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Sobriety is a term that may be used in a broad sense to signify moderation of any kind, but in its strict sense indicates the virtue, a species of temperance, whose function is to moderate and control the sense appetite with respect to alcoholic drink or other intoxicating substances. The older theologians were familiar with no intoxicants except fermented drink, and sobriety for them was simply temperance as applied to the desire and use of such drink. It was distinguished from abstinence, which was temperance in the use of food and nonintoxicating drink. A virtue in addition to abstinence was considered necessary where intoxicants were concerned, because the desire for them constituted a distinct form of appetition, difficult yet important to keep under reasonable control. Today, however, when a great variety of substances are used to produce a condition morally indistinguishable from alcoholic intoxication, the scope of the virtue of sobriety must be broadened to include moderation in the use of intoxicants in every form.

The use of intoxicants is not per se or essentially evil (see 1 Tm 5.23; Sir 31.27). But if, as the son of Sirach states, wine was created to promote joy of heart, good cheer, and merriment, it has in fact proved the ruin of many, and its abuse is certainly sinful.

As in the case with other moral virtues, sobriety consists in a mean between excess and defect. The defect of sobriety is drunkenness; the vice by way of excess has been given no special name, but it consists in an unreasonable unwillingness to use intoxicants even when health requires them. Total abstainers are not guilty of a culpable excess of sobriety unless their abstention is unworthily motivated. For those prone to alcoholic addiction, the reasonable mean is total abstention. In contemporary life, when powerful intoxicants, especially distilled spirits, are in common use, and when social customs lead many into excess, total abstinence, under ordinary circumstances, is a commendable, though not an obligatory, measure to safeguard the observance of temperance. Moreover, the mean of the infused virtue of sobriety is measured by higher considerations than those that determine what is reasonable from the point of view of the natural, acquired virtue. The sacrifice of otherwise legitimate satisfactions for a supernatural motive can be praiseworthy and meritorious, as is evident in the case of virginity or celibacy undertaken for the sake of virtue, or in the case of fasting.

See Also: temperance, virtue of; temperance movements.

Bibliography: thomas aquinas, Summa theologiae, 2a2ae, 149.

[p. k. meagher]

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