Temperantia: Self-Control as Self-Transcendence
In this paper, I will argue that what the Greek tradition called sophrosyne and the Latin tradition temperantia is a cardinal virtue: a disposition to think, act, and feel in certain ways that is necessary for us to live happy and meaningful human lives. The virtue of temperance, and chastity in particular, has come under increasing suspicion and scrutiny from moral philosophers, particularly those working in the feminist tradition. In large part this is due to an unduly narrow conception of what temperance is or might be, one that is cut off from considerations of human flourishing and the common good. Therefore, while I agree with many aspects of the feminist critique of historical and current cultural ideals of chastity, I will argue that some form of it remains necessary for the establishment and maintenance of a just political order.
I will take the account of temperantia given by Thomas Aquinas as the focus of my discussion. Temperance primarily concerns those activities of life that are necessary for the preservation of human form: eating, drinking, and sexual reproduction. They involve desires that Aquinas says are “most natural to us” because they arise from our most common, intense, and stubborn bodily appetites—those aimed at growth, self-maintenance, and reproduction—and which are naturally pleasing to engage in. Such pleasures are, like the activities with which they are associated, naturally good for human beings as a certain kind of animal, but can become bad when exercised inappropriately—i.e., not in accord with right reason.
By contrast with our impoverished notion of intemperance as mere moderation, Aquinas includes in his discussion of temperance: mercy, anger, cruelty, humility, pride and curiosity. I argue that what unifies the items on this list is the broad human need for an inner order: the constraining of our most intense desires for the sake of the production and maintenance of the common good. The need for inner order expressed by the concept of form is common to all living things; what makes a human being qua rational animal unique is that this order or form is not simply given but must be achieved through the activity of practical reason. We must constitute this order ourselves, and the task can be quite difficult.
Although the achievement of temperance is a turning towards one’s own desires in order to control them, it is nevertheless ultimately oriented towards the creation and maintenance of a just political order, a good that is self-transcendent. Although I am critical of aspects of his account, I will argue that Aquinas was right to think of temperance in terms of self-transcendent reproduction and preservation of human life—a kind of self-transcendent self-control—and intemperance, by contrast, as selfish self-destruction of it.