It is part of the human condition to struggle against temptations for what we know to be bad for us and for others. The virtue of temperance is what helps us fight these temptations. It helps us to keep from doing what is wrong, even when we have strong feelings for it. In other words, temperance is what keeps us from sinning, even when we want to.
Temperance always comes last in the list of the cardinal virtues: temperance is about maintaining the good, but you can only maintain the good if you already have some idea of what the good is and how to acquire it. Prudence is how we know the good, justice and fortitude helps us to do the good. Temperance is how we avoid doing evil, or losing the good.
Many — if not most — people see the major goal of the Christian life as the avoidance of sin. Many people would answer the question “What makes a good Christian?” in purely negative terms: someone who doesn’t fornicate, or get drunk, or do drugs, or steal, or get angry, or tell dirty jokes, or say nasty things. Those are all things a good Christian should not do, but that is hardly a good enough answer.
A good Christian, or even a good person, is not just someone who doesn’t do certain things, but rather someone who does do certain things, someone who seeks the good, who strives to promote beauty, health, holiness, love, friendship, truth, and so on. Our Christian faith calls us to focus on doing good rather than simply avoiding evil. That is why temperance is the last in the order of virtues, though it is as indispensable as the others.
The Catechism defines temperance as “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 honourable” (CCC 1809).
We need the virtue of temperance because of one of the effects of Original Sin we call “concupiscence”. Concupiscence is a fancy theological word that describes the human desire for things we know are not good for us. Diabetics crave sugar, alcoholics desire whisky, and we all sometimes just long for something sinful. We want something good, but in a disordered way. We want something good, but we want too much of it. We want something good, but in a way that could be bad for us. All evil comes from an inappropriate mode of pursuing a good — sin is seeking some good, but in the wrong way. It is a constant human temptation to go after one good at the expense of some other good. But when we do that, we hurt ourselves and others.
Temperance prevents us from acting on these dangerous urges. It allows us to govern our desires, instead of allowing our desires to govern us. For an intemperate person — that is, someone who permits their impulses to run rampant — it is much harder to see the truth, and much harder to do what is right. One’s life is run by emotional drives, instead of by prudence, justice, and fortitude. But temperance takes the reins from the urges and gives it back to the first three virtues. In a way, we could say that temperance allows the other virtues to do what they are meant to do.
Temperance protects whatever good it is that we are pursuing. If a person pursues a good in a disordered way, he is sure to end up hating that good. Alcohol, for example, is a good thing, but nobody hates alcohol more than an alcoholic; he hates it because it has separated him from everything else: his family, his job, his self-respect. Goods pursued in a disordered way can make us addicted to them, slaves to them, in such a way that our lives are dominated by something that should bring us happiness but really leads to sorrow. Addiction ruins appreciation; an uncontrolled over-focus on just one good at the expense of all others will not only cause a person to lose all the other goods, it will also make him lose the good he thought he loved. Temperance, therefore, by directing our desires and overcoming concupiscence, protects human goods and happiness as a whole.
Balance and moderation are important aspects of temperance. Thus certain extremes must be avoided. The first of these extremes is a lack of self-control, that is, intemperance: a person can't control any of his impulses, and so he follows wherever they lead at any given moment. Such indulgence inevitably leads to disaster. But the other extreme is also to be avoided, namely insensibility, the undesirable condition in which a person is not even attracted to the goods of life. We should be attracted to food and drink, to health and exercise, to relationships, to achievement, and so on. These are goods created by God as gifts to us, and lead us to happiness in this life. Temperance allows us to appreciate all the goods and joys of human life as coming from God, without misusing those gifts.
Some of the sins against temperance are obvious: lust, drunkenness, gluttony, and the like. This latter isn’t just concerned with how much a person eats (although that is part of it); there can also be sins which arise from being extremely picky, or attached to a certain kind of food. Many people make those around them miserable by refusing to eat anything other than exactly what they want. As C.S. Lewis points out, every time a person is grumpy, impatient, uncharitable, or self-concerned because of their stomach, it’s a case of gluttony.
But some of the sins against temperance are not concerned with “externals”, with the created goods we want and use. St John Paul II in one of his general audience addresses said about temperance: “A temperate man is one who is master of himself. One in whom passions do not prevail over reason, will and even the ‘heart’. A man who can control himself! … What a fundamental and radical value the virtue of temperance has. It is even indispensable, in order that man may be fully a man. It is enough to look at someone who, carried away by his passions, becomes a ‘victim’ of them.” Our passions, faculties, emotions and abilities — all goods given to us by a loving God — also need to be controlled by temperance. Pride, the excessive love of the self, is a sin against temperance, and must be countered with true humility. Anger can be righteous and help us to put right that which is wrong, but it can so easily, without temperance, become a destructive force within us and can hurt others too.
As with all the cardinal virtues, the moderation and self-control of temperance cannot be acquired in one day, but require practice, substantial effort, prayer and time — exactly the sort of practice, effort, prayer and time that this season of Lent offers us.
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