According to Aristotle, continence is "a virtue of the appetite, by which men, through thought, control the appetite that induces to evil pleasures" (Virt. et vit. 1250a). Evil pleasures are indulged particularly in immoderate eating and drinking and in seeking unreasonable sexual satisfactions; they are evil because such pleasures pass the bounds laid down by reason. In Christian literature the object of continence is sometimes as comprehensive as it is in Greek philosophy; but in the common parlance of the early Christians, the virtue of continence was associated primarily with sexuality and was synonymous with chastity (Acts 24.25; 1 Cor 7.9; Gal 5.23; Tit 1.8). Today it is variously used in moral theology and popular speech to mean (1) self-restraint in general, or (2) self-restraint with respect to illicit sexual pleasures, or (3) abstention from all sexual pleasure, licit or illicit, or (4) a disposition of the will to resist vehement impulses of the sexual appetite.
In the first of the above senses, continence is identifiable with all virtue, for every virtue implies self-restraint and a holding back from what is repugnant to it. In the second sense it is identifiable with the virtue of chasti ty, whose function it is to moderate the sexual appetite. In the third sense it can indicate a perfection of chastity, although, as the term is understood in popular usage, the abstention from legitimate sexual activity may have a motive other than that of chastity, in which case it is materially, but not formally, identifiable with that virtue.
Continence in the fourth, and for some moral theologians the most proper, sense of the word, although a most commendable quality, is something less than a virtue inasmuch as it supposes its possessor subject to conditions that would not exist if he were perfectly virtuous. Continence is exercised in holding firm against a riot of disorderly impulses in the sense appetite. In a perfectly chaste man vehement disturbance of this kind would not occur, for it is the function of the virtue of chastity to hold the sense appetite itself under such control that strong irrational movements do not occur in it. Hence continence, which is a quality rooted in the will, is necessary only when chastity has not been equal in its function of controlling the appetite. Continence is therefore a second line of defense, but a necessary one inasmuch as ideally perfect chastity, such as would equip a man to face all manner of circumstances without disorderly reactions of some violence, is a rare quality.
The distinction between continence understood in this sense and temperance was noted by Aristotle (Eth. Nic. 7.1), but it was employed also in Christian literature, equivalently at least, from an early date, as can be seen in Cassian's account of the degrees in the practice of chastity (Collationes 12, Patrologia Latina, ed. J. P. Migne [Paris 1878–90] 49:869–898). St. Thomas Aquinas acknowledged the propriety of speaking of continence both as a virtue in the perfect sense and as something less than perfect virtue, but ordered to the genus of virtue (Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 155.1).
The comparative excellence of continence and temperance depends on the sense in which the term is taken. If it is understood to denote abstinence from all venereal pleasures, it is greater than temperance, absolutely speaking; but if it is used in the sense of a strong will to resist lustful impulses, temperance is much greater than continence, for it is more thoroughly in accord with reason. The good of reason is more dominant in the temperate person whose appetite is obedient to reason than in the continent person whose sense appetite strongly resists reason by its evil inclinations. From this point of view, therefore, continence is compared to temperance as something imperfect to something perfect.
See Also: lust; virginity; celibacy.
Bibliography: thomas aquinas, Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 155–156. b. h. merkelbach, Summa theologiae moralis (Paris 1949) 2:960–963. Cursus Theologicus Salmanticensis (Paris-Brussels 1878) 6:125–126, 266–268. h. leclercq, Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de liturgie. ed. f. cabrol, h. leclercq and h. i. marrou (Paris 1907–53) 3:1145–74.
[t. j. hayes/
j. van paassen]
Hence continental XVIII.