The Virtue of Temperance Contra "Mere Moderation" -- (De Bibendo, Prima Pars)

"Then to what shall I compare the people of this generation? What are they like? They are like children who sit in the marketplace and call to one another,
‘We played the flute for you, but you did not dance. We sang a dirge, but you did not weep.’
For John the Baptist came neither eating food nor drinking wine, and you said, ‘He is possessed by a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking and you said, ‘Look, he is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’ But wisdom is vindicated by all her children.” -Luke 7:31-35

Greetings and many blessings to you and yours this Christmastide!

If we are going to talk about drinking, then we are naturally going to talk about temperance. As I promised you a whole series on the topic of the virtues and drinking, it makes sense to begin by considering this virtue. Temperance in the American historical imagination has become synonymous with dumping beer in the gutter, and this mother-of-all party fouls was backed by the force of law. All this came to pass because temperance, in its many applications, is so fundamentally misunderstood. Oscillating between binging and purging (in matters of drink and all others besides), our culture's confusion about temperance provides us with few alternatives to this unhealthy pattern. A meditation on temperance and drinking is timely indeed.

A facile understanding of temperance conflates the virtue with mere moderation (emphasis on the word mere--I realize that, depending on the English translation, temperance and moderation are often seen as one-to-one synonyms. I hope that I parse out my point with enough precision to clear up any confusion). This "not-too-much-and-not-too-little" approach is, of course, true enough in its own way. Certainly an intemperate person falls into the sins of gluttony (too much) or boorishness (too little) when they run afoul of this virtue. However, temperance-as-mere-moderation falls into two chief limitations: who decides what is "moderate," and how is the "moderate" related to the "good" at all?

To illustrate these limitations, I turn to a moral bedrock in my life: my Dad. For my Father (who thought it best to give up alcohol completely once he had a wife and children rather than duplicate the errors I'm about to point out), "moderation" in this "mere" form is the inauthentic pivot on which all abuse of alcohol hinges. Tell a college kid to drink "only in moderation," and any stage of drunkenness short of blood poisoning sounds like a reasonable target. Leaving it for the drinker to judge what counts as moderation is the height of unseriousness to my Father, proof to him that the actual motive behind all drinking is indeed drunkenness, or at least irresponsibility. What is worse, moderation then becomes the shield behind which the drinker hides his true motives, most dangerous of all to himself. 

Regarding the second failure, for a man like my Father (who thought T-ball was nothing more than "half-assed baseball" and wouldn't let me play until Coach pitch), moderation seems to purposely seek, at best, a commitment to being noncommittal. For Dad, if something is worth doing, it is worth doing to the best of your ability (even if your best is not that great). In the face of something that, of its own accord, demands that it cannot be done to the fullest of your powers, one can only conclude that it is not worthy of being done at all. How then, in my Father's eyes, could something unworthy of your full effort have any real relationship to the good? 

I was convinced of my Father's reasoning in terms of drinking for the majority of my life. To this day, if all you mean by temperance is this "mere moderation" outlined above, then I am with Dad--anything that requires aiming for the mediocre on purpose is a base and vile way to live if you ask me. So I avoided beer well into my adult years with great ease, especially as the beer I was offered consisted of the standard swill floating about in the sewer of so many Solo cups. 

As providence would have it though, two things changed in my life regarding this matter. The first one was simple enough: I tasted my first Hefeweizen, and began to imagine why people would actually choose to drink beer for its own sake. The second change involved a deepening of my understanding of temperance.

It is not that I found my Dad's account of things flawed--indeed, his insight into moderation-so-called is what allowed me to press on to a more robust understanding. Instead, by diving into Aristotle and St. Thomas's understandings of the Virtues, I was afforded the opportunity to re-imagine temperance as something more than a tepid, half-hearted enjoyment of the world. For these philosophers, temprance is self-mastery. What a world of difference this fundamental shift made for my thinking!

Temperance properly understood is not only about avoidance, but governance. The question is this: how does one use the goods of this world to a well ordered end. A temperate person does not earn this distinction by avoiding all pleasures, nor by obtaining a stoic isolation from the world. Instead, the temperate person engages the goods of this world in an excellent manner, privileging properly that which is deserving, and relegating the lowly to its proper place. 

The notion of mastery is specifically pertinent to how we navigate the relationship between pleasure and reason in our daily lives. Do I allow my pleasures to control me, or do I control them? Am I a slave to my passions, taking pleasure in things regardless of whether it is reasonable to do so or not? If the goal of temperance is mastery rather than mere moderation, then most pleasures are no longer off limits in and of themselves, but only in relationship to the end I aim them toward through my use of reason. 

Granted, self-mastery can sound idealistic, unrealistic, or down right dangerous. Indeed, a certain understanding of self-mastery as the despotism of our reason over our passions, the soul over the body, has disastrous consequences for how we understand ourselves. One only needs a cursory glance at the excesses of the Puritan war on Christmas, the Temperance movement, or Jansenism in the Catholic Church to consider swearing off ever using the term again. This worldview imagines a Gnostic humanity of pure intellect trapped in the dregs of a foul body, and self-mastery as the key to sloughing off the wickedness of the flesh. 

As we have just celebrated Christmas, the feast of the Incarnation (think carne like Carne Asada to get the full effect) of God Himself, we know this is an improper understanding of the soul/body relationship in general, and our understanding of self-mastery in particular. Mastery, as it turns out, comes in many forms. Rather than a mastery that imagines reason as the nagging task-master over the body, our understanding of self-mastery will be better served if we imagine instead something more akin to a Master of Ceremonies.

Sure, when you kids these days, with your iShoe devices and what have you, think of MC's, you are probably thinking of the Hip-Hop, where your "Master of Ceremonies" may ask you some of life's most important, deepest questions to a sick beat and/or phat rhythm (I keep up on things). Sorry to be the old man around here, but what I have in mind is the Master of Ceremonies during Mass. While your local MC's responsibilities might vary, the archetypal Papal MC is responsible for the preparation of all Pontifical Liturgies. It is quite the task. Word.

In what way does a Papal MC demonstrate their mastery? Certainly it is not through bossing people around (especially the Pope--a bad career move, I'm sure!), nor is it through demonstrating the dominance of one person or aspect of the liturgy over others. Instead, it is to utilize the different aspects of the Mass well, in a reasonable manner, toward a definitive goal.

If the Papal MC arranges the Mass to where


that is, a full-throttled majesty the opening organ note to the dismissal, we all might pass out from exhaustion before the Gospel is even read. On the other hand, if  

t   h   e     e   n   t   i   r   e     M   a   s   s     i   s     a   r   r   a   n   g   e   d     l   i   k   e     t   h   i   s   .   .   . 

where each moment is more drawn out in solemn, slow sobriety than the next, the pace would lull even the most fervent believer to sleep. Still, the solution to avoiding both the "power Mass" and the "sleeper Mass" is not mere moderation, a bland perpetual "middle-paced, middle-voice" affair (God safe us from this, the most common of all Masses!). No, no--the solution instead is modulation. Someone who shows the ability to use both majesty and solemnity in concert, ordered to the end of liturgical awe, varying from one to the other at the proper times--only they reveal themselves to be a true Master of Ceremonies.

The same is true of temperance in the moral life. Though virtue is a mean between an excess and a deficiency, it is not a mathematical mean between two numbers. Just because 1 beer is too few and an entire 12 pack is too many does not mean 6 beers is a virtuous amount. It truly depends on the person and the circumstance, each and every time. There is not some blanket concept to hide behind or bend the flesh into compliance with, but an actual need for the use of reason for each situation.

Furthermore, temperance is not simply a "middle state" between the two extremes at all times in the same, undifferentiated manner. Instead, it is the appropriate use of goods, ordered to an end, depending on the circumstance. These circumstances and ends can only be determined by reason, unencumbered by a slavery to one's passions.

To put this in more concrete terms, think of the Church's liturgical calendar--in all honesty, it is a particularly potent symbol for us in this regard. Life throughout the liturgical year is not some median state between feasting and fasting, undifferentiated day by day. Absolutely to the contrary, it is intemperate to shoot for "mere moderation" in the spiritual life when one should be either Feasting or Fasting. There is a name for this spiritual malady: lukewarmness. God, as it turns out, is not a fan!

Of course, this should sound very striking to us, because this is the state most Christians live their spiritual lives in day after day! Rather than feasting with the Saints or fasting with Sinners, we simply carry-on-carrying-on, not going too "crazy" in either direction. In this, we replicate the limitations of the tepid functional drunkard outlined in the beginning--we use "mere moderation" to hide behind, to avoid coming to grips with our lukewarmness toward God.

Thus, one reasonable way to guide our temperance in using the goods of this world is to follow the time-won wisdom of the Church's Calendar.  During Lent, one should abstain. During Christmas, one should celebrate. To show "mere moderation" during the Christmas feast is intemperance of the severest sort. Having a "mere moderate" amount of whatever good when one should be fasting is just as intemperate.

In the end, this whole lesson is contained within the perplexing words of Our Lord from the Book of Luke which leads off this reflection. To my mind, no speech from the lips of Our Savior are more confounding, more telling, and more true. It is the epitome of a mystery, illuminating every time you read it, shedding so much light on everything around it, but never fully disclosing all the treasures it holds. See how even in the sayings He left for us so long ago, Jesus orders all things temperately, saying so many things with so few words, depending on the particular circumstances of the one who heard them. May we all, as in all things, learn to follow the Master in His example.


This post is longer than usual, so let me be brief in my recommendation. Today is the feast of the Massacre of the Holy Innocents (when someone says "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas," I always make sure to thank them for remembering the children slaughtered by Herod. You get some funny looks over this one). This is a strange and complex Holiday. In the midst of one of the Happiest weeks of the Liturgical Year, the Church has never known exactly what to do with this most brutal of feast days. Some eras of history wore purple for mourning. At other times, red was worn in celebration for these first of Martyrs. My only advice is hopefully profoundly Catholic--somehow we must do both at the same time!

In this respect, I recommend to you Lindemans Gueuze Cuvee Rene, a most complex of beers. Sour, yet sweet, yet with a hint of cured yogurt (really!), I honestly only enjoy drinking this beer every so often--it is just too singular and distinct to drink regularly for my taste buds. Somehow, I feel the Church recognizes something similar in the feast for today--we must find a way to wrap our mind around mourning and celebration all at once, but perhaps it is too much for us to contemplate daily. It is truly the mystery of our Faith to mourn in the midst of joy and find joy in the midst of mourning. My hope is that this wonderful, complex brew will aid you in this duty. Enjoy, and Merry Christmastide everyone!