In exploring the cardinal virtue of temperance, it is helpful to follow the schema of St. Thomas Aquinas in the Summa Theologiae (II, IIae, qq. 141-170), where he treats it expansively. Because I am summarizing a large amount of material here, I have not included references for each specific point below. Please allow the previous citation of the Summa to serve for the entire post.
Temperance, in its broad sense as a general virtue, disposes us to act in moderation and do what is ordinate or measured. In one sense, temperance is a part of every virtue because “every virtue observes or consists of the mean” (omnis virtus in medio consistit). Virtue is the middle ground between excess and defect, as St. Thomas often notes in the Summa.
In a more specific sense, though, we usually restrict the cardinal virtue of temperance to the virtue that helps us to moderate our appetite for tactile and bodily delights, specifically food, drink, and sexual activity. The senses of taste and touch are especially involved and only to a lesser degree those of sight and hearing, insofar as they present to our intellect the food, drink, or sexual things that must be moderated. Temperance not only controls our pursuit of pleasurable goods; it also helps to curb our distress when we lack them.
As a virtue, temperance stands in the middle of defect and excess:
Insensibility is the defect. It involves an unreasonable rejection of the pleasures associated with preserving our life. Because food, drink, and sexual activity are necessary for our survival either as individuals or as a race, God has associated pleasures with them to assist us in not neglecting them. Rejecting the pleasures associated with them to the extent that they harm our well-being is what is meant by insensibility. Unhealthy fasting would be an example of this.
There are some among us who perpetually abstain from sexual pleasure through virginity and celibacy. This is not to be confused with insensibility because it is not necessary for every person to engage in sexual activity for the human race to survive.
Intemperance is the excess. As the literal opposite of temperance, it consists in the immoderate indulgence of taste and touch through excessive and unreasonable indulgence in food, or drink, or sex. St. Thomas reminds us that intemperance is the most disgraceful of the vices because it indulges those pleasures that man has in common with animals. It also plays a powerful role in dimming the light of our reason (we noted this in our discussion of lust last week).
Just as the seven deadly sins have related sins that spring from them (St. Thomas calls them “daughters”), the virtues have what St. Thomas calls “parts.” These parts are different aspects of the virtue that help us to describe it or see it in action.
- Shamefacedness – This is a passion whereby one recoils from what is disgraceful because of the shame resulting from the consequences of sin. People feel this and fear this most in the face of those they know. One way of avoiding this is to live virtuously. Sadly, some are unashamed not so much due to a lack of virtue but because they are so accustomed to sin that they have lost the normal shame it should bring. Healthy shame should make us recoil from deserved reproach, humiliation, or the loss of our good reputation. In this way it can assist us in moderating or tempering our sinful desires.
- Decorousness (decency) – This is a love of the beauty that virtue brings. Because temperance repels what is most unbecoming in us, namely the indulgence of our lower (or animal-like) desires, it helps us in being decent and possessing that which is beautiful in us, which decorousness desires.
- Abstinence – This refers to refraining from some lawful pleasure or thing entirely or for a specific period of time. It must be ordinate, however, lest it become insensitivity. Because temperance helps us to moderate and have authority over matters of taste and touch, abstinence is a species or subset of temperance.
- Fasting – his refers to refraining from food for a specific timeframe. The same observations and distinctions apply as for abstinence.
- Sobriety – This is the reasonable, moderate use of intoxicating beverages. To be sober indicates a clear mind, rather than one distorted by excessive drink. St. Thomas observes that moderation may need to vary from individual to individual. There are some who do not tolerate alcohol well and may need to refrain entirely. For most, however, drinking in moderation is what is meant by sobriety.
- Chastity – This refers to the virtue by which we “chasten” or rebuke concupiscence. We curb or hold it in control based on our state in life.
- Virginity – This is the perpetual refraining from the use or pleasures of sexual activity. Sex is a necessary and essential good for the propagation of the human race, and though required for people in general, it is not necessary that everyone engage in it. Those who vow themselves to virginity do so in order to be more wholly devoted to the spiritual life.
- Continence – This refers to the general controlling or resisting of lustful desires. It regulates the sexual desires and thereby moderates them.
St. Thomas also notes that certain virtues, though not technically parts of temperance, are aligned with it. These would include virtues such as clemency, meekness, modesty, and studiousness. Clemency and meekness moderate punishment and anger. Modesty observes the “mode” and regulates things such as decorum in clothing, posture, and movement. Studiousness moderates the spiritual appetite for knowledge, permitting it to be neither too weak nor too exclusive in opposition to other goods. It also moderates the tendency toward excessive curiosity, which is the intemperate seeking of knowledge that is not for us to know, is useless, or is the cause of pride.
Finally, St. Thomas notes that the 9th and 10th Commandments forbidding us to covet are directed at temperance. This is because coveting is excessively or inappropriately desiring that which is not ours or is not for us to have. The virtue of temperance greatly assists in the battle to refrain from covetousness.
Temperance is rightly numbered among the cardinal virtues. The word “cardinal” is derived from the Latin cardo/cardin, meaning hinge. Many of the other virtues swing upon the hinges of temperance.
Temperance is a beautiful virtue that rejoices in pleasures by moderating their use and preventing our slavery to them. Pleasure is best enjoyed in freedom.