Today, we meet the last, and perhaps most misunderstood, of the four classical virtues. Because it is much maligned, we will spend a couple of days working with it.
Temperance (sophrosyne in Greek) is the practice of moderation. It was one of the four cardinal virtues held to be vital to society in Hellenic culture. Classically, temperance was defined as the governing of natural appetites, the balance between the pleasure of senses within the bounds of reason.
As with the other virtues, its inclusion is necessary, since no other virtue could be sustained in the face of the inability to control oneself. In other words, the cardinal virtues are those which are so closely intertwined that all must be present for the others to function. This is why, as I mentioned last week, “cardinal” signifies “pivotal.”
Today, many associate the word temperance with the Temperance Movement, which was not temperate at all. It sought a complete and total prohibition on alcohol, rather than the temperate use of spirits. True temperance shuns extremism and would have, instead, encouraged moderation.
Our Greek ancestors, upon whose principles much in our culture is based, considered temperance and moderation a fundamental principle of life. In ancient Greece, the temple of Apollo at Delphi bore the inscription Meden Agan – ‘Nothing in excess.’
Sounds pretty dull doesn’t it? Yet when Benjamin Franklin (hardly a dull character!) began his pursuit of the virtuous life, it was this virtue he chose to develop first because, “it tends to procure that coolness and clearness of head, which is so necessary where constant vigilance [needs to] be kept up, and guard maintained against the unremitting attraction of ancient habits, and the force of perpetual temptations.”
In other words, like the Greeks, he too recognized that first attaining self-discipline over the most primal of urges, is necessary for the development and adherence to the other virtues; a clear mind and a healthy body are basic prerequisites to any pursuit of a virtuous life. He also realized that if we can gain self-discipline over our most basic appetites, we will have the confidence to work up from there.
Notably, although he made temperance the foundational virtue for the pursuit of all others, Ben Franklin would have been the last person to go along with the later Temperance Movement, which sought the prohibition of alcohol.
After all, although he is popularly misquoted as referring to beer, Franklin wrote to his friend André Morellet in 1779, “Behold the rain which descends from heaven upon our vineyards, there it enters the roots of the vines, to be changed into wine, a constant proof that God loves us, and loves to see us happy.”