Temperence is a Virtue

This holiday week, as many of us are surrounded by lots of food and drink and piles of gifts, is a good time to be reminded that temperence is a virtue.

Temperence is one of the four cardinal virtues. It is the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in our use and enjoyment of the goods of the world. It helps keep our desires of worldly pleasures within the limits of what might be considered reasonable or honorable.

Temperance does not mean one cannot enjoy oneself and it is not about deprivation. Instead it is about something closer to the Buddhist idea of detachment or a Christian or Hindu notion of renunciation rather than it is to deprivation. A Buddhist Lamas used to tell his followers, by all means, enjoy your ice cream cone. Renunciation doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the ice cream; it means you don’t walk around thinking “I have to have the ice cream cone…I need the ice cream cone….If I don’t have the ice cream cone I can’t be happy.” It is not the item that is the problem; it is the attachment to it – the sense that one has to have it – and more and more of it – to be happy.

So temperance is not suppression or repression. (It is not the sisters in the move Babette’s Feast, who Babette cooks for, who rarely laugh, who eat only small amounts of the most basic, bland and tasteless food and never let a drop of alcohol pass their lips.) It is having a different relation to the objects of the world. It stands in sharp contrast to greed and consumerism – the mentality that more is always better. That we cannot be happy unless we have lots and lots of whatever it is we are using as our barometer. It is a quality of being temperate, i.e., exercising moderation and self-restraint; of using what we need and what is helpful.

In its positive, and not its distorted sense, it is a good quality to be reminded of during what can so easily become a time of excess.