Temperance: A Cardinal Virtue

Moderation in All Things

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One of the Four Cardinal Virtues

Temperance is one of the four cardinal virtues. As such, it can be practiced by anyone, whether baptized or unbaptized, Christian or not; the cardinal virtues are the outgrowth of habit, unlike the theological virtues, which are the gifts of God through grace.

Temperance, as the Catholic Encylopedia notes, "is concerned with what is difficult for a man, not in so far as he is a rational being precisely, but rather in so far as he is an animal." In other words, temperance is the virtue that helps us control our physical desire for pleasure, which we share with the animals.

In this sense, as Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J., notes in his Modern Catholic Dictionary, temperance corresponds to fortitude, the cardinal virtue that helps us restrain our fears, physical as well as spiritual.

The Fourth of the Cardinal Virtues

St. Thomas Aquinas ranked temperance as the fourth of the cardinal virtues, because temperance serves prudence, justice, and fortitude. The moderation of our own desires is essential to acting rightly (the virtue of prudence), giving each man his due (the virtue of justice), and standing strong in the face of adversity (the virtue of fortitude). Temperance is that virtue which attempts to overcome the overriding condition of our fallen human nature: "The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak" (Mark 14:38).

Temperance in Practice

When we practice the virtue of temperance, we call it by different names, depending upon the physical desire that we are restraining.

The desire for food is natural and good; but when we develop an inordinate desire for food, well beyond that which our body needs, we call that the vice of gluttony. Likewise, the inordinate indulgence in wine or other alcoholic beverages is called drunkenness, and both gluttony and drunkenness are combated by abstinence, which is temperance applied to our desire for food and drink.

(Of course, abstinence can be taken too far, to the point of physical harm, and in such cases it is actually the opposite of temperance, which consists of moderation in all things.)

Similarly, while we receive pleasure from sexual intercourse, the desire for that pleasure outside of its proper bounds—that is, outside of marriage, or even inside marriage, when we are not open to the possibility of procreation—is called lust. The practice of temperance regarding sexual pleasure is called chastity.

Temperance is primarily concerned with the control of the desires of the flesh, but when it manifests itself as modesty, it can also restrain the desires of the spirit, such as pride. In all cases, the practice of temperance requires the balancing of legitimate goods against an inordinate desire for them.

The Other Cardinal Virtues

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Richert, Scott P. "Temperance: A Cardinal Virtue." ThoughtCo, Aug. 29, 2016, thoughtco.com/temperance-a-cardinal-virtue-542135. Richert, Scott P. (2016, August 29). Temperance: A Cardinal Virtue. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/temperance-a-cardinal-virtue-542135 Richert, Scott P. "Temperance: A Cardinal Virtue." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/temperance-a-cardinal-virtue-542135 (accessed November 25, 2017).