This, the third of the ‘Cardinal’ virtues, is on temperance. This is a big one, and very important. Many of us like to use the phrase ‘moderation is the key’ or some such. Partially, this is true. Temperance, however, seems to go a bit deeper and touches many areas of life.
C.S. Lewis in “Mere Christianity” writes, “One great piece of mischief has been done by the modern restriction of the word Temperance to the question of drink. (One could observe that in our time the thought of Temperance should be removed from thinking for some would imply that it would seek to limit our freedom. Italics: mine) It helps people to forget that you can be just as intemperate about lots of other things. A man who makes his golf or his motor-bicycle the center of his life, or a woman who devotes all her thoughts to clothes or bridge or her “do,” is being just as ‘intemperate’ as someone who gets drunk every evening. Of course, it does not show on the outside so easily: bridge-mania or golf-mania does not make you fall down in the middle of the road. But God is not deceived by externals.” Here Lewis may use some things from his day but we can certainly identify habits that we have acquired along the way in which we have been intemperate. It’s easier to look at something like the ‘drink’ and observe the sin. However, we cannot as easily see how, perhaps hours in the gym, or planning our day around the gym might be the same spiritual malaise. Some are easier to deceive ourselves over.
In Gerhard Reed’s book, which we have been quoting from, he subtitles Temperance as, “Going the right length”. Temperance, he says, is not about abstaining, “but going the right length and going no further.” “Temperance (derived from the Latin word temperare—‘to mix together in due proportions’) helps us practice moderation and restraint. Temperance applies to all of life and rightly orders everything in its proper place. Augustine said, ‘The function of temperance is to control and quell the desires which draw us to the things which withdraw us from the laws of God and from the fruit of His goodness…’”
Other aspects of temperance might include words such as balance, harmony and self-discipline. Reed says, “So temperance means to arrange and orchestrate the workings of the body’s parts, enabling it to function correctly.” Temperance, though, does not limit human freedom but rather helps us orchestrate how we enjoy the pleasures of life for maximum freedom, rather than ultimate bondage. The reality of the movements of our age for the ‘freedom to do whatever we want’ is the kind of freedom that goes beyond right proportions and exalts unlimited mis-use of the good. True temperance, then, requires strength. Reed writes, “Rather often our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak.’ (Lewis quote) There’s a temper, a strength, to temperance.”
Temperance, Reed writes, allows us to “appropriately enjoy the good things…, to rightly consume what creation affords. Whether eating or drinking, sleeping or jogging, all we do should have a balance to it. The healthy life—the holy life—is a life of self-control, moderation, temperance. The purity of a holy life emerges through the tempering process wrought by the Holy Spirit on our spirits.” He later goes on to say that temperance is seeking self-preservation. By this he means that temperance helps us set limits by ‘going the right length’ as we journey in knowing God. “Unlike ‘self-esteem,’ temperance seeks self-preservation in a selfless fashion. We seek to preserve our being out of gratitude to God who is the source of all.’