Temperance, Virtue of
TEMPERANCE, VIRTUE OF
The virtue of moderation in desires and pleasures, especially those of the emotions (Gr. σωφροσύνη, Lat. temperantia ).
Greeks and Early Christians. Ethical philosophers have always called for control over sensuous cravings, agreeing in this respect, though often with more pragmatism and less fanaticism, with a perennial ascetical and mystical tradition. Plato would have the charioteer mind curb passion, an ugly brute of a horse; Aristotle, to whom man was more compact of spirit and sense, would have the emotions tempered to serve the good life according to reason; and the Stoics give classical expression to the ideal of temperies, of the mind undisturbed by and even invulnerable to the fears and desires of the body.
The teachings of the philosophers lay ready at hand and were taken over by the Fathers, who, however, because of their faith were more urgent about spiritual regeneration and because of their pastoral office more emphatic about the vices. Saints Ambrose and Gregory the Great treated temperance as one of the cardinal or "hinge" virtues for Christian living. With them it came to mean more than a restrained comportment consonant with human dignity and was taken into the higher setting of grace; it moved out of the city of reason into the family of God; and its practice became less like the training required for an athlete or the purification of an initiate than a way of being conformed to Christ. The theme is less hygiene than mortification, and against the background of revealed salvation history the spirit was set against the flesh in a strife sharper and more dramatic than that considered by the philosophers. Nevertheless, practical lessons continued to be drawn from the Stoics in Christian ascetical literature.
St. Thomas Aquinas. St. Thomas Aquinas, whose treatment of temperance in the Summa theologiae is the locus classicus for moral theology, went to the Fathers and the Stoics when he was considering temperance as they did, as entering into the texture of all virtue. However, he brought out more clearly that it is not just repressive of the desire for pleasure, but rather a tempering in the original sense of mingling in due proportion, as in the making of steel or man's physical constitution. This recognition of its positive, as against its negative, function was made the more definite when he went on to consider it also as a special and limited sort of virtue, that is, not as being a general virtue, but as a particular kind of good "having," a habitus, through a steady and effective bent to one type of right activity and consequent enrichment. As such he placed it in the emotions themselves; it is commanded, yet not elicited, by will power and consists in a finely modulated sensibility striking the note between immaturity and insensibility.
He shared neither the Stoic view of passions as sickness of soul nor the puritan suspicion of pleasure as guilty until proved innocent; sublimating and indeed extending the best Epicureanism, he saw the life of virtue spreading through the whole human organism, insofar as it can be suffused with intelligence and love, and therefore can be made gracious by the communication of divine life. The sensory perceptions and feelings man has generically in common with the animals are subsumed in the singleness of his substance under the seeing of meaning and the making of choices, and so become specifically human, rationale per participationem. Thus, and in accordance with the teaching of Aristotle, the "concupiscible" and the "irascible," the seats of what are sometimes called the "impulse emotions" and the "contending emotions," can be firmly disposed to their optimum by the virtues of temperance and courage respectively (Summa theologiae 1a2ae, 23, 24, 34, 59; see appetite).
Temperance as a Special Virtue. St. Thomas studied the concupiscible appetite at length (ibid. 25–39). Its interest is what is sensuously either agreeable or disagreeable; and, as the case may be, it begins with liking or disliking, goes on to seeking and expecting or avoiding or fearing, and ends with enjoying pleasure or suffering pain. In this way the pain-pleasure principle is paramount; and this St. Thomas was not squeamish about translating into the terms of unrarified experience. He referred to temperance as a special virtue to the pleasures of food, drink and sex arising from the sense of touch.
This localization has been criticized as being at once too narrow and too gross and as leading to the preoccupation of later authors with the palate (even in some cases, though mistakenly, with the digestion) and the genitals, and not without occasion for prurience. Temperance, it is urged, and particularly sexual temperance, is much more comprehensive and delicate. It should be observed first, however, that this was granted by St. Thomas when temperance was regarded as a general condition of all virtue; second, that his isolation of temperance to a special kind of activity was methodological; his "virtuemorality" no more than his "faculty-psychology" would break up the single acting substance into separate "things"; third, that a given human situation can come under many headings of his classification (indeed courage rather than temperance seems more directly engaged in problems of human sentimentality that dispose one to look for an escape from the difficulties of real life rather than to search for pleasure); and last, that a possibly outmoded Aristotelian physiology may be overlooked when "touch" is taken according to a working psychology to stand for the most pervasive sensibility in the organism and the source of the most vehement feelings. He admitted that he was speaking in the most proper sense in assigning temperance to these special manifestations, and one happy effect is to see it in proportion, a necessary but not the greatest of the moral virtues.
Implications of St. Thomas's Teaching. That its implications are more far-reaching he made evident when he came to consider its parts. First its components, integrales, were described as verecundia and honestas, terms difficult to translate. The first implies a certain shyness and reserve, a distaste for indecency and smut, an instinctive modesty that does not of itself quite amount to virtue; the second is more positive and goes out with candor to what is noble, honorable and beautiful.
With the species, partes subjectivae, of temperance St. Thomas returned to its restricted consideration. They are abstinentia, which here means the restraint of greediness about food. Tobacco seems to be included, though the use of some drugs, in which pleasure seeking is not prominent, seems to be the concern of other virtues. Next, and with the same proviso, is sobriety in taking intoxicating drink. Third, there is chastity in matters of sex—here again total abstinence is not meant.
The associated virtues, partes potentiales, of temperance widen its field. They include continentia, the sound will that rides out the storm of passion, though St. Thomas was hesitant about describing it as a virtue since as such it does not pacify the disturbance. The names of others come from Andronicus and Macrobius: humilitas, which restrains pushfulness; mansuetudo, a mildness of temper and clementia, a gentleness and unwillingness to inflict pain, both of which regulate masochism, sadness and the "punishing" pleasures; bona ordinatio, a sense of occasion and of what is fitting; ornatus, a moderation in external apparel; parcitas, a self-containedness and spareness about superfluities; and simplicitas, a moderation and restraint about luxuries. As part of modesty St. Thomas characteristically added his own virtue of studiositas, or a lively interest in the surrounding world, noting its contrary vice of curiositas, a prying into what is not one's concern and an obsessive sexual prurience; also Aristotle's eutrapelia, a playfulness in fun and games. All these are closely interconnected and are placed in separate compartments in the Summa theologiae (2a2ae, 155–170) only by abstraction and for purposes of scientific study; they show how comprehensive is the complex and how versatile the virtue of temperance.
Bibliography: thomas aquinas, Summa theologiae 2a2ae, 141–170. a. michel, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed., a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 1903–50) 15.1:94–99. a. lafÉteur, "Temperance," The Virtues and States of Life, ed. a. m. henry, tr. r. j. olsen and j. putz (Theology Library 4; Chicago 1957) 533–613. j. pieper, Fortitude and Temperance, tr. d. f. coogan (New York 1954).