Monday, June 3, 2013


Temperance is the fourth cardinal virtue in the Christian tradition (the other three, addressed in previous Ethical Musings posts, are courage, prudence, and justice). Let's be clear: Temperance does not denote abstinence. The movement opposed to consuming alcoholic beverages, also known as the Temperance movement, has shanghaied a great concept, and debased it by taking it to an extreme (cf. Ethical Musings And God made wine to make us glad).

As with all of the moral virtues, except justice, Aristotle defined temperance as the mean, with respect to physical pleasures, between the deficit of insensibility and the excess of self-indulgence. Thus, for example, the person who abstains from consuming all alcoholic beverages other than for health reasons (which may include a spiritual discipline) is insensible to physical pleasure; the person who drinks to excess, whether on sporadic binges or daily (though not the addict, who suffers from a health rather than a moral problem), is self-indulgent.

Both the insensible and the self-indulgent person fall short of the abundant life. The insensible person needlessly foregoes some of life's pleasures. God created humans as physical beings and gave us good things (e.g., food, drink, and sex) to enjoy.

Conversely, the self-indulgent person becomes numb to nominally good things through excessive consumption. This is readily apparent in the case of the self-indulgent eater for whom obesity brings a diminished quality of life through degraded health, mobility, and self-image. A senior Sailor with whom I worked pushed hard for a transfer to an overseas port known for its affordable, numerous prostitutes, and brothels. He eventually succeeded in obtaining the transfer. A ship I was aboard visited the Navy base in that port about a year later. I chanced to encounter the Sailor. He was a changed man. In response to my asking what had happened, he replied that months of self-indulgence had left him empty, lonely, and depressed. So, he had quit the life of self-indulgence, found a woman he thought he loved, and settled into what he hoped would become a permanent relationship.

St. Thomas Aquinas, who followed Aristotle's lead in defining the virtues as the mean between two extremes, broadened the concept of temperance to include moderation in most things. Aquinas taught that in addition to justice, one could not have too much of any of the three theological virtues, that is, faith, hope, and love.

I disagree. I think one can have too much of all three. Too much faith leaves no room for doubt, which excludes the possibility of growth, presumes that one knows the complete truth, and gives rise to a pride that precludes humility. Too much hope equates to an unbridled optimism that causes a person to misjudge the trustworthiness of others, to fail to plan for adverse outcomes, and to have difficulties coping when bad things do happen.

I doubt that we can have too much love for God. However, we can have too much love for another person. A love too focused on the other person eventually experiences difficulties because love flourishes best between people who are of equal worth; focusing love on the other tacitly implies that the lover is of less value. Excessive love, for example, often causes an abused person to remain with the abuser, wrongly convinced that only the abuser can, or will, love the abused.

The idea of the Golden Mean is foundational for Confucian ethics. Consequently, it was no surprise to read this teaching in The Lost Sutras of Jesus: Unlocking the Ancient Wisdom of the Xian Monks, a recently discovered document allegedly written by some of the very first Christians in China:

The golden mean, 'Act toward others as you would have them act toward you,' expresses the mysterious fact that we are all profoundly dependent on one another, all mirrors of each other, and all somehow participants in the same life. This is not just moral principle; it is the secret to living with joy and pleasure. (Thomas Moore and Ray Riegert, p. 71)

Together, developing the four cardinal virtues point the way toward the abundant life, human flourishing as God's children.

No comments: