light of reason is increasingly dimmed. But it is from this source, the light of reason, that the clarity and beauty of virtue arises.
And so temperance brings about a spiritual beauty that in many ways overflows into the body, especially the face of a person. A woman might be, from a strictly physical point of view, stunningly beautiful and a perfect candidate for a successful modeling career. But often it happens that after a few moments of conversation with such persons, their beauty thins out and begins to ring hallow. As Thomas writes: “a thing may be becoming according to the senses, but not according to reason.” Conversely, the appearance of an average looking woman can begin to acquire a beauty and attraction that is not immediately evident from a consideration of her physical features alone. This is the spiritual beauty that comes from the excellence and honorable state resulting from the cultivation of the virtue of temperance, the beauty of a heart that recoils from the disgrace that is contrary to temperance and a love of the honor that belongs to it; in short, the beauty of an unselfish heart.
The Parts of Temperance
The first of the subjective parts of temperance is abstinence, which indicates a cutting back of food. Quoting Augustine, Thomas writes:
It makes no difference whatever to virtue what or how much food a man takes, so long as he does it with due regard for the people among whom he lives, for his own person, and for the requirements of his health: but it matters how uncomplainingly he does without food when bound by duty or necessity to abstain.
Inordinate appetite for food is more common than the imagination tends to allow. As an example, consider a Christmas party with a buffet lunch or supper. One will come across people if one hasn’t already, who when in the process of stacking their plates, have little regard for those in line behind them. It seems to matter little that there will not be enough for many others if they continue to take what they judge to be their need, a judgment no doubt clouded by inordinate appetite. Their ability to consider others has been drastically compromised, and where there should be a spirit of celebration and friendship in the air, one seems to detect a spirit of loneliness and alienation. Note also the current popularity of “All-You-Can-Eat” buffets. Here people feel they need to get their money’s worth, and so they believe it their right to eat until they can no longer so much as gaze at another plate without feeling ill. And how many would be surprised to read of Augustine speaking of abstaining uncomplainingly? It is very rare today that one will come across a person complaining of having to go without food, since most people simply choose not to – despite the religious requirements of Lent.
But the habit of abstaining from food is very important. Some professions require a great deal of patience, kindness and gentleness, such as the teaching or nursing professions. A necessary pre-condition for consistent patience and a genuine and consistent spirit of kindness and gentleness is a habitual detachment from the pleasures of touch. Love involves a real transcending of the self, for it involves loving the other not for my sake, but loving the other as another self, and thus as an end in himself. This cannot be consistently done nor done well unless one has cultivated this habit of reasonable detachment from the pleasures of touch, one mode of which is the pleasure of food. That is why the practice of fasting is not only a religious requirement, but also has a basis in natural law.
The principal purpose of fasting is to bridle the lusts of the flesh. Thomas refers to fasting as the guardian of chastity. Contemporary popular culture has taken lust as “the mean” of virtue, the only criterion for sexual vice being the violation of a person’s will (rape). There are a number of reasons for this, but the principal reason has to do with what is commonly regarded as the ultimate end of human life (or that which gives life meaning). If the purpose of human existence is simply the complete and ongoing satisfaction of the self’s personal passions without reference to intelligible goods such as life, marriage, justice, or religion, then self-love is the only kind of love that is possible for the human person.
The failure of marriages today is testimony to our inability to achieve, as a culture, a disinterested love. But the battle against self-love is difficult, for it is a battle for personal freedom, the freedom to live for love – a disinterested and holy love. The way to begin this battle is to fast, for almost every aspect of our culture revolves around the celebration of food and sexual pleasure. Freedom from the negative influence of this culture as a condition of freedom for genuine love begins at the locus of the concupiscible passion for food.
Secondly, one fasts so that the mind may rise more freely to the contemplation of truth. As a culture, we tend to be indifferent to truth. In fact, the denial of truth in any objective sense of the word has become quite popular, in particular in the area of morality. No doubt this lack of interest in truth has its roots in popular culture’s almost exclusive preoccupation with sensible goods. For as one approaches the sensible, one at the same time moves away from the intelligible. Excessive sensuality compromises one’s interest in the realm of the intelligible. The sensual mind is darkened on account of its almost exclusive immersion into the realm of matter, and it thereby shares in matter’s opacity.
Gluttony and its Offspring
Gluttony is, of course, a vice against temperance. Principally, this vice regards not the quantity, but the desire for food and drink, a desire that is outside the order of reason. This is an important point, because although a person may seem to exceed in quantity of food, this may not pertain to gluttony; for it may not involve inordinate desire. So too, a person might rarely ever exceed in quantity of food, yet sin continually in this regard.
Gluttony can destroy the entire moral and emotional life of a person on account of the vices to which it gives rise. The glutton does not eat in order that he may live; rather, he has reorganized his life in such a way that he now lives primarily to eat. Food and drink are no longer a means to an end, but have become the end towards which almost everything else in his life is ordered. One can bring about this reordering inconspicuously. This is so because gluttony is not limited to over-consumption. Inordinate concupiscence is at work in those who seek only the finest and sumptuous dishes. It is found in those who are impatient at the delay of food, and who eat hastily and greedily.
But in what way does gluttony bring virtue to naught? Inordinate desire for food and drink gives rise to a host of offspring. Firstly, on the part of the intellect. We have already seen that attachment to the pleasures of touch compromises one’s interest in the realm of the intelligible. But gluttony is already an immersion into matter that is unreasonable, and so the mind is dulled, for it has been drafted into the service of inordinate appetite. This affects prudence, for prudence has the intellect as its subject. And prudence is the mother of the virtues, for without prudence, there is no virtue.
Thomas includes “unseemly joy” as a vice arising from gluttony, a “random riotous joy,” he says in another place. This is the disingenuous joy of the “Jolly Rogers” type of fellow, a joy that the shrewd will find suspect. One easily detects that the slightest change of circumstance that causes inconvenience will quickly bring down this fragile house of cards, which is a false joy.
Loquaciousness, or inordinate words, is another offspring of the gluttonous heart. We all know people who can’t seem to “shut up”, or who “love to hear themselves talk.” Consider that the emotion of love (not the love that is an act of the will) amounts in the end to a love of self, for as St. Thomas says, we cannot say that we love that which we choose to destroy, such as the wine we consume or the apple we eat. It is the self that is loved in the love of these things. That is why inordinate love of food and drink amounts to inordinate self-love. And this is the root of the habit of loquaciousness. The loquacious love to be the center of attention and for some reason believe that others delight in them about as much as they delight in themselves. And so they employ their words to that end, namely, being the object of others’ attention. As long as they are talking, others have no choice but to listen, and so they prolong their discourse as long as circumstances allow, if not longer. And the matter of their conversation will almost always center around themselves in some way, either directly or indirectly.
Scurrility, or unbecoming words, is a vice that springs from gluttony, for it proceeds from a loss of sense and a lack of awareness that is also part and parcel of inordinate self-love. The self is so focused on itself that awareness of others as “other” has virtually disappeared. One is aware of the other as “spectator” or onlooker who cannot but delight in what he sees and hears. Consider what is implied in the expression:
“If only you could hear yourself now.” They are too immersed in themselves to know how their words really affect others outside of themselves. This is especially the case with regard to alcoholic drink. As Thomas says: “…it hinders the use of reason even more than excessive eating.”
The problem with intemperance is precisely this inordinate self-love, which is the reverse of a genuine love that loves the other as other. In genuine disinterested love, I become all others whom I love. I expand and become more than what I am in myself. With inordinate self-love, all others become me, and my love is thereby self-centered.
Chastity is that virtue which moderates the emotions relating to sexual pleasure. These pleasures, as Thomas points out,
“are more impetuous and are more oppressive on the reason than the pleasures of the palate: and therefore they are in greater need of chastisement and restraint, since if one consent to them this increases the force of concupiscence and weakens the strength of the mind.”
Restraint is particularly difficult today, especially for young people. From the point of view of contemporary Western culture, directing the emotions of the concupiscible appetite, as they bear upon the sexual act, according to the order of reason is regarded for the most part as pointless and arbitrary, since fulfillment is popularly understood to mean the fulfillment or satisfaction of desire, as opposed to the proper ordering of desire. The decision to ignore this and make the effort needed to cultivate chastity will nevertheless bring rich rewards to the emotional and moral levels of a person’s life.
The criterion for the mean of virtue is, as in the virtue of abstinence, human life – in this case, the begetting of human life. Now the context that is most favorable to the physical, emotional and moral well-being of offspring is the marriage union between both parents. That is why marital communion is part and parcel of the criterion of the mean of reason when it comes to sexual activity. In fact, marital communion and procreation constitute the single reality of marriage, for all genuine love is both unitive and effusive, and this is true above all of marital love. The act of sexual union has a conjugal meaning. In other words, sexual union is a marriage act. The reason is that it is precisely a joining of male and female into one flesh, one body. In this unitive act, the two become reproductively one organism. The male by himself is reproductively incomplete, and the female by herself is reproductively incomplete. In the act of sexual union, the two become a reproductive unity.
But marriage itself is a freely intended joining of two into one flesh, one body. It is a unique relationship, established by a mutual self-giving. And since a human person is his body, that self-giving includes in its meaning the giving of one’s body to another. This self-giving is mutual. It is this relationship that the two will for one another and establish by a free consent. And that is why marriage is consummated by the couple’s first act of sexual intercourse. In this act, the two become one body. This first act, moreover, must be fully expressive of the integral meaning of the sex act if it is to consummate this union.
The sexual act ought to be expressive of a genuinely disinterested love, a love that wills good for the other as another self. The intense pleasure that accompanies this act makes this very difficult to do, and almost impossible if one’s sole source of moral direction is contemporary popular culture. Loving another for what he does for me is nothing more than self-love, and it is all too easy for the sex act to become little more than an instance of this kind of self-centeredness. The problem with self-love with regard to the sexual act is that the means of the benefit that accrues to the self (pleasure) is another human person, and to use a person is to abuse a person. That is why using a person sexually is always contrary to virtue, whether it occurs within marriage or without.
Disinterested love wills good for the other as another self, and not as a means to one’s self. Now what is willed for the other makes the difference between a genuine love and a disordered love. Willing merely sensible good (pleasure) for the other and surrendering oneself over to her as a means of her sexual pleasure is not to will virtue for the other – and virtue is a greater good than mere pleasure. For I am allowing the other to use me as a means to an end, that is, I am allowing the other to use me as an object of her self-love. And using another human being as a means to an end is always contrary to his status as a person equal in dignity to oneself. Willing good for her that does not involve a violation of self-respect on my part entails willing that her act of intercourse be expressive of a disinterested love. I must will that she love me as an end, and not as a means to an end. Now sexual intercourse is an act of one flesh union, which is marriage. The physical act ought to express one’s intention, in this case the intention to be one flesh, otherwise the act bespeaks a lie. If I love the other as another self, I must will a good for her, a good that is in keeping with virtue. Marital communion is more than a mere sensible good. It is an intelligible human good that the two establish through their mutual self-giving. And so the good that is willed in the act of sexual union is precisely the good of marital communion. Sexual union is thus a celebration and expression of marriage. Having sex while withholding the intention to be one body is to engage in an act that lies, an act whose symbolic value is not congruent with the intention of the heart. The act is inevitably one of self-love, which reduces the other to a means of venereal pleasure.
And so non-marital intercourse is unchaste and contrary to reason, and as such cannot lead a person to emotional fulfillment. Joy is an effect of disinterested love. But this joy is very different from the emotional complacency experienced through union with a pleasurable object. Joy that is in the will is more enduring, while satisfaction of desire lasts until hunger is once again aroused, which is never long in coming. Those who indulge in non-marital intercourse will experience this temporary sensible “satisfaction”, but not the enduring joy of a disinterested and holy love. A feeling of emptiness succeeds this sort of behavior; for it has failed to deliver what it promised, namely, ecstasy. In fact, the very word ecstasy comes from the Greek word ekstasis, which indicates a standing outside of oneself. A genuine human ecstasy is one rooted in genuine human love, not self-love; for only genuine disinterested love reaches out beyond the self to another person who is loved for his own sake. Self-love does not tend beyond the self, and so is never ecstatic. Furthermore, this ecstatic joy, on account of man’s psychosomatic unity, is communicated to the body, thereby increasing the pleasure of the sexual act. And so unchaste sex is never as pleasurable and meaningful as chaste marital intercourse. The search for ever more perverse forms of sexual play is only testimony to the emotional emptiness that indicates the presence of inordinate self-love as the root and motivating principle of one’s sexual practices.
Lust and its Offspring
As gluttony tends to reduce virtue to naught, much more so does lust, the capital vice opposed to chastity. Lust involves using another sexually as a means to an end. It involves engaging in the sexual act outside of the context of the intelligible end of marital communion. Its offspring are many. Like gluttony, lust darkens the mind, and it does so by affecting four acts of the intellect, according to Thomas. Firstly, it affects our ability to apprehend certain ends as good, which Thomas calls blindness of mind. What is evil is regarded as good, and what is good is regarded as evil. One’s mind becomes so immersed in the sensual that the criteria one employs to determine the good are no longer intelligible principles, but sense pleasures. For instance, some people have been so affected by lust that they can no longer see marital fidelity as a good. In the past, some have chosen to “open” their marriages as a means of bringing excitement and new life into their relationship. Some have even risked their high position in government – not to mention the risk of bringing shame upon their wives and family – for the sake of a momentary experience of sexual pleasure. Clearly “blindness of mind” is the only thing that accounts for such attitude and behavior.
Furthermore, lust affects the intellectual act of counsel, which inquires into the means to the end – a part of prudence. This requires patience, which a person on fire with lust does not have, and thoughtful consideration, to which he is not disposed on account of his immersion into the sensual. And so Thomas numbers rashness or impetuosity as a daughter of lust, which is the absence of counsel. Thoughtlessness, a vice contrary to good judgment, is also an effect of lust, for thoughtfulness regards others, and as such presupposes an ability to forget oneself – at least for a time. But the habit of lust attaches a person to himself and renders the exit-of-self required by thoughtfulness very difficult if not impossible to achieve. Reason may command one to do certain things, but because of the habit of self-attachment, a person is inconstant. Hence, lust destroys prudence, the mould and mother of virtue.
Because of the habit of inordinate self-love, the achievement of a holy love is all but impossible. Consequently, the lustful person is not only indifferent to God and his commands, but such indifference quickly turns into a hatred of God who forbids the desired pleasure and His Church, who consistently echoes His commandments throughout the ages.
Lust also begets an inordinate love of this world, as opposed to a sober love that rebounds towards God who is the author of this world and the world’s redeemer. It is the kind of love indicated in the expression “love is blind.” For it is a love that fails to mind the world’s defects, a love of the world for its power to provide for one’s lusts.
Lust also begets despair of a future world, that is, of eternal life. Spiritual joys are distasteful to those immersed in sensuality. Furthermore, there is a hatred for God and a total lack of “fear of God” in those who live for venereal delight. And so we should not be surprised to learn of such despair. This is quite possibly the principal reason for the apparent increase in atheism today. It has been said that at the root of atheism is a revolt of conscience, and this revolt almost always centers around a decision concerning sexual acts.
And as gluttony begets loquaciousness, so too does lust have its own store of linguistic vices, such as obscenity, scurrilousness, wanton words, and foolish thinking. These of course flow from the intellectual vices of rashness, thoughtlessness, and lack of awareness. Of particular note regarding obscene words is their reductionism. Because lust alters the way the other is regarded – for she is seen and evaluated primarily in the light of her capacity to satisfy lust – the scope of one’s vision tends to narrow down and focus solely on those aspects of the person that alone are relevant to the lustful appetite. The whole person tends to be reduced to a part. And this is reflected in obscene vocabulary. This way of regarding the human person is culturally widespread and has become somewhat the norm. During televised sporting events, for instance, camera shots taken from angles that highlight the nether parts, while the countenance of the athlete is hidden from view, are rather common.
This habit of looking at others reductionistically directly affects one’s thinking and consequent ability to understand the meaning of human sexuality. The meaning of the sexual act cannot be properly understood as an interaction of genitalia. Yet such a way of looking at the sex act is becoming widespread. Some are no longer able to discern any significant difference between anal and vaginal intercourse. Such people fail to see that the unitive good of the sexual act regards a union of persons, not parts.
As we said above, prudence is the mother of the virtues, and it is intemperance that is the “chief corruptive for prudence.” The principal species of intemperance is lust, and so it follows that the habit of lust destroys the entire structure of the virtuous life, rendering emotional health impossible.
The practice of continence is also very important for the emotional development of the human person. It is that part of temperance whereby a person resists evil desires that are vehement in him. Continence is similar to temperance in that both concern themselves with the pleasures of touch, but the subject of continence is not the sense appetite, but the will. It belongs to temperance to moderate the desires of the pleasures of touch, whereas it belongs to continence to resist evil desires that are vehement. Continence is the necessary preamble to acquiring temperance, for temperance is a difficult habit to acquire and takes time. Temperance is like the builder of the windmill, which channels the wind to generate power and electricity. Continence can perhaps be likened to the person who boards up his house in order to resist the power of a hurricane.
Thomas points out that “man is that which is according to reason. Wherefore from the very fact that a man holds to that which is in accord with reason, he is said to contain himself.” Now consider that a living thing is moved from within. A non-living thing is moved from without. The more a person, through weakness of the will, is disposed to be moved from without, that is, by objects that sway his appetites, like a wind that rages against a weak structure, so as to neglect the command of reason, the less “alive” he is, so to speak; for the less he contains himself from within. But the more he is able to contain himself or hold himself together according to the command of reason, the more fully alive he is, and the more fully human he makes himself to be.
We often refer to the emotionally healthy person as someone who “has it all together.” The expression implies “integration” or “integrity”. Someone who can “keep his word” (hold on to his word) is a person of integrity, for example. Continence is accordingly a very important part of moral and emotional integrity. The continent person is one who holds to right reason by resisting and abstaining from evil desires. This is not repression, but control. One fully acknowledges that one has these desires, but rather than allow them to control him – for man is not that which is according to passion, but according to reason – , the continent person chooses to control himself by directing his passions and resisting desires that move him to what is contrary to being fully human and fully alive. Being fully human presupposes this freedom, for there is nothing human about slavery to one’s passions. Examples of continence may include resisting the desire to use one’s spouse as a means to an end, namely, the end of venereal pleasure. Or consider Natural Family Planning, the proper use of which requires the practice of continence.
A person can be continent without being temperate – but on the way to temperance, and a person can be incontinent without being intemperate. The intemperate man confuses good with evil, not so the incontinent, who is aware that he has turned away from what is truly good.
Intemperance and the Destruction of Virtue
Intemperance has the effect of delivering the intellect over to the service of matter. The result is a loss of interest in things spiritual and intellectual. The kinds of things that appeal to the minds of the intemperate are those that serve the interests of the pleasure appetite, such as novels that do not raise the mind towards eternal themes or truths, but which sink the mind further into the realm of the sensual and material, or films that require little thinking and are dotted at regular intervals with scenes of violence, revenge, and sexual play, or talk shows that preoccupy themselves with trivial matters that have no lasting value. Films, books, or talk shows that deal with eternal and more intelligent themes are no longer popular.
This intemperate disposition also affects one’s self-awareness, as we touched on above. The intemperate are no longer readily able to transcend themselves, which is required if one is to become critically aware of oneself. Material things are not capable of perfect self-reflection, but only imperfect self-reflection. For instance, a piece of paper can be folded so that one half reflects over the other half. But the whole piece of paper cannot be reflected upon itself entirely, only one part upon another. But the mind is capable of perfect self-reflection, which is evidence of the immaterial nature of the mind, for I am present to myself in the act of knowing something other than myself. I know that I know. Yet I cannot see my entire self, or hear myself hearing. But I do know myself in the act of knowing something outside of myself. Now a lack of moral virtue is not going to alter this ability. But intemperance is going to compromise the kind of self-reflection that is not automatic, but which must be cultivated, namely, self-awareness. As one becomes so immersed in the realm of the sensual, one begins, in a sense, to share in matter’s lack of perfect self-reflection. That is why the intemperate are most oblivious to their vice, whereas the unjust, on the contrary, are for the most part aware of their injustice, for injustice is in the will, not the concupiscible appetite. Indulging in pleasures seems, to the intemperate at least, an entirely natural thing to do and the most natural end of human existence.
This general lack of awareness has a direct influence on a person’s ability to establish the habit of justice within himself, which is the virtue that perfects the will. Justice begins with the recognition of the debitum, that is, the awareness that something is due to another. And so as a start, the intemperate tend to be ungrateful, for gratitude stems from the awareness and recognition of a debt, that what was given was done so gratis. Without this fundamental ability, one cannot begin to cultivate piety and legal justice, by which one serves the common good of one’s country on account of gratitude for the incalculable benefits received from both parents and country. This in turn will affect a country’s ability to achieve a genuine democracy, which is built on the principles of justice and depends upon a population that truly understands and appreciates things intelligible, such as the nature of the state, justice and truth, the nature of human rights grounded not merely on the whims of the people, but in natural law. For just as an intemperate person is hindered in the achievement of justice, so too is a pleasure-oriented culture. And of course it goes without saying that one lacking awareness will be blinded to the requirements of religion, the most perfect part of justice. The virtue of religion begins with the recognition that all has been given by God and that the debt cannot ever be adequately repaid; for the gift of existence is a pre-condition for repayment.
Intemperance also hinders the development of kindness, generosity, and a gentle spirit, which imply empathy and an awareness of another’s suffering and needs. A large part of emotional illness is rooted in anger. Now anger is an essential part of our being, and is therefore basically good. But it is natural that the passion of anger be subject to reason, which is the work of the virtue of gentleness. Now gentleness (meekness) is not about the pleasures of touch, but it is like temperance in that it involves restraint, for gentleness restrains the onslaught of anger. And so Thomas refers to gentleness and clemency as secondary virtues annexed to temperance.
As we pointed out above, love can only be channeled through virtue. Now some people are, at certain moments, difficult to love, in particular adolescent teens and toddlers. Unless we develop the habit of gentleness, our love will remain inconsistent and will reach the beloved only when conditions are favorable to us. Moreover, anger is, on account of its impetuous nature, a real obstacle to a person’s clear judgment of the truth. Passion is in me, and so when inflamed tends to render me incapable of transcending myself, which is a necessary condition for understanding the “other” from a point of view other than my own (i.e., from his point of view, or God’s point of view, or the point of view of a third party). The virtue of gentleness enables us better able to transcend ourselves during difficult moments that arouse anger in order to more accurately assess the needs of the person who is the principal cause of our anger. We may discover that the best response to such a person is a patient tolerance, or possibly fair punishment, in which case anger becomes a source of energy.
Meekness or gentleness is again a very important part of emotional integration. As St. Thomas writes: “Wherefore meekness above all makes a man self-possessed.” Should there exist an inordinate attachment to the pleasures of touch, or to the comforts of the body or to life that contains few inconveniences and oppositions to the will, gentleness will be a difficult virtue to come by. Such a person will find it difficult to “contain himself” or “hold himself together”. Indeed, life is full of inconveniences and contradictions, and so there are really only two choices available here: to nurture a spirit of gentleness in order to more readily channel a love that loves the other for his own sake, or choose to make one’s ultimate end in life the minimization of life’s inconveniences, for example in the pursuit of wealth and an early retirement, so as to free oneself up to live completely in accordance with one’s personal desires. The latter is the route most frequently pursued today. But consider that emotional illness is not yet on the decline in our society, but has been on the increase for a number of years (waiting lists to see a psychiatrist are often months long). Emotional well-being cannot be separated from moral integrity, and the perfection of the emotions results from the proper structuring of the four principal parts of the human person via the four cardinal virtues, an intelligible structure determined ultimately by the supernatural virtue of charity, which loves God as the ultimate end, not the self, and which in turn orders the emotions to serve the interests of justice and the common good. That is why the mild Epicureanism that is generally taken for granted today has never succeeded in bringing a stable peace to the lives of its adherents, but only a fragile feeling of peace that is easily destroyed through a change of circumstance.
The failure to moderate anger through meekness tends to render clemency difficult to cultivate, for clemency mitigates punishment according to the demands of right reason. Severity is the virtue by which a person remains inflexible in the infliction of punishment when right reason requires it, and so is not opposed to clemency. The opposing vice here is both cruelty on the one hand (which denotes excess in punishing) and leniency on the other, which is an unreasonable mitigation of punishment. It happens often that an appeal for clemency (such as an early release from prison) is nothing more than an appeal for unreasonable leniency. The failure to understand the essential point of punishment will tend to beget leniency; for punishment intends the restoration of the order of fairness, to which the lenient person is indifferent. The general tendency today is to regard punishment as irrational vengeance. The judge or parent who exhibits this kind of leniency, the kind that falls short of justice, exhibits not meekness or clemency, but impassivity, or unreasonable patience. This vice fosters negligence, which is contrary to prudence, and incites both the good and the wicked to evil. Impassivity appears to be virtuous, but is in fact vicious and is evidence of an imperfect love of both the common good and the individual good of the offender. Some parents, for example, do not love their children enough to become angry with them. Or consider the impassivity of the school administrator, who loves his job and the personal benefits that accompany it more than the students and the common good of the school as a whole. His vice passes for professionalism and composure, but it is really nothing more than bureaucratic selfishness.
The truly clement heart is one that loves with a sober and kind love. Thomas writes: “This moderation of soul comes from a certain sweetness of disposition, whereby a man recoils from anything that may be painful to another.” This is opposed to the “roughness of soul” in one who is unreasonably severe, that is, in one who fears not to pain others or humiliate them in the courtroom or the classroom, for example. Thomas speaks of a “humane feeling whereby everyman is naturally friendly towards all other men.” This is lost in the person who is cruel – and it is also absent in the unreasonably lenient. Thomas refers to this depravity as “unsoundness of mind”, wherein the mind lapses from the disposition due to the human species. But the positive feeling that begets leniency is also not humane, because it is not “sound of mind”. It is a feeling that dulls the mind to the true requirements of justice ordered towards the restoration of the order of fairness and the common good. A truly humane feeling does not cloud the judgment, but helps it.
Clemency is an important virtue to cultivate, first on the part of the court judge for the sake of the common good of the civil community, and on the part of parents for the sake of the emotional well-being of their children. Both the defect and excess of clemency are signs of a weak character, and this in turn brings about a similar influence on the character of the children. Child rearing and discipline in former times may have been characterized by a defect of clemency, but today we witness more frequently an unreasonable excess of clemency that has damaged the child’s ability to acquire the foundation for a more complete development of the virtue of justice, which begins with learning to say “please and thank-you” (the virtues of courtesy and gratitude).
When perfected by clemency, anger propels us forward and helps us in the execution of reason’s command. There is no requirement to suppress anger, but to direct it, as water is directed and channeled in order to generate power. But unresolved anger can generate a choleric, sullen, or ill-tempered character. The choleric person becomes angry too quickly and for a slight cause. Consider the teenager who “flies off the handle” on the basis of what he interpreted as being “looked at the wrong way”. This can develop into a more sullen character. Here the cause of anger endures in the memory and often becomes subconscious. This in turn can color almost everything the sullen person does henceforth. This influence is also subconscious and leads one to function daily on those unhealed memories, that is, to be subconsciously motivated to attempt to resolve the anger in almost everything one does. These unhealed memories can, with the help of a sound therapist, become sources of blessing for the person, or they will cripple him and prevent him from achieving the emotional harmony and character structure of a healthy personality.
The ill-tempered person will choose to hang on to his anger and will stubbornly seek to inflict punishment on the perceived cause of that anger. But excessive anger affects one’s ability to judge well, and so the ill-tempered person will rarely, and on his own, come to an understanding of the true cause of his displeasure. The remedy of unresolved anger is nothing other than forgiveness, which often requires a great deal of time and, more importantly, the help of another who has the ability to lead the angry person through the necessary stages on the way to the final stage of healing. This is the point at which he can begin to accept the injury and readily forgive the offender, which, more often than not, turns out to be a parent who did not have the strength of character to rear the child properly, protect the child from an abuser, or adequately provide for the child, or discipline the child with moderation.
The principal offspring of anger include habitual contempt of certain others, a kind of “looking down one’s nose” at others, as well as an obsessive preoccupation over perceived injuries, what Thomas calls a “swelling of the mind”. This swelling results in a living in one’s own mind. This of course affects one’s judgment or assessment of the situation in which one finds oneself. One can no longer see straight, that is, one is no longer able to take in the larger picture. That is why it is important to take the views of such people with a grain of salt, whether the person is an angry liberal, or an angry conservative, or an angry teacher, etc. And more importantly, one must learn not to place too much trust or confidence in one’s own judgments and ways of perceiving things during those times in which the onslaught of anger has been released.
Humility is that part of temperance that perfects hope, in particular hope in oneself; for it belongs to humility to temper and restrain the mind from tending inordinately to that which is above it. As Thomas writes: “Humility observes the rule of right reason whereby a man has true self-esteem.” Pride, which is a vice opposed to humility, involves an excessive love of one’s own excellence. And so humility moderates the hope that one has in one’s own excellence. Humility is such a foundational virtue, and so recognizing the good qualities in others and affirming them is an important ingredient in their development as emotionally healthy human beings. The person who pursues his own excellence inordinately and who wishes to appear more excellent than he is, and thus who wishes to be preferred to others, is almost always a person who was inadequately affirmed as a child. That is why it is very important for parents to affirm the achievements of their children, and for teachers to affirm the achievements of their students, even when the achievement is not particularly extraordinary. The current emphasis in education on self-esteem is not, in this light, as exaggerated and unfounded as conservatives tend to believe.
The humble man inclines to the lowest place, but he is not obsequious, which involves a self-abasement that is not true to the facts. In fact, obsequiousness can be a pretense, an instance of personal pride disguised as humility. But humility does involve an awareness of one’s own deficiencies, and it is this awareness that is the rule that moderates this hope. If a person is secure in the knowledge of his gifts, which come ultimately from God, he will have little difficulty accepting and acknowledging his own deficiencies. The proud are not at ease with the knowledge of their finitude. Hence, the fullness of pride is the rejection of God, for “humility regards chiefly the subjection of man to God, for whose sake he humbles himself by subjecting himself to others.” Once again, we note the importance of self-awareness that is the fruit of temperance. But self-awareness is, of course, not enough here. One must be willing to embrace the knowledge of one’s deficiency. One must accept it. If a person cannot tolerate the specter of his own finitude, he will certainly not choose to grow in the knowledge and love of God, Who is boundless and infinite; for I cannot help but see my own finitude against the background of the divine being.
But we must not be led to believe that the perfect possession of humility is necessarily the property of the believer. Even one who accepts his own limitations and regards his deficiencies in the light of faith does so, for most of his life, only very imperfectly. He may still desire his own excellence inordinately. We see this in those who envy, who are displeased at the excellence of others because such excellence turns the attention of others away from them. We see this in the philosopher or theologian who writes so as not to be readily understood by most others, in order to appear exceedingly excellent and in possession of truths out of the reach of everyone except a small few.
The proud have lofty eyes, which when focused on you tend to bear downward, fearlessly and without reverence, “…for fearing and respectful persons are especially wont to lower the eyes, as though not daring to compare themselves with others.” And that is why those who lack humility tend to compare themselves to others, and are always on the lookout for others’ deficiencies and shortcomings – and are always satisfied when they have discovered them.
Humility will, with regard to one’s work, keep one from veering away from the ordinary, for pride desires recognition, and so it moves one to the extraordinary way. We see this in the priest, for example, who alters the liturgy and introduces all sorts of unapproved innovations. Moreover, humility is not in a hurry to speak, in contradistinction to those who are not aware of their own deficiencies. The proud are quick to “enlighten” others whom they never suspect might not at all need to be so informed. The proud tend not to moderate their speech, nor do they restrain their haughty eyes and laughter.
Pride also destroys every virtue; for it finds in every virtue an occasion to flourish – after all, virtue is a mark of excellence. Every virtue is ordained to the service of glorifying the proud man, rather than God. That is why the proud readily believe that their good is from themselves, and not from God. Or, if they are not entirely without faith, they believe their good to be from God, but are prone to believe that these gifts are due to their merit. The proud cannot resist the opportunity to boast, for their desire to be admired by others is beyond the control of virtue, and they tend to observe carefully the failings of others. They tend to despise others and wish to appear the exclusive possessor of what they have. And the believer who inordinately loves his own excellence will fall into singularity, by which he wishes to appear holier than others. In the proud man will also be found license, which is the delight in doing freely whatever one wills. That is why pride begets disobedience and vainglory, by which he covets the outward show of excellence.
The Desire to Know
As Aristotle writes in the first line of his Metaphysics, “all men by nature desire to know”. Knowledge of truth is a basic intelligible human good that perfects us as human persons, and so the desire for knowledge is a desire for a good. But the desire itself can become immoderate. The moderation of this desire pertains to the virtue of studiousness.
The defect of this virtue amounts to an indifference to truth, which, as was said earlier, is the fruit of an inordinate attachment to the pleasures of touch. The excess is the vice of curiosity, which is certainly an offspring of pride. The proud desire knowledge, which is a matter of excellence, in order to glory in it.
But the desire itself can be inordinate in a number of ways. First, it is possible for a person to pursue a less profitable study over a study that is an obligation incumbent upon him. Thomas offers the example of a priest who rather than studying and nourishing his faith in the reading of Scripture, chooses to study plays or read novels, etc. It is also possible for a parent to neglect his children in favor of the study of some discipline that is in itself good, but of far less importance than the emotional needs of the child.
The desire for knowledge is inordinate when a person studies in order to learn from one by whom it is unlawful to be taught, such as dissident theologians with respect to Roman Catholicism, or occult sources. Desire for knowledge is also inordinate when a person studies in order to know that which is above the capabilities of his own intelligence. There are different intellectual dispositions, and each person has his gifts. Some people have a disposition to think historically, others mathematically, others philosophically, and still others scientifically. Some have great literary intelligence, while others have a profound psychological intelligence and understand themselves and others in ways that are beyond the ability of most people. We have to learn to rely on one another’s gifts. But curiosity wishes to bypass this reliance on others and tends to rely on oneself and delve into areas that are clearly outside of one’s natural capacities. Curiosity is, accordingly, an offspring of pride.
Finally, desire is inordinate when we desire to know the truth about the created order without referring this knowledge to the knowledge of God. For creation is the communication of the goodness of God. Consider that virtue makes its possessor morally good. One is not necessarily morally good because one has knowledge. But man’s sovereign good consists in the knowledge of the sovereign truth, and not in the knowledge of any other truth. The desire of the knowledge and love of God ought to form our entire life, and it ought to govern every other desire we have, including the desire to know other things. Consequently, the desire to know the truth about creatures without that final reference to God, the source of all truth, cannot be a virtuous desire, but ultimately a vain one, for this universe is passing away.
Curiosity is also about sensitive knowledge, and this kind of curiosity is more disgraceful than the previous, if not more serious. For knowledge of sensible things is directed at both the preservation of life and intellectual knowledge. The former is very useful, but the desire for sensitive knowledge becomes inordinate when the knowledge is no longer directed to the useful. This is very difficult to explain, not to mention difficult to determine. But consider the person who reads cooking magazines not for the sake of finding useful recipes, but for its own sake, that is, for the sake of arousing the pleasure appetite. Certainly reading pornography is an instance of inordinate curiosity, as well as pornographic literature, or violent literature or film. We would also argue that watching popular talk shows one finds on television today is an indulging in inordinate curiosity. Busy inquiry into other people’s actions and tragedies, which may ultimately be directed towards detraction or gossip, is an indulging into curiosity. In fact, the root of all gossip is inordinate curiosity, which is a very difficult vice to overcome.
Modesty of Movement and Apparel
The way a person moves, speaks, and gazes at others, and the way he dresses or adorns himself and the things around him, such as the house in which he lives, all pertain to the emotional life, for all these reflect the inner disposition of a person, and so they pertain to what Thomas calls the “beauty of honesty”. We have already seen how the beauty of a temperate soul manifests in the countenance. It also manifests in the way a person carries himself and in the way he adorns himself.
We have seen that locquaciousness is an offspring of gluttony. Not only will the intemperate person speak immoderately, he may even be coarse and boorish in the inflections of his voice. At the other end of the extreme, a person may be what Ambrose refers to as “unduly soft and nerveless.” We’ve all come across people whose voices reflect a softness and “gentleness” that can drive a person to consider suicide. There is something terribly immoderate in the softness of their voices, a softness that speaks of impassivity than patience, or is passive-aggressive and is thus anything but gentle.
A person’s bodily movements may be directed according to reason in two ways. First, in respect to what is fitting for the person. Outward movements, keep in mind, are signs of the inner disposition of a person. Hence, there ought to be modesty in looks, in one’s words and tone of voice, in the way a person walks, and in any other way the human person expresses himself in movement. A person’s walking can carry sexual overtones, or a person’s gaze can ooze with condescension. A person may walk “high and mighty”, or carry himself pretentiously. If there is no inward arrogance, for instance, a person ought to correct his manner of speaking, gazing or walking in order that his movements become more honest. Or, if a person is inwardly immodest, he can begin to change his immodesty by modesty of movement.
Reason may also direct one’s movements according to the fittingness of circumstance. Thomas refers to this as methodicalness, which regards that which is becoming to the business at hand.
Modesty also regards the use of play or fun, which is a very important part of a healthy emotional life. We can refer to this virtue as pleasantness, which is also closely connected to the virtue of affability. Preoccupation with the things of the mind can weary the soul. Pleasantness regards the resting of the soul through the application of some pleasure, for example in “words or deeds wherein nothing further is sought than the soul’s delight.” And so a person applies himself to games or sporting activities, such as chess, cards, hockey, tennis, or golf, or things humorous. Games or humorous play that involve vice of some kind are obviously not part of the virtue of leisure.
The virtues are character traits, and so this virtue of leisure or pleasantness will accordingly become a part of the person’s character, making him pleasant, so to speak. Thomas writes: “…a man is said to be pleasant through having a happy turn of mind, whereby he gives his words and deeds a cheerful turn.” This virtue, though, is contained under modesty in so far as it restrains a person from immoderate fun. Cheerfulness and affability also come under fortitude and justice in so far as they manage sorrow and relations with others. But the pursuit of fun can become immoderate, and is indeed immoderate in those who make the pleasure of games their principal end in life, or in those who account their life a pastime. When this happens, for instance, when a person pursues fun excessively as in a sport like tennis or golf, they very quickly cease to be pleasant, and often will become greedy, inconsiderate and quick tempered. The moderate use of fun makes one a cheerful and affable person.
The defect of play is a vice found in those who are consistently lacking in mirth. Thomas writes: “…it is against reason for a man to be burdensome to others, by offering no pleasure to others, and by hindering their enjoyment.” It is in this way that the virtue of pleasantness is a kind of affability or friendliness, which is a part of justice. The defect of leisure leads to a kind of unfriendliness, another example of how temperance channels justice.
A person can lack moderation in the way he adorns himself either with regard to clothing or with regard to his home. He can lack moderation in two ways. First, in comparison with the social customs. It may not be immoderate for a woman of some African tribe to go around topless, but it is certainly immoderate for a woman living in the United States to proceed topless around the yard. A person may also become inordinately attached to outward apparel and take too much pleasure in them. This is evidence of an excessive preoccupation with the self. This attachment may be rooted in a desire for attention, or it may be rooted in an excessive desire for sensuous pleasure. Humility, which avoids “excessive expenditure and parade”, is the remedy against the former. Contentment and simplicity are the virtues that overcome the latter. One who is married is not required to live like a religious in a monastery, but neither is he required to spend thousands on a chandelier or the finest furniture.
Deficiency in attire is also inordinate and can be rooted in a lack of reasonable self-respect, which is not humility. There is a reasonable amount of trouble one ought to be willing to go through in order to adorn oneself so as not to stand out. Such neglect of oneself may very well be a form of attention seeking, rooted in the desire to appear virtuous, simple, and unconcerned about vain things.
By Dough McManaman
McManaman, Douglas. “The Virtue of Temperance” (February 2006).
This article is borrowed from https://www.catholiceducation.org/en/education/catholic-contributions/the-virtue-of-temperance.html
Douglas McManaman is a high school religion teacher with the York Catholic District School Board in Ontario. He is currently teaching at Father Michael McGivney Catholic Academy in Markham, Ontario and maintains a web site, A Catholic Philosophy and Theology Resource Page, in support of his students. He studied Philosophy at St. Jerome’s College in Waterloo, and Theology at the University of Montreal. Mr. McManaman is the past President of the Canadian Chapter of the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars.