The fifth virtue is the Virtue of Temperance. Temperance or moderation in action is essential to both living well and achieving our purpose in life. Its virtue lies in identifying and policing limits to desire and placing everything in its proper place and proper proportion between excess and deficit. By proper proportion, we mean at a level where the benefits to our families, communities and selves are maximised, and the negatives are minimised, i.e. Aristotle’s golden mean.
This middle path is essential as every desire, if not held within its optimum bounds, can bring harm. It is the same if the desire is deficient as if it is excessive; in both cases, they are harmful. The examples of this are legion. For example, food, while essential to life, if consumed either to excess or conversely not consumed enough, will lead to disease and disability. Work and commerce are also crucial, yet as with food, if too great or too little an emphasis is placed on it, it too can be harmful. Too greater an emphasis on the pursuit of wealth leads to greed and the attendant harms to one’s family and community, while an insufficient focus leads to poverty and the misery that brings.
Temperance involves steering the middle course between excess and deficit, eating well yet not too much or too little. Working hard and building wealth but not to the point where you neglect your family and community, nor working too little and falling into poverty. Importantly, the appropriate limits to everything are different for everyone. The limits for each person differ in their quantity but not the effect. Essentially, temperance is about balancing your desires with your duties and restraining yourself lest you go too far and begin to harm your family or community.
Like the other virtues of Honour, Courage, Honesty and Patience, Temperance relies on the possession of all the other virtues for its own achievement. To know the limits to desire, you must first understand what is right and wrong. Before you can be temperate, you must be honourable. You must also possess the courage to set your own limits even as society champions excess. You must be honest with yourself to admit when you have gone too far, and finally, you must have the patience to persevere with what you know is right and patiently try and try again when you slip.
In this way, temperance forms another step on the path to wisdom, offering a foil to the excesses of the other virtues and counselling restraint. Temperance is a recognition that too greater emphasis on any one thing, no matter how good, is harmful. It reminds us also not to be too rigid and stiff in the implementation of our virtues. Honour is essential, yet if expressed excessively, it appears haughty. While courage, too, if exercised without restraint, is liable to lead to disaster as we recklessly fight unwinnable fights. The same defects can exist in all the other virtues. Tactless or excessive honesty takes the virtue of truthfulness too far and leads to hostility, just as excessive patience leads to inertia and harms your interests through passivity.
Temperance restrains these excesses of virtue, counselling us to moderation and to aligning our actions to those that will best provide for the long-term welfare of our families and communities. To do everything in its optimum measure depending on the situation’s particulars and to succeed with the minimum possible expenditure of time and effort. To practice temperance, we need to seek to walk the middle path between the extremes of life. It is far from an easy path to follow, yet the rewards are great. As Hesiod noted around 700 BC, “Moderation is best in all things”.
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First Published on https://www.andrew-stadtmauer.com/ on the 20th of September 2021