Tuesday, June 04, 2002

All things in moderation, even moderation

Temperance has gotten a bad reputation.

Thanks to the efforts of well-intended but apparently illiterate Christians in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Temperance has come to be equated with abstention from alcohol. I say apparently illiterate because: a) temperance and abstinence have very different meanings, as any dictionary would have told them; and, b) Christ’s first miracle was to make sure there was enough wine at a wedding, hardly the act of a person who disapproves of alcohol as such. If you don’t believe me, try doing a Google search on the word, and see how many hits take you to the Summa Theologica.

But Temperance is so much more than mere abstention from alcohol. Indeed, a case can be very easily made that the so-called “Temperance Movement” was utterly intemperate, inasmuch as the objection to alcohol became an absolute enforced by a kind of dictatorial hysteria.

For Aquinas, Temperance is the virtue that causes one to act against passion, or to restrain it. The latin verb temperare means to obey, or to control, and so to lose one’s temper is to lose control. Thus, any unregulated passion is inherently intemperate, and any virtue can easily become a vice if given free rein.

This shows up in a lot of ways. Those who believe others are unfaithful create the Spanish Inquisition. Those who see others as selfish establish confiscatory taxes. Those who defend victims of racism become racists. And so forth. In the case of alcohol, those who do not drink go from advocating abstinence to requiring to enforcing it. For them, temperance itself becomes gluttony.

What Temperance really means is using reason to subdue the emotions. It is the power of will to control passion, to control anger, lust, desire, and so forth. It is St. Paul’s “love of money is the root of all evil.” Gluttony is the inordinate pursuit of any material or created thing to the exclusion of the Creator, and Temperance is the act of the will by which we subdue it.

More on this later.


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