Living simply: the contemporary relevance of the virtue of temperance

Filed in Ethics by on August 10, 2015 0 Comments


Laudato Si’ challenges us to live a simpler lifestyle. In this, Pope Francis follows the teaching of his two predecessors. St John Paul II wrote:

Simplicity, moderation and discipline, as well as a spirit of sacrifice, must become a part of everyday life, lest all suffer the negative consequences of the careless habits of a few

And Benedict XVI echoed this:

The way humanity treats the environment influences the way it treats itself, and vice versa. This invites contemporary society to a serious review of its life-style, which, in many parts of the world, is prone to hedonism and consumerism, regardless of their harmful consequences. What is needed is an effective shift in mentality which can lead to the adoption of new life-styles.

The cardinal virtue that we need for this has been central to the Church’s tradition, but in recent centuries we have rather ignored it. The word for it in Latin is temperantia. ‘Temperance’ sounds rather dull, so to make it more exciting, I once wrote an article about chocolate instead. If you are interested in Laudato Si’, you might like to read it. The full article is re-posted here.


A boring virtue?

‘Justice is, or ought to be, an exciting topic: temperance is not,’ wrote Peter Geach, describing the latter as a ‘humdrum, commonsense matter’ (The Virtues, p.131). For Geach, temperateness is a bit like car maintenance: it enables us to keep our bodies healthy and our minds free from trivial distractions so that we can get on with the bigger things in life. If I overeat or have a hangover, no one will lose out except me. Justice is interesting because it affects other people, but temperateness, the philosophers have argued, is not a social virtue.

Temperateness appears unsocial, and therefore boring; so I decided to write about chocolate instead. Let chocolate then stand for all those material goods that give us pleasure, and that we are constantly being tempted to want more of. If you happen to be one of the rare few who hate the stuff, then instead of chocolate think of wine or computer games or designer jeans. Most of us, I suspect, would accept one journalist’s description of chocolate as ‘sophisticated, scrumptious, soothing and sublime.’ At any rate, we in the UK consume over 700,000 tonnes of it a year, at a price of over five billion pounds. According to the psychologists, we crave it more than we crave any other food. We integrate it into every aspect of our lives: from the mugs of cocoa shared round the family fireplace on a winter’s afternoon to the dark chocolate heart enclosed in a velvet box on the feast of  Saint Valentine, the products of the cocoa bean stand for kindness and for courtesy, for security and for seduction. There is nothing unsocial about this. Perhaps, then, with the help of St Thomas, we should look more closely at the virtue we use when we eat chocolate wisely, to see if it is really as private and as unglamorous as its reputation.

According to Aquinas, temperantia deals primarily with good things such as food, drink and sex. He defines it as follows: ‘It is the role of temperateness, primarily and strictly speaking, to moderate the desires for the delights of touch’ – in which he includes taste – ‘and then other desires’ (Summa Theologiae 2a2ae.141.4 ad 1). It is important to realise that when St Thomas talks of moderating the desires, he does not mean controlling them. Following Aristotle, he makes an important distinction between having excessive or inappropriate desires which you successfully struggle to keep under control – gritting your teeth as you refuse the second slice of gateau – and having the appropriate desires in the first place, so that you only want the right amount. The first is an example of continentia, which we might translate as ‘self-control’. To have self-control is better than not to have it; better still, however, is to move on from being self-controlled to being genuinely temperate, and not wanting the second slice of cake in the first place. If you are temperate about chocolate, then, you will want the right amount of it – neither too much nor too little – at the right time. What counts as the right amount is what is reasonable; the desires of a temperate person work with rather than against their reason. To learn to be temperate is to train your desires to harmonise with your better judgement.

Why we need chocolate

This is where it gets tricky. How do you judge what is reasonable? What is a reasonable way to desire chocolate, or other material goods for that matter? Aquinas answers by considering what material things are for: ‘All pleasurable things which are there for human use are ordered as their goal towards some need of this life. Therefore, temperateness takes the needs of this life as a rule by which to use pleasurable things, so that it makes use of them just as much as the needs of this life demand’ (ST 2a.2ae.141.6). On this view, we should eat and drink as much as we need. But what do we need chocolate for? Why do we buy and eat chocolate?

The answer turns out to be quite complicated. Sometimes, though less often than we think, for the pure pleasure of savouring the stuff. Sometimes, because we are hungry. Sometimes, to be polite or to be sociable. Sometimes, for romance: ‘and all because the lady loves Milk Tray’. The advertisers, of course, understand the subtlety of all this: each product, from the humble bar of Cadbury’s Fruit and Nut to the Aphrodite Chocolates available from La Dolce V for a mere thirty dollars a box, is carefully directed to a different type of desire.

Unlimited desires

‘Temperateness takes the needs of this life as a rule by which to use pleasurable things.’ But when our lives have become so complex, how do we begin to apply such a rule? Etiquette and status, courtship and camaraderie – do these count as needs? And if so, can they justify any amount of expense or self-indulgence? In the thirteenth century, life was simpler, and temperateness was a correspondingly straightforward virtue. Aquinas could take it for granted that for most people the strongest obstacles to temperateness were the ordinary temptations of the flesh: gluttony, drunkenness and fornication. The proper limits to eating and drinking were set by what was healthy. The mechanisms of our economy, by contrast, are designed to stimulate a host of other desires. J.K.Galbraith documented these mechanisms acutely in his book The Affluent Society, written in 1958. He comments as follows on the artificial generation of demand:

Were it so that a man on arising each morning was assailed by demons which instilled in him a passion sometimes for silk shirts, sometimes for kitchenware, sometimes for chamber pots, and sometimes for orange squash, there would be every reason to applaud the effort to find the goods, however odd, that quenched this flame. But should it be that his passion was the result of his first having cultivated the demons, and should it be that his effort to allay it stirred the demons to ever greater and greater effort, there would be question as to how rational was his solution. Unless restrained by conventional attitudes, he might wonder if the solution lay with more goods or fewer demons (p.127).

The fact that Galbraith’s examples now seem quaintly old-fashioned reinforces the point. Can we even remember the days when it was orange squash that we craved? Our natural bodily desires have remained relatively stable over the centuries: the temptations to eat too much beef or drink too much beer were probably much the same in Aquinas’ day. The advertisers, therefore, work instead on our minds and arouse our desires by associating them with image and fashion. That is the only way to make sure that we shall never be satisfied.

There was one thing at least in the thirteenth century which could be the object of unlimited desire, and that was money. St Thomas deals with this in discussing the virtue of liberality, which he counts as part of justice. The liberal person wants to have the the right amount of money; someone who is avaricious, like the modern consumer, always wants more. Why does this happen, Thomas asks? It is because he or she makes a simple mistake about money, and forgets that its purpose is to be a means to something else. Once you treat money as an end and not a means, there are no limits to how much of the stuff you can want. All you need to do to become a miser is to forget the question, ‘Why?’ The consumer society works in just the same way. Advertising aims to break the link between goods and their real purpose: the car is no longer for getting to work, but rather for attracting nubile young women, or racing across empty deserts, or making your peers jealous. It is crucial for the system to break the link with reality, for that is the only way that we can be constantly manipulated. Our defence against the system is to keep asking ourselves, ‘What is this really for?’ A temperate person, according to St Thomas, is someone whose desires are in harmony rather than in conflict with reason. One of reason’s most important tasks is to see through the illusions that constantly inflate our desires, so that we can distinguish false goods from genuine.

Necessities and decencies

At this point, a puritan might object: how can you possibly treat puddings or presents as needs? Surely the ‘needs of this life’ are simply the things that keep us alive. If so, that is bad news for chocolate lovers, since the most ardent chocoholic could scarcely claim that abstinence would prove fatal. Fortunately for most of us, St Thomas recognised clearly that if we live in society bare subsistence will not be enough. He identified a second level of need, the convenientia vitae, which we might translate as ‘the decencies of human living’ (see ST 2a.2ae.141.6 ad 2). We may make use of certain goods not just in order to keep healthy, but also to maintain a lifestyle in keeping with our responsibilities and our social standing: a knight needs his horse and his sword.

Aquinas himself was born in a castle, the son of a Count, and lived in a highly stratified society. Our own instincts tend to be more democratic, and the radicals among us may want to insist that the Gospel requires us to treat every person with equal dignity in very practical ways. Even so, it make sense to acknowledge that different roles and different vocations mean that individuals need different possessions. A pianist needs a piano and a doctor a car in a way that may not be true of someone else. Similarly, the parents of three children actually need a bigger house and a bigger income than someone who is single. Moreover, in different societies, we need different things in order to live at a level that is comfortable without being extravagant. It just seems to be true, for example, that in one society children who walk six miles barefoot to school are privileged, whereas in another they would be deprived. There, a standpipe is a luxury; here, we can say without exaggeration, we would be in poverty without a private bathroom. The ‘decencies of human living’ are different in different contexts, or so it appears.

Here we might start to feel uneasy: this looks like special pleading on the part of the rich (that is, most of us). It would be more convincing if we were hearing it from the people who do not wear shoes. In particular, this defence of our privileges seems to be infinitely elastic; for all of us know that yesterday’s luxuries become the basic needs of tomorrow. Aquinas was aware of the temptation to expand what counts as a ‘decent’ lifestyle, and he discusses it in the context of almsgiving. If we have superfluous goods, he argues, we ought to use these to give alms (ST 2a.2ae.32.6). But what counts as ‘superfluous’? Here, St Thomas brings in his distinction between necessities and decencies. There is no obligation, he thinks, to give so much away that we cannot live ‘in keeping with our status’. (The exception is when we are dealing with cases of extreme and urgent need: if someone is dying, we ought to sacrifice even goods of this sort in order to save them.)

Aquinas recognised a degree of flexibility in what counted as ‘enough’ (ST 2a2ae.32.6). Our own culture is constantly pressing us to stretch this; indeed, we find ourselves having to make excuses if we do not. It becomes hard to take a stand against consumerism without taking a stand against the very people with whom we share our lives. The most subtly ruthless advert that I have ever seen was for soap powder; it pictured a football team with ten sparklingly clean little boys, and an eleventh with a shabby strip and a tear-stained face. The caption read, ‘Guess whose mother doesn’t use —–’. No mother wants her little boy to feel like that. No mother wants to feel like that herself. So of course we give in again and again to the pressure to conform; for otherwise we will appear not only eccentric, but rude and even heartless. In a society that despises simplicity, the virtue of temperateness can seem not so much humdrum as impossibly, and ambiguously, heroic.

To sum up my discussion so far: the desires of a temperate person accord with what is reasonable. Because our relation to material goods has become more complex, the task of reason has become more challenging. First, it must deal with more than simply natural desires, and identify what is an appropriate limit on something potentially unlimited. Secondly, it must deal with a constant collective pressure to raise what counts as a decent standard of living. This matters, according to Aquinas, because as Christians we are required by charity to give out of what we do not need to those who are in need. In order to do this, we have to make some distinction between a decent and an extravagant style of life.

The limits of justice

Finally, reason will need to take into account the biggest shift of all between the thirteenth century and the present day. The material goods that we in Britain now enjoy are the products of the labour of peoples all over the globe; most of our food is grown on other people’s land. St Thomas held that the appropriate limits to our desires should be set by what is reasonable. Nowadays, we cannot know what is reasonable without considering where our goods come from and how they get to us. Chocolate provides a neat example of the complexity of this. Cocoa production has been one of the major reasons for destroying virgin rainforest, in South America and in Africa; the industry has also been criticised for abusing the labour of children. In recent years, however, some farmers have been growing chocolate on mixed plantations which preserve much of the ecological richness of the original forests. Environmentalists now see this type of farming as a possible way of preserving the forest. The problem the farmers face, however, is that chocolate is no longer profitable. We consumers are not prepared to pay a fair price for what we enjoy.

The level and the kind of material possessions that it is reasonable for us to desire is limited, then, by justice, both social and environmental. If Supasnack bars are made by a company that abuses its workers, it would be better not to crave Supasnack. If cheap chocolate is destroying irreplaceable habitats, then we ought to be willing to eat less and pay more. The complex interactions of our modern world mean that temperateness and justice are more closely intertwined than Aquinas could ever have imagined.

A thoroughly social virtue

Chocolate, along with most consumer goods, is thoroughly social in its significance. Perhaps we should not be surprised, then, if temperateness, the virtue that moderates our desire for chocolate, turns out to be social as well, and in several different ways. First, in its origins. We need to be educated into temperateness through the training of our desires, and such education begins in early childhood. At any rate, it is much harder for adults who have been over-indulged as children to acquire temperateness later in life. Our families are our first teachers, and every parent knows the insidious pressures that come from peer groups and from the wider culture (‘But it’s not fair – everyone else in my class has got one!’). Like it or not, we cannot but learn from our society.

Secondly, in its content. Because what counts as a decent standard of living is given by society as a whole, what counts as temperateness is also socially determined. Unless I decide to live as a hermit, I cannot just decide by myself what clothes are fashionable enough, what food is elaborate enough, what car is big enough, what house is comfortable enough, at least not without giving offence. All these things are governed by the rules and conventions of whichever section of the community we find ourselves in. The standards are collectively set, and the image-makers exert an insidious social pressure to accept a constant shift in these standards. If we wish to resist this, we cannot go it alone.

Thirdly, temperateness is social in its effects. If we do any damage by our lack of restraint, we do it collectively. However carefully you select your Fairtrade chocolate, you can neither save nor destroy a rainforest, protect nor exploit the cocoa farmers, on your own. If acting temperately is going to make any practical difference, we must do it together.

A rational desire for chocolate

Temperateness is in the dock, accused of being dull. The prosecution’s first charge is that unlike justice it is not a social virtue. I have argued that not only the private good of health, but also the public goods of justice and the environment should set limits to our consumption. Moreover, we have a responsibility to give to those in need. I have also suggested that we need to be able to describe not only individuals but also communities and societies as temperate or extravagant. In order to sustain the personal virtue of temperateness in an extravagant society, I concluded, we need the help of other people; networks of friends – based on the local churches, perhaps – might provide the sub-communities in which we can support one another in this.

The first charge is that temperateness is unsocial; I have pleaded ‘not guilty’ on my client’s behalf. But perhaps I have defended the virtue at too high a cost. My socialised version of temperateness might look boring for a different reason: that it is puritanical. If every bite of a Mars bar needs to be justified, what pleasures will we have left? Indeed, pleasure itself looks like a trivial reason for growing and eating chocolate, when land and labour and our own money could be better used. Life in a temperate society looks like life without many of the pleasures we now take for granted.

It may be true that we should rarely eat chocolate simply for pleasure. But that does not mean that we should not eat it with pleasure. Aquinas once remarked that God has arranged everything ‘sweetly’ by giving things the inclination to do what it is in their nature to do. In other words, we are made to enjoy living in the way that it is good for us to live. It has become natural to us, as the sociable, affectionate and communicative creatures that we are, to say some of the most important things – ‘Congratulations!’, ‘Thank you,’ ‘I love you’ – with something that provides shareable pleasure. St Thomas thought that it was a vice not only to desire pleasure too much, but also to desire it too little: we ought to appreciate pleasure for what it is. To eat chocolate without pleasure would then (assuming you like it) be wrong. How often does the frenzied consumerist world in which we live encourage us, with enormous irony, to do just that. For we rarely have space to attend to what we are doing – to eat a Belgian truffle, for example, very slowly and in silence.


In the film of the novel Chocolat, the heroine opens her chocolaterie at the beginning of Lent. The traditionalist Catholics who oppose her are portrayed as mean-spirited men and women, unable to appreciate either good things or good people. A temperate person, I have argued, ought in a balanced and thoughtful way to appreciate pleasure of life. Does it follow that we should not give up chocolate for Lent? To answer that we would need to explore the distinction that Herbert McCabe once made, in the context of a discussion of the practice of penance: ‘The essential difference is that self-control is concerned with living, whereas self-denial is concerned with dying’ (New Creation, p. 104). That is the reason why even the non-believer should want to desire chocolate in the appropriate way, but only the believer can make sense of abstaining from it. To explore that, however, would be another story.

[Reproduced with the editor’s kind permission from Priests and People, October 2003]

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Sr Margaret Atkins

About the Author ()

Sr Margaret is an Augustinian canoness from the community at Boarbank Hall in Cumbria. She is also a Research Fellow at Blackfriars, Oxford.

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