The Cardinal Virtue of Temperance
Many years ago, I lived in Evanston, Illinois, home of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. It was the early 1980s, and the strong but waning power of that organization was evident in that this college town was still dry. One could walk past their headquarters and see the ladies in long dresses at their social events. At the time, I found it surprising that any form of the temperance movement was still alive after the 1960s, but there they were in their splendid Victorian manor.
Those in the twentieth century’s temperance movement were modern Gnostics. They believed that the world was intrinsically evil and that the things of the world were to be avoided. In this belief, they mistook the cardinal virtue of temperance for abstinence.
The virtue of temperance assumes that the world is good. It is God’s creation, and it is he who said that “it is good” (Gen. 1:31). However, anything in the world can be over-consumed and perverted into a bad thing. Too much drink leads to drunkenness; too much food leads to gluttony. God gave us a day of rest, but too much rest leads to idleness. But too much work can distract us from enjoying the beauty of creation. Anything good can be twisted (as every good heretic knows).
The desert fathers teach us that even too much prayer can be a bad thing. It is written that John the Vertically Challenged Person (as he is referred to in modern lexicons, John the Dwarf in older texts) once decided to spend his life entirely in prayer. So he left his brother monks and his labors and went to live in the wilderness, where he could devote himself entirely to contemplating the mysteries of God and praying ceaselessly. One evening a few days later, a voice was heard outside the locked door of the monks’ residence. “It’s John, let me in. I’m hungry.” His brothers pretended not to recognize his voice and replied, “John? John’s not here. He went to live with the angels.” They made him sleep outside until he was humbled and willing to join them in the necessary work of the monastery. By this example we learn that temperance is even required in prayer.
The Apostle Paul described temperance as one of the fruits of the Spirit. Compared to love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, and meekness, the fruit of temperance may sound out of place. But it is a virtue often mentioned by Paul. In his Epistle to Titus, he wrote that a bishop must be “blameless, as the steward of God; not self-willed, not soon angry, not given to wine, no striker, not given to filthy lucre; but a lover of hospitality, a lover of good men, sober, just, holy, temperate” (1:7–8), and that aged men should be “sober, grave, temperate, sound in faith, in charity, in patience” (2:2). Being temperate in character (as Luke described Paul when he spoke to Felix in Acts 24:25) is one of the four cardinal virtues. It is to do nothing in excess, neither speaking, nor eating, nor drinking, nor playing, nor working. It requires watchfulness of how we carry ourselves, how we spend our time, how we meet the needs of our body—in short, how we live in this world. We should be temperate in all things except our faith, our hope, and our love.
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“The Cardinal Virtue of Temperance” first appeared in the October 2001 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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