In Season 2 Episode 8 of the Eudo Podcast, Dr. Paul M. Gould discusses the virtue of temperance – an important, yet neglected virtue. How does this virtue play out in contemporary society? How can we become temperate? What are some practical steps? All of these questions (and more) will be discussed in this episode.
How can we navigate between the extremes of excess and restraint, of unfettered satisfaction of any and all desires and the muting of desire in the name of piety or moderation or freedom?
What is needed is the virtue of temperance. The virtue of temperance is the virtue for our times. It is a virtue that centers primarily on our desire, instead of our actions. Temperance is not restraint. Nor is it excess. Rather it is balance. It is order and proportionality. It is the virtue that will help us to bring meaning and pleasure together once again.
Temperance is not the kind of virtue that is revealed under pressure, rather it is an ordinary and humble virtue that is practices on a regular basis.
Temperance is the virtue most closely associated with our desire for pleasure, specifically the pleasures of food, drink and sex. It helps us to neither desire pleasures too much, falling into excess, nor too little, falling into unnecessary restraint. Today, most think that happiness amounts to finding sensual pleasure and the satisfaction of unfettered desires. But that isn’t what happiness is, and so as a result, modern man is unhappy, awash in a sea of pleasure that gives diminishing returns over time.
To better understand the virtue of temperance, let’s consider the connection between temperance and self-control and temperance and understanding:
Temperance and Self-Control
Temperance is not merely exercising self-control of restraint in the face of temptation. When I attain the virtue of temperance, my desires or so shaped to the natural order of things that I no longer struggle, or at least regularly struggle, with sexual lust. My longings have become properly ordered or shaped. So, the temperate person is truly free. Freedom is not, as many today think, freedom to do whatever we want. The animals, we might say, enjoy that kind of freedom. Human freedom, classically understood, is freedom to do what you ought to do. This is the kind of freedom the temperate person attains.
Temperance and Understanding
Temperance is the virtue that distinguishes us from animals. Animals desire food, drink, and sex. But these appetites, for mere animals, are not tempered by understanding. As rational animals, humans have the ability to temper our longings by understanding as we seek to live according to the natural grain of things. The temperate person is one who understands the connection between bodily pleasures and the larger human goods.
What we learn about intemperance and temperance from the story of The Prodigal Son– Luke 15?
- First, when we seek pleasure as our chief good, we become enslaved to sin, sensuality, and perversity. We lose ourselves; we become less than human.
- Second, for those of us who struggle with intemperance—whether it is sexual sins and lust or with food or other activities—the beginning of our journey toward wholeness and healing begins with repentance. We must turn from self and look to God.
- Finally, it is important to remember that God lovingly pursues us and cares for us. He wants us to enjoy the good things—the pleasurable things—of this life including sex, food, and drink. But we are created to enjoy them as gifts from the Father.
What are some practical steps for how we might become temperate?
First, we must understand what it means to be human. This involves locating human life corporately and individually within the divine drama as expressed in the Bible. In the Bible, we learn that humans are created in the image of God as Kings and Queens of this world. We are to exercise in the derivative mode rulership over this world as an expression of God’s rulership over us and all of creation.
Second, we become temperate through habits informed by this understanding. The discipline of self-control—one of the fruits of the Spirit listed by Paul in Galatians 5 is key. This also helps us to see the joint nature of becoming virtuous. We seek and need divine assistance as we seek, through habits and daily ritual, to shape our characters so that our longings and desires will be properly ordered and shaped by the nature of reality itself.
God doesn’t deny us pleasure—rather he unites pleasure and meaning so that we might experience joy. The temperate life is ultimately a life of joy as we learn to take up our place within God’s sacred order and to enjoy all things—and all people—as gift.
- Mattison III, William C. Introducint Moral Theology: True Happiness and the Virtues. Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos, 2008.
- Pieper, Joseph. The Four Cardinal Virtues. South Bend, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010.
- Reiff, Philip. My Life Among the Deathworks. Charlotte, VA: University of Virginia Press, 2006.
- Volf, Miroslav. Flourishing. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015.
- Wiersbe, Warren. Be Courageous. Colorado Springs, CO: Chariot Victor Pub., 1989.