The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 64, No 5, Sep-Oct 2010

Theology for the Laity

The Moral Virtues: IV

By Father Reginald Martin, O.P.

A Popular Notion of Temperance

       The history of a "Temperance Movement" in the United States has conditioned us to think of Temperance in connection with moderating the use of alcohol, or encouraging citizens to forego its use altogether. While moderation regarding drink is certainly a part of the virtue of Temperance, it is far from the only part we must consider if we are to understand this virtue.

A Theological Consideration

       Temperance concerns itself with the most basic human needs: the need for food and drink, which guarantee the survival of the individual, and the need to guarantee perpetuation of the human race, by means of sexual relations between men and women. Since each of these is connected with the sense of touch, and because each is pleasant, St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that "...temperance is about the pleasures of touch" (ST 141.5). He adds that because taste and smell contribute to the pleasure we enjoy in food, and because appearance is one of the pleasures we enjoy in other people, Temperance concerns itself with taste, smell, and sight. Of these, St. Thomas identifies taste as the sense most closely resembling the sense of touch, therefore, he argues, Temperance is most concerned with the sense of taste.

How Much Is Enough?

       Our sense of the word Temperance is intimately linked to our notion of quantity, "how much" of something we need or plan to use. Virtue concerns ordering the things of our life to their proper ends, which we understand by reason, so Temperance is the virtue by which we employ the pleasant things of creation only to the extent required by our needs. Our Catechism teaches

    Temperance is the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods. It ensures the will’s mastery over instincts and keeps desires within the limits of what is honorable. The temperate person directs the sensitive appetites toward what is good and maintains a healthy discretion.... (1809).

A Path Between Extremes

       At first glance this might seem a recipe for a very dull life, but we must remember that the purpose of virtue is to make us good and to make our actions good. By exercising Temperance in our relations to food, drink, and sex, we embrace the mean between the extremes of harmful self-denial and the immoderate self-gratification that can prove equally harmful. Rather taking the pleasure out of life, Temperance confers a calm control over the things that delight us most, enabling us to enjoy them fully because we enjoy them in their proper measure.

       The Catechism continues, quoting St. Augustine,

    To live well is nothing other than to love God with all one’s heart, with all one’s soul and with all one’s efforts; from this it comes about that love is kept whole and uncorrupted (through Temperance). No misfortune can disturb it (and this is Fortitude). It obeys only [God] (and this is Justice), and is careful in discerning things, so as not to be surprised by deceit or trickery (and this is Prudence) (Ibid.)

A Primary Virtue

       Temperance is considered a principle virtue because the things it governs are of such importance, either to the individual or to the common good. In our study of Prudence, Justice, and Fortitude, we have seen that each of the principle virtues allies or connects to itself a number of secondary virtues. The principal virtues are called "cardinal" virtues (from the Latin word cardo, "hinge") because so many other virtues depend on them.

       Temperance is less important than Fortitude and Justice because they direct our relations with others, for the common good of the whole society. Moreover, the virtues that command good acts enjoy superiority over the virtues that concern merely difficult acts. Justice is concerned with relations among individuals, for the common good, while Temperance concerns itself only with one individual, whose personal desires may be hard to control.

A Personal Virtue

       Temperance governs only one person’s use of food, drink, and sex, so it is far less important than the theological virtues, which direct us to eternal life with God. Nevertheless, as any athlete, any patient recuperating from a serious illness, or any addict recovering from her or his addiction will attest, Temperance is absolutely essential if we are to derive the greatest pleasure from our lives in human society, and if we are to achieve our fullest, personal potential.

Vices Opposed to Temperance

       No one will be surprised to learn that theologians count Intemperance, which is a lack of moderation in using pleasant things, among the vices opposed to Temperance. Intemperance manifests itself in Lust, an excessive search for sexual pleasure. St. Thomas Aquinas remarks that the more necessary a thing is, the more its enjoyment must be governed by the use of reason. Sexual activity is altogether essential if the human race is to continue, therefore the excess of Lust insults the gift of human sexuality and reduces an individual’s participation in the life of reason.

       As the principle virtues ally themselves with secondary virtues, so do the chief vices surround themselves with vicious allies. St. Thomas Aquinas identifies the following habits as the companions of Lust: thoughtlessness, inconstancy, rashness, self-love, hatred for God, abhorrence of a future world. We need not describe these habits in detail to perceive that each of them is a decision to prefer one’s personal comfort, pleasure, or well-being to the love of God and the appropriate love of our neighbor that God directs us to manifest.

Particular Vices

       Because Temperance governs our use of those things necessary for our own survival, we can immediately see how Gluttony and Drunkenness exceed the mean we ought to embrace in our use of food and drink. Gluttony’s inordinate (unreasonable) desire for food renders it a dangerous habit; it becomes a serious sin if it blinds an individual by turning him away from the wholesome thoughts of God and everlasting life.

       Drunkenness deprives one of the use of reason, so it represents a danger similar to that of Gluttony. One difference between the two habits is the possibility that Drunkenness can occur through one’s ignorance of what he is drinking.

       Equally opposed to Temperance, however, is what theologians call Insensibility, the denial of the goodness in pleasant things, to the extent that an individual rejects what is essential to his health. We must always remember that virtue seeks the middle course between extreme. In the case of Temperance, the virtue strives to meditate between overuse of the good things that make human life pleasant and outright rejection of them.

Allied Virtues

       The secondary virtues that accompany Temperance are Abstinence, which governs our use of food and drink, and Chastity, which directs our use of sex. These correspond to the actions by which we care for ourselves, and show proper respect for the conjugal acts by which the human race continues.

       The very name of Abstinence denotes a wholesome turning away from the use of food. St. Peter wrote, "Join with your faith virtue, and with virtue knowledge, and with knowledge abstinence" (2 Peter 1:5,6). This combination suggests that refraining from the pleasure of food, at least occasionally, is one way by which we are able to turn away from excessive concern for ourselves.

Fasting: Virtue in Practice

       We accomplish this by fasting, which is intended to turn our thoughts away from earthly worries, and focus them more clearly on the everlasting life that ought to be our first concern. St. Thomas quotes St. Jerome, who observed, "Venus is cold when Ceres and Bacchus are not there," a witty reminder that excess in food and drink can encourage temptations to similar excess in the sexual appetite.

       As an interesting aside, we might note that St. Thomas suggests that individuals who wish to fast, should put off their noon meal until three o’clock in the afternoon. "...this hour agrees with the mystery of Christ’s Passion, which was brought to a close at the ninth hour...[and] those who fast by punishing their flesh, are conformed to the Passion of Christ...." (ST II-II, 147.7).

In Praise of Chastity

       St. Thomas Aquinas teaches that the name for the virtue of Chastity is derived from the word "chastise." Chastity chastises the will, teaching it to seek moderation in sexual behavior. Purity is a part of Chastity, moderating the pleasure we take from looking at or touching another person.

       Priests and members of religious communities who take vows, promise to give up their use of some of life’s legitimate pleasures. On the surface, such renunciation may resemble Insensibility, but we must take care to distinguish between Insensibility’s scorn for what is pleasant and useful, and the commands of Chastity or Abstinence, by which an individual foregoes use of a legitimate good in an effort to keep her or his mind focused on another good. In an often-quoted passage from St. Paul, we read

    The unmarried woman and the virgin think on the things of the Lord: that she may be holy in both body and in spirit. But she that is married thinks on the things of the world, how she may please her husband (1 Cor. 7:34).

The Value of Choice

       The point we must make here is not that the choice of a celibate life is better than the decision to marry, but that the good things that accompany one choice preclude one’s choosing the other.

       Each choice is praiseworthy, and each must be governed by the virtue of Temperance. The person who marries must remain exclusively faithful to her or his spouse, and considerate of a spouse’s desires. The person who chooses to renounce marriage must not hoard the time and resources that may accumulate as a result of this decision; rather the resources must be used profitably, for the common good. Temperance operates in individuals’ lives regardless of the life choices the individual makes, and the virtue enables each of us to find a middle course between selfishness and insensitive denial.

The Example of Mary

       The Litany of Loreto praises the Blessed Mother for her prudence, chastity, and wisdom. The litany makes no mention of Mary’s Temperance, but we must assume that this was among the virtues which adorned her life. We find one charming illustration of this Temperance in her actions during the Wedding at Cana.

       When the host’s supply of wine ran out, Mary was reasonably concerned to provide more. No one would ever suggest that Mary was advocating drunkenness. On the other hand, she realized very clearly that a certain amount of wine was necessary if the festivities were to continue. Her intervention resulted in what was undoubtedly just the proper amount of high-quality wine.

       Her actions at Cana reflect Mary’s concern for us, for she gave flesh to Jesus, whose Incarnation takes the watery "stuff" of our humanity and transforms it into something far more precious and delightful.

Back to Light & Life Page | Way Back to Rosary Center Home Page