Temperance is the habit of exercising self-discipline and moderation in the pursuit of created goods, particularly in their pursuit for the sake of the pleasure of the senses. Lack of temperance is often the key reason for our lack of virtue in general. In earlier chapters, we discussed the effects of the fall on the affects (i.e. the appetites and emotions), which we call concupiscence. We saw that they no longer respond harmoniously to the rational faculties as they were intended, and this is due to the loss of original grace. The Christian tradition of asceticism (especially fasting and abstinence), and the central importance of such acts in the admonitions of Christian spiritual masters demonstrate that the practice of self-mastery for temperance has long been recognized as essential to the Christian life.
Unfortunately, we live in a society which recognizes the value of asceticism only for the sake of superficial goods (e.g. performance in sports, competitions of bodily vanity [e.g. body building, beauty, etc.], or for one’s appearance in swimsuits, etc.). Temperance as a way of life for the higher goods of virtue and holiness is incomprehensible to a society in which the economy is built upon inducing increasing levels of consumption. Indeed, the phrase “you deserve it,” the mantra of marketers promoting increased consumption, is all the license required for those who already have little incentive to resist their concupiscent inclinations. The lack of temperance is a major contributor to a lack of self-mastery. This in turn promotes selfishness and deprives us from the ability to love heroically. If we do not possess ourselves, we cannot give ourselves away. If we cannot say no to ourselves, we cannot say yes to God or to the authentic good of others.
We should make a clear distinction between temperance and continence. Continence is a virtue, which comes under temperance, by which one can say no to certain pleasurable goods. Continence is necessary for temperance but by itself, it is not temperance. In fact, continence by itself is a lesser virtue than temperance. Continence is saying “no” to some good. Temperance says “no” to the excessive use of that good, but at the same time it says “yes” to the measured use of that good; so, temperance is always first “no, but then “yes.” Continence by itself tends to be weaker because it does not get to the point (by itself) of affirming the goodness of the thing to which it is saying no. One might see the net effect of continence alone in the old potato chip commercial that claimed, “no one can eat just one.” If one can resist eating the potato chips completely, that is an indication that one has at least continence. However, if as soon as one eats one chip, the whole bag is quickly gone it would indicate that continence is all that one has. Temperance is lacking. Temperance comes from reaffirming the good while rejecting the overuse of that good. The temperate man caneat just one.
We must not confuse a temperament for temperance. By temperament, we mean a lack of inclination (or at least an inordinate inclination) toward particular pleasures. For example, some people are not attracted to sweets. Others are simply not particularly attracted to eating in general. This lack of inclination is not the virtue of temperance, though it may be confused for such. If a person is not inclined toward excessive nutritional consumption but cannot say no to other sensible pleasures, such as spending excessive money on the latest fashions, this person does not have the virtue of temperance. Temperance is a virtue that applies to all sensible pleasures, not just one or two.
How does one build temperance? The natural virtue of temperance is built by saying no to the over use of created goods, but at the same time affirming to oneself their goodness. One begins with those goods for which it is easier to say no and builds his ability to say no to those things which are more difficult. As with all of the moral virtues, temperance is training the will to endure with the reasonable choice in the face of affects demanding the sensible pleasures be pursued. Temperance is also built through cooperation with grace, in a manner similar to that which we described for justice. There is also the gift of infused temperance which is gained through the deepening of the spiritual life.