What is Temperance?

Virtue of TemperanceThis virtue enables our brain to kick in when we are swept away by passion. Passion means that we are taken over by a strong desire that can blind us to other factors we should be considering before we act.

For example, if I am sitting in a restaurant, crazy hungry, and a waiter walks by carrying a plate of food, I may be overwhelmed by a desire to grab the food as it makes its way to another customer. The passion stirred up by low blood sugar has warped my perception: I feel somehow that the person who ordered the food before I arrived is taking it from ME, who needs it NOW.

Temperance is the virtue that restrains me from committing that injustice against the other diner. I wait my turn, no matter how long it takes. Similarly, temperance prevents me, if overwhelmed and blinded by lust, from engaging in illicit sex with someone, no matter how urgent it seems at the time, and no matter how long the craving lasts. When we were babies, we screamed at the top of our lungs when we were hungry. As hungry adults, we can carry on a civilized conversation in a restaurant as aromatic food that is not ours drifts by. The difference between impetuousness and mastery of ourselves is – practice.

Other virtues associated with Temperance have to do with listening to our power of reason when our emotions are stirred up. Our reason is good and our emotions are good – we need to listen to them both!

So let us not be at enmity with ourselves, but change our way of life without delay. St. Hippolytus (ca. 170 – 235)

The right balance = Seeing the sexuality of others in light of their dignity as creatures of God. The paradox is that the more healthy detachment we have, the more authentic love we are able to give and receive. This applies to all, whether married or single.
Too little = Lust, which includes seeing people in terms of “How can this person make me feel good right now?” Such self-centeredness keeps us from authentic love. Adult love wants to sacrifice for the beloved and take enjoyment in the beauty of the whole person, rather than “use” him or her.
Too much = There’s no such thing as too much purity – the more we have, the freer we are to love generously as God loves. Purity enables us to authentically connect with others, which makes us more attractive and more loveable.

The right balance = Moderation in quantity and quality of food consumed. The “right balance” will differ depending on each person and each situation. For example, it would not be loving to refuse to eat some birthday cake at a friend’s party. But it would be a loving gesture to forego eating cake in front of someone who has none.
Too little = Gluttony, which includes overeating and also pickiness about quality of food. If I complain that a salad contains romaine lettuce but no arugula, I have a gluttony problem. Another example would be feeling upset over a slightly overcooked steak such that it takes away from my enjoyment of the friends I am dining with.
Too much = Refraining from eating such that it endangers health. We’ve all heard that fasting is a good spiritual practice, but don’t go to extremes on that unless you have consulted with a spiritual director – sometimes the motive is pride instead of a desire to grow in holiness.

Same as abstinence, but concerning alcoholic drinks. As with food, your decisions will differ depending on the person and situation. Drinking alcohol at a business lunch with your boss may not be a good career move. At an office party, one drink may be the right amount. The “right balance” may be a little higher if you are watching the Superbowl with friends in your own home.

Because our culture puts a high value on the pleasures of sex, eating, and drinking, it’s worth reminding ourselves that overindulgence makes us spiritually blind. Becoming too attached to obtaining these pleasures (a form of addiction, really) draws us into spending time and creativity to obtain them – to the neglect of higher goals, such as friendship with God and generosity to each other.