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St. Thomas on Temperance And Intemperance, Discipline And Dissoluteness

January 20, 2010

Josef Pieper

Josef Pieper in The Four Cardinal Virtues deals with Temperance last. This is the cardinal virtue under which chastity is subsumed and one that has occupied a great deal of my attention. Pieper went to Aquinas to consider the virtues because he felt that in Aquinas one encountered the most disciplined, dynamic and penetrating independent thinking — yet a kind of thinking that spoke less to the individual writer, meaning Thomas himself, than to a great tradition of wisdom itself. That wisdom shines through in this post and it is one I am presently reflecting greatly upon.

Temperance and Moderation
WHAT HAVE THE WORDS “temperance” and “moderation” come to mean in today’s parlance?

The meaning of “temperance” has dwindled miserably- to the crude significance of “temperateness in eating and drinking.” We may add that this term is applied chiefly, if not exclusively, to the designation of mere quantity, just as “intemperance” seems to indicate only excess. Needless to say, “temperance” limited to this meaning cannot even remotely hint at the true nature of temperantia, to say nothing of expressing its full content. Temperantia has a wider significance and a higher rank: it is a cardinal virtue, one of the four hinges on which swings the gate of life.

Nor does “moderation” correspond to the meaning and rank of temperantia. Moderation mainly relates to admonishing the wrathful to moderate their anger. Though the moderation of anger belongs to the realm of temperantia, it is only a part of it. If we leave the tepid atmosphere of a moral theology mistrustful of all passion to enter the more realistic and bracing climate of the Summa Theologica, we find, surprisingly, that the passio of anger is defended rather than condemned.

Further: the current concept of moderation is dangerously close to fear of any exuberance. We all know that the term “prudent moderation” tends to crop up when the love of truth or some other generous impulse threatens to take an extreme risk. This emasculated concept of moderation has no place in a doctrine which asserts that the love of God — fountainhead of all virtues — knows neither mean nor measure. “Moderation,” also, is too negative in its implication and signifies too exclusively restriction, curtailment, curbing, bridling, repression — all again in contradiction to the classic prototype of the fourth cardinal virtue.

A study of the linguistic meaning of the Greek term, sophrosyne, and of the Latin temperantia reveals a much wider range of significance. The original meaning of the Greek word embraces “directing reason” in the widest sense. And the Latin stays close to this far-ranging significance. In St. Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians (12, 24f) we read: Deus temperavit corpus. “Thus God has established a harmony in the body, giving special honor to that which needed it most. There was to be no want of unity in the body; all the different parts of were to make each other’s welfare their common care” The primary and essential meaning of temperare, therefore, is this: to dispose various parts into one unified and ordered whole

Selfless Self-Preservation
AQUINAS SAYS THAT the second meaning of temperance is “serenity of the spirit” (quies animi).  It is obvious that this proposition does not imply a purely subjective state of mental calm or the tranquil satisfaction which is the by-product of an unassuming, leisurely life in a narrow circle. Nor does it mean a mere absence of irritation, or dispassionate equanimity. All this need not go deeper than the surface of the intellectual and spiritual life. What is meant is the serenity that fills the inmost recesses of the human being, and is the seal and fruit of order. The purpose and goal of temperantia is man’s inner order, from which alone this “serenity of spirit” can flow forth. “Temperance” signifies the realizing of this order within oneself.

Temperantia is distinguished from the other cardinal virtues by the fact that it refers exclusively to the active man himself. Prudence looks to all existent reality; justice to the fellow man; the man of fortitude relinquishes, in self-forgetfulness, his own possessions and his life. Temperance, on the other hand, aims at each man himself. Temperance implies that man should look to himself and his condition, that his vision and his will should be focused on himself. That notion that the primordial images of all things reside in God has been applied by Aquinas to the cardinal virtues also: the primordial divine mode of teniperantia, he states, is the “turning of the Divine Spirit to Itself.”

For man there are two modes of this turning toward the self: a selfless and a selfish one. Only the former makes for self-preservation; the latter is destructive. In modern psychology we find this thought: genuine self-preservation is the turning of man toward himself, with the essential stipulation, however, that in this movement he does not become fixed upon himself. (“Whoever fixes his eyes upon himself gives no light.”) Temperance is selfless self-preservation. intemperance is self-destruction through the selfish degradation of the powers which aim at self-preservation.

It is a commonplace though nonetheless mysterious truth that man’s inner order — unlike that of the crystal, the flower, or the animal — is not a simply given and self-evident reality, but rather that the same forces from which human existence derives its being can Upset that inner order to the point of destroying the spiritual and moral person. That this cleavage in human nature (provided we do not try to persuade ourselves that it does not exist) finds its explanation only in the acceptance by faith of the revealed truth of original sin, is too vast a subject to be discussed here. It seems necessary, however, to consider more closely the structure of that inner order and disorder.

Most difficult to grasp is the fact that it is indeed the essential human self that is capable of throwing itself into disorder to the point of self-destruction. For man is not really a battlefield of conflicting forces and impulses which conquer one another; and if we say that the sensuality “in us” gets the better of our reason, this is only a vague and metaphorical manner of speaking. Rather it is always our single self that is chaste or unchaste, temperate or intemperate, self-preserving or self-destructive. It is always the decisive center of the whole, indivisible person by which the inner order is upheld or upset. “It is not the good my will preserves, but the evil my will disapproves, that I find myself doing” (Romans 7:19).

Also, the very powers of the human being which most readily appear as the essential powers of self-preservation self-assertion, and self-fulfillment are at the same time the first to work the opposite: the self-destruction of the moral person. In the Summa Theologica we find the almost uncanny formulation: the powers whose ordering is the function of temperance “can most easily bring unrest to the spirit, because they belong to the essence of man.”

But how can it be that the very powers of self-preservation are so close to becoming destructive? How can it be that the man who seeks himself can miss himself in his very seeking? And how, on the other hand, can self-love be selfless?

A narrow gap of understanding is wedged open by a proposition of St. Thomas’s, which may confidently be called the basis of a metaphysical philosophy of active man. It states that to love God more than himself is in accordance with the natural being of man, as of every creature, and with his will as well.

Consequently, the offense against the love of God derives its self-destructive sharpness from the fact that it is likewise in conflict with the nature and the natural will of man himself. If he loves nothing so much as himself, man misses and perverts, with inner necessity, the purpose inherent in self-love as in all love: to preserve, to make real, to fulfill. This purpose is given only to selfless self-love, which seeks not itself blindly, but with open eyes endeavors to correspond to the true reality of God, the self, and the world.

The force of this metaphysical truth formulated by Aquinas strikes so deep that, in a sense, it becomes even nonsensical to desire the preservation of the inner order for its own sake and consequently to will even genuine self-preservation as such. (That the temperantia of the miser, who shuns debauchery because of its expense, is, as Aquinas says, no virtue, need hardly be mentioned.)

It is known how little, for example, a medical directive alone can do to establish true inner discipline; not unjustly has it been said of psychotherapy unrelated to either religion or metaphysics that it tends to produce an “anxiously fostered middle-class tranquility, poisoned by its triteness,” — a result which evidently has nothing to do with the essential serenity of genuine temperance. This failure is no accident, but rather an inevitable consequence. The discipline of temperance cannot be realized with a view to man alone.

The discipline of temperance, understood as selfless self-preservation, is the saving and defending realization of the inner order of man. For temperance not only preserves, it also defends: indeed, it preserves by defending. For since the first sin man has been not only capable of loving himself more than he loves God his Creator but, contrary to his own nature, inclined to do so. The discipline of temperance defends him against all selfish perversion of the inner order, through which alone the moral person exists and lives effectively.

Wherever forces of self-preservation, self-assertion, self-fulfillment, destroy the structure of man’s inner being, the discipline of temperance and the license of intemperance enter into play.

The natural urge toward sensual enjoyment, manifested in delight in food and drink and sexual pleasure, is the echo and mirror of man’s strongest natural forces of self-preservation. The basic forms of enjoyment correspond to these most primordial forces of being, which tend to preserve the individual man, as well as the whole race, in the existence for which he was created (Wisdom 1:14). But for the very reason that these forces are closely allied to the deepest human urge toward being, they exceed all other powers of mankind in their destructive violence once they degenerate into selfishness.

Therefore, we find here the actual province of temperantia: temperateness and chastity, intemperateness and unchastity, are the primordial forms of the discipline of temperance and the license of intemperance.

But we have not, as yet, fully explored the range of the concept of temperantia — in “humility,” the instinctive urge to self-assertion can also be made serviceable to genuine self-preservation, but it can likewise pervert and miss this purpose in “pride” — And if the natural desire of man to avenge an injustice which he has suffered and to restore his rights explodes in uncontrollable fury, it destroys that which can be preserved only by “gentleness” and “mildness.” Without rational self-restraint even the natural hunger for sense perception or for knowledge can degenerate into a destructive and pathological compulsive greed; this degradation Aquinas calls curiositas, the disciplined mode studiositas.

To sum up: chastity, continence, humility, gentleness, mildness, studiositas, are modes of realization of the discipline of temperance; unchastity, incontinence, pride, uninhibited wrath, curiositas, are forms of intemperance.

Why is it that one reacts with involuntary irritation to these terms which express the essence of temperance and intemperance, discipline and dissoluteness? Since it can hardly be caused by resistance to the good, this irritation must stem from the thick tangle of misinterpretations which covers and smothers each one of these concepts. This mesh of misinterpretations has its roots in a distortion and falsification of man’s ideal image which we can properly term demonic, all the more so since Christians and non-Christians alike regard them as characteristics of the Christian image of man. Worse, the root cause is not just a misconceived image of the good man, but a misconceived view of created reality. Temperantia is intimately related to the ordered structure of the being of man, in which all gradations of creation unite; as the history of heresy shows, it is quite particularly in the sphere of temperantia that the attitude toward creation and “the world” is most incisively decided.

The attempt to reconstitute the genuine and original meaning of temperantia and its various modes of realization must embrace a variety of tasks. It will have to go beyond the strict limits of the subject, in order to anchor the true image of this virtue in the fundamentals of Christian teaching concerning man and reality.

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