Temperance is one of the Stoic Virtues. It teaches us to live life in moderation, to make sure our actions have the right intensity and don’t fall into excess. This goes for our emotions as well, for those common perception deemed as good or as bad. Temperance will guide us to a peaceful life by allowing us to live in accordance with nature and be balanced. Not seeking what is beyond our grasp, nor denying what is available to us. When we learn to master this Virtue, we’ll be able to be grateful for what we have right now.
Alongside Temperance, the other Virtues are; Wisdom, Courage, and Justice. Temperance can be seen as the throttle of the boat. Managing it the right way will determine the quality of our thoughts and actions. Where Wisdom provides us with the knowledge of the tools and surroundings, Temperance keeps us in the balanced. In his Nicomachean Ethics book II, Aristotle analyses the Golden Mean. A principle we can apply to all the Virtues, such as Wisdom. We can stick our heads in the sand, not wanting to know anything, or we can call ourselves wise and all-knowing. While true Wisdom is found in the middle. Enough curiosity to spark the search for truth, while being humble enough to know that we don’t know enough.
These times are no diferent
These times we live in are no different than any other. People have always indulged and lived in excess whenever they could. Wanting more than they need or to outdo others. Reaching for more and never being satisfied is nothing new. If we manage to control these desires and live a tempered life, we will be able to focus on what is important in life.
“If you seek tranquility, do less.”Democritus, frg. B 3, From Marcus aurelius, Meditations, book 4:24
To understand temperance, it is important to look at the opposite. Living an intemperate life means that you want more than what you have. It is not the having that is bad, but the wanting or the desiring for things that are out of our reach. That is what keeps you trapped and leads to an unfillable void. Anxiety, fear, jealousy, and other negative emotions dig an even deeper hole. Before we stand a chance of living a peaceful and content life, we must fence off that abyss.
What are we trying to chase?
These are not the only things we are talking about. Although it is easier to picture people wanting more money, cars, watches, clothes, and so on. The same goes for our emotions. We feel pressure to be happy all the time, loved by more and more people, and receive likes from strangers. The Stoics would look at this and ask us what we are trying to chase. These are all beyond our control. Even happiness is something that comes and goes.
To live a more tempered life, we should learn to be grateful for what we have. If fate provides us with more than we need, then there’s nothing wrong with that. The Stoics would call that a preferred indifference. What is important is that it doesn’t take over and lead our lives. We must stay in control and must be ready to give it back when fate asks us for it. If the job you do is in accordance with your nature and its reward is earning a lot of money, then there is nothing wrong with that. As long as earning that money isn’t the reason why you are doing it. Or with the idea of making more and getting a higher status. Then you’re chasing externals, which are beyond our control.
Where does Stoic Temperance start
As we have seen with the other virtues, knowing yourself and understanding your nature is where it all starts. We have to remain vigilant to see what drives us and why we want the things we are after. To go even further, in Stoicism, we must eliminate that want. The things we want are beyond our control, we must learn to accept what we have and be content with that. But, these wants and desires are sometimes difficult to control. If we can identify them, then we can train ourselves and be alert when they arise. Temperance can be practiced.
One of the first-world problems is overindulgence when it comes to eating. We have a meal at the touch of a button brought to our homes, whenever we want to. There is no need to be hungry, it is right there. And the variety is overwhelming, almost like we’re at a banquet in a Roman palace. But we don’t need all this food, in fact, we shouldn’t be eating this much to begin with. And the quality of what we consume is questionable to say the least. What’s worse, there are so many of us without food. There is no sense of justice here as equality is nowhere to be found. If we tried eating less, would we be worse off? It would actually make us better and the world a more balanced place.
Falling in to extremes
Food is an example we all deal with everyday and many of us struggle with. Instead of looking for the next diet that will take you into an extreme eating habit, try finding something that works for you. Something in the middle perhaps, that you can keep doing consistently. The same goes for many other things in life. Temperance can help us deal with the possessions we’re after, the social influence we seek, and even how we use our time.
Time for Temperance
Apply Temperance to your time. The one commodity we don’t know how much we have for us to give. If we spend it too lavishly or not use it at all, we will be cutting ourselves short. Our lives might feel to be going by too fast. As Seneca said in his essay on the Shortness of Life:
“It is not that we have a brief length of time to live, but that we squander a great deal of that time.”Seneca, Dialogues and essays, On the Shortness of life, 9
We waste so much of it because we focus on the wrong things. We are not listening to ourselves but we are looking over at the grass on the other side of the fence. Yet we don’t know what price they are paying to keep it so green. Cicero shared an interesting story with us called: The Sword of Damocles. It touches on this in an interesting way. Instead we should keep our mind on our side and see what goes on inside of us. When we know what our priorities are in life, then we can also determine when and where we spend our resources on. And what the moderate way to do so is.
Temperance is our responsibiltiy
The responsibility for Temperance lies with us. We need to work with the other virtues and use reason and our rational minds to determine what is the right amount of action for each event. We need to keep examining the moment and ask ourselves if we are living in accordance with nature. There is no need in denying ourselves of anything. It is our opinion of these externals and how well we can remain in control, that will help us decide when enough is enough. But this takes discipline. And speaking for myself, that is something I struggle with.
But with the right motivation and direction, discipline becomes easier. And that is what is required to live a more tempered life. Being disciplined in what you do and staying consistent in your actions, is a powerful combination to a peaceful life. This is how we can grow as a person and try to become a better version of ourselves. Along the way, your goals and priorities will be better defined and you can find your true nature.
A tangible Virtue
Temperance is a Virtue that has a tangible side to it. We can look at everything we have and think about all that we want. These are external materialistic things and we should realize that they can tie us down. We can use this information to cut those ties if we want. If you have a certain idea of how you wish to live your life, then you can look at the priorities.
You can assess if you have an excess in certain things or if some of your behavior is over the limits. Then you can make adjustments. If you know there are certain areas that you can’t control, then it is best to stay away from them at all. I love food and when I drink alcohol it is difficult to control myself. That’s why I choose not to drink at all and only have food at home that is good for me. I am listening to myself and trying to pinpoint my weaknesses.
Guard your emotions
It is also necessary to apply Temperance when it comes to our thoughts and emotions. We’re not talking about stoicism where we should have no emotions. That’s another extreme. No, Stoicism (capital -S) looks for acceptance and examination of those emotions. Emotions are a part of us and so they should remain, but in the right amount. It’s ok to grieve, laugh, or be angry sometimes, but it should be done in moderation. And within the limit where we are still in control and can act with reason.
Seneca gives us this advice about grieve:
“When one has lost a friend one’s eyes should be neither dry nor streaming. Tears, yes, there should be, but no lamentation.” Seneca, Letters From a Stoic, Letter LXIIISeneca, Letters From a Stoic, Letter LXIII
Even the Emperor knew moderation
In our current times, it feels like Temperance is the most difficult one of the virtues to live up to. The constant temptations we have around us are often difficult to resist. All that we need is at our fingertips and received almost in an instant. But in these moments think of Marcus Aurelius. He was the emperor of the Roman Empire and could have everything he desired and more. Yet, he chose to live a life of moderation and fulfil his duty to his people.
We also have our duty to fulfil and to do so, we need to get rid of all the noise around us. Only when we know what is important to us and find balance within, can we encounter our purpose. Find it and live your life accordingly. Temperance is one of the Virtues in Stoicism for a reason, and that we can still see why today.