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Part 4: Temperance

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By Chris Sparks (Feb 22, 2018)
The following is the fourth in a seven-part series on the cardinal and theological virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance, faith, hope, and charity:

Treat yourself.
You deserve it.
Just do it.
If it feels good, do it.
Search your feelings!

Madison Avenue, Hollywood, and the formators of American culture have long been hard at work telling Americans and the world that this shiny thing that they've put in an ad and that you suddenly find yourself wanting for reasons passing understanding ("I don't need it; I don't know what it is or how it works; I don't have room for it, or money, or time, or interest ... oh, look. I just placed an order.") is something you should get because you want it.

Want. Not need. Not even "will be especially satisfied by." Want.

If temperance came back into vogue, this cardinal virtue would be the end of much of the modern economy. Why? Because we live in a consumerist culture, one in which fortunes are often made by catering to concupiscent appetites, rather than by supplying real needs or even legitimate pleasures.

We are meant to play, after all. We are meant to have leisure, to be able to rest and enjoy the life that God has given to us. We are not here on this earth solely for work, not even solely for the work of God. How do we know this? God rested on the seventh day, and commanded that we all do likewise. And when God the Son became incarnate, He slept. He ate. He drank. He spent time with His family and friends, with His disciples and those who loved Him. He was not always working in His humanity, but rather was a temperate man.

Nowadays, many people may hear the word "temperance" and immediately think, "Carrie Nation and her ax! The Temperance Movement! Prohibition!" They imagine that temperance is inseparable from intolerance, that there's something inherently puritanical about it.

Temperance sounds like a maiden aunt in a corset from some novel of early America, with a pinched face and a puckered mouth, disapproving and scolding of everything, but especially of everything that's fun.

Ironically, the Temperance movement and the person who's always opposed to fun aren't temperate at all. Temperance is all about the moderation of appetite, not the denial of it entirely; of telling yourself "no" in order to be able to say "yes."

It's intemperate to snack before dinner; it's temperate to not spoil your appetite.

It's intemperate to stay up all night and so be too exhausted to enjoy a day off; it's temperate to go to bed early in order to spend all day at play.

It's intemperate to drink till you're hungover the next morning; it's temperate to drink to joy in the evening with enough restraint so as not to suffer the next day.

It's intemperate to deny yourself all earthly pleasures in the pursuit of holiness; it's temperate to keep the feasts as well as the fasts of the Church, as Chesterton discusses in The Thing: Why I Am A Catholic, and as St. Faustina models throughout her Diary. We are given ecstasy as well as agony, after all.

Temperance is the great virtue of the moderate middle, of the middle of the narrow road that leads home to Heaven through the narrow gate — a narrowness that leads to the widest, wildest freedom. "Moderation in all things, including moderation," as the saying goes, for temperance is wisdom; temperance is the fruit of prudent discernment of the good and how to obtain it; of knowing how to do justice to the rights and responsibilities, the pleasures and demands of this life; and of the fortitude to do the good that one discerns.

Temperance is constancy, and in an extraordinarily inconstant age — a time of following every wind of fashion, of trending stories and products, of "everyone" saying, or seeing, or doing, of flash mobs and flash market crashes and newsflashes from across the world — the constant, the steady and stable, the temperate, isn't often appreciated nearly the way it should be.

And yet temperance is the mark of the virtuous person, even one open to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and so subject to dancing through life like a leaf on the wind, like St. Francis of Assisi. So let us pray for the constancy in virtue and the moderation in all things that are the marks of the temperate person. Let us ask our Lord and Our Lady for help in becoming temperate, in capping off the other natural virtues with stability in virtue.

View other parts of the 7 Virtues series.

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