Temperance and Emotional Well-Being


The practice of continence is also very important for the emotional development of the human person. It is that part of temperance whereby a person resists evil desires that are vehement in him. Continence is similar to temperance in that both concern themselves with the pleasures of touch, but the subject of continence is not the sense appetite, but the will. It belongs to temperance to moderate the desires of the pleasures of touch, whereas it belongs to continence to resist evil desires that are vehement. Continence is the necessary preamble to acquiring temperance, for temperance is a difficult habit to acquire and takes time. Temperance is like the builder of the windmill, which channels the wind to generate power and electricity. Continence can perhaps be likened to the person who boards up his house in order to resist the power of a hurricane.

Thomas points out that "man is that which is according to reason. Wherefore from the very fact that a man holds to that which is in accord with reason, he is said to contain himself." Now consider that a living thing is moved from within. A non-living thing is moved from without. The more a person, through weakness of the will, is disposed to be moved from without, that is, by objects that sway his appetites, like a wind that rages against a weak structure, so as to neglect the command of reason, the less "alive" he is, so to speak; for the less he contains himself from within. But the more he is able to contain himself or hold himself together according to the command of reason, the more fully alive he is, and the more fully human he makes himself to be.

We often refer to the emotionally healthy person as someone who "has it all together." The expression implies "integration" or "integrity". Someone who can "keep his word" (hold on to his word) is a person of integrity, for example. Continence is accordingly a very important part of moral and emotional integrity. The continent person is one who holds to right reason by resisting and abstaining from evil desires. This is not repression, but control. One fully acknowledges that one has these desires, but rather than allow them to control him--for man is not that which is according to passion, but according to reason--, the continent person chooses to control himself by directing his passions and resisting desires that move him to what is contrary to being fully human and fully alive. Being fully human presupposes this freedom, for there is nothing human about slavery to one's passions. Examples of continence may include resisting the desire to use one's spouse as a means to an end, namely, the end of venereal pleasure. Or consider Natural Family Planning, the proper use of which requires the practice of continence.

A person can be continent without being temperate--but on the way to temperance, and a person can be incontinent without being intemperate. The intemperate man confuses good with evil, not so the incontinent, who is aware that he has turned away from what is truly good.

Intemperance and the Destruction of Virtue

Intemperance has the effect of delivering the intellect over to the service of matter. The result is a loss of interest in things spiritual and intellectual. The kinds of things that appeal to the minds of the intemperate are those that serve the interests of the pleasure appetite, such as novels that do not raise the mind towards eternal themes or truths, but which sink the mind further into the realm of the sensual and material, or films that require little thinking and are dotted at regular intervals with scenes of violence, revenge, and sexual play, or talk shows that preoccupy themselves with trivial matters that have no lasting value. Films, books, or talk shows that deal with eternal and more intelligent themes are no longer popular.

This intemperate disposition also affects one's self-awareness, as we touched on above. The intemperate are no longer readily able to transcend themselves, which is required if one is to become critically aware of oneself. Material things are not capable of perfect self-reflection, but only imperfect self-reflection. For instance, a piece of paper can be folded so that one half reflects over the other half. But the whole piece of paper cannot be reflected upon itself entirely, only one part upon another. But the mind is capable of perfect self-reflection, which is evidence of the immaterial nature of the mind, for I am present to myself in the act of knowing something other than myself. I know that I know. Yet I cannot see my entire self, or hear myself hearing. But I do know myself in the act of knowing something outside of myself. Now a lack of moral virtue is not going to alter this ability. But intemperance is going to compromise the kind of self-reflection that is not automatic, but which must be cultivated, namely, self-awareness. As one becomes so immersed in the realm of the sensual, one begins, in a sense, to share in matter's lack of perfect self-reflection. That is why the intemperate are most oblivious to their vice, whereas the unjust, on the contrary, are for the most part aware of their injustice, for injustice is in the will, not the concupiscible appetite. Indulging in pleasures seems, to the intemperate at least, an entirely natural thing to do and the most natural end of human existence.

This general lack of awareness has a direct influence on a person's ability to establish the habit of justice within himself, which is the virtue that perfects the will. Justice begins with the recognition of the debitum, that is, the awareness that something is due to another. And so as a start, the intemperate tend to be ungrateful, for gratitude stems from the awareness and recognition of a debt, that what was given was done so gratis. Without this fundamental ability, one cannot begin to cultivate piety and legal justice, by which one serves the common good of one's country on account of gratitude for the incalculable benefits received from both parents and country. This in turn will affect a country's ability to achieve a genuine democracy, which is built on the principles of justice and depends upon a population that truly understands and appreciates things intelligible, such as the nature of the state, justice and truth, the nature of human rights grounded not merely on the whims of the people, but in natural law. For just as an intemperate person is hindered in the achievement of justice, so too is a pleasure-oriented culture. And of course it goes without saying that one lacking awareness will be blinded to the requirements of religion, the most perfect part of justice. The virtue of religion begins with the recognition that all has been given by God and that the debt cannot ever be adequately repaid; for the gift of existence is a pre-condition for repayment.

Intemperance also hinders the development of kindness, generosity, and a gentle spirit, which imply empathy and an awareness of another's suffering and needs. A large part of emotional illness is rooted in anger. Now anger is an essential part of our being, and is therefore basically good. But it is natural that the passion of anger be subject to reason, which is the work of the virtue of gentleness. Now gentleness (meekness) is not about the pleasures of touch, but it is like temperance in that it involves restraint, for gentleness restrains the onslaught of anger. And so Thomas refers to gentleness and clemency as secondary virtues annexed to temperance.

As we pointed out above, love can only be channeled through virtue. Now some people are, at certain moments, difficult to love, in particular adolescent teens and toddlers. Unless we develop the habit of gentleness, our love will remain inconsistent and will reach the beloved only when conditions are favorable to us. Moreover, anger is, on account of its impetuous nature, a real obstacle to a person's clear judgment of the truth. Passion is in me, and so when inflamed tends to render me incapable of transcending myself, which is a necessary condition for understanding the "other" from a point of view other than my own (i.e., from his point of view, or God's point of view, or the point of view of a third party). The virtue of gentleness enables us better able to transcend ourselves during difficult moments that arouse anger in order to more accurately assess the needs of the person who is the principal cause of our anger. We may discover that the best response to such a person is a patient tolerance, or possibly fair punishment, in which case anger becomes a source of energy.

Meekness or gentleness is again a very important part of emotional integration. As St. Thomas writes: "Wherefore meekness above all makes a man self-possessed." Should there exist an inordinate attachment to the pleasures of touch, or to the comforts of the body or to life that contains few inconveniences and oppositions to the will, gentleness will be a difficult virtue to come by. Such a person will find it difficult to "contain himself" or "hold himself together". Indeed, life is full of inconveniences and contradictions, and so there are really only two choices available here: to nurture a spirit of gentleness in order to more readily channel a love that loves the other for his own sake, or choose to make one's ultimate end in life the minimization of life's inconveniences, for example in the pursuit of wealth and an early retirement, so as to free oneself up to live completely in accordance with one's personal desires. The latter is the route most frequently pursued today. But consider that emotional illness is not yet on the decline in our society, but has been on the increase for a number of years (waiting lists to see a psychiatrist are often months long). Emotional well-being cannot be separated from moral integrity, and the perfection of the emotions results from the proper structuring of the four principal parts of the human person via the four cardinal virtues, an intelligible structure determined ultimately by the supernatural virtue of charity, which loves God as the ultimate end, not the self, and which in turn orders the emotions to serve the interests of justice and the common good. That is why the mild Epicureanism that is generally taken for granted today has never succeeded in bringing a stable peace to the lives of its adherents, but only a fragile feeling of peace that is easily destroyed through a change of circumstance.


The failure to moderate anger through meekness tends to render clemency difficult to cultivate, for clemency mitigates punishment according to the demands of right reason. Severity is the virtue by which a person remains inflexible in the infliction of punishment when right reason requires it, and so is not opposed to clemency. The opposing vice here is both cruelty on the one hand (which denotes excess in punishing) and leniency on the other, which is an unreasonable mitigation of punishment. It happens often that an appeal for clemency (such as an early release from prison) is nothing more than an appeal for unreasonable leniency. The failure to understand the essential point of punishment will tend to beget leniency; for punishment intends the restoration of the order of fairness, to which the lenient person is indifferent. The general tendency today is to regard punishment as irrational vengeance. The judge or parent who exhibits this kind of leniency, the kind that falls short of justice, exhibits not meekness or clemency, but impassivity, or unreasonable patience. This vice fosters negligence, which is contrary to prudence, and incites both the good and the wicked to evil. Impassivity appears to be virtuous, but is in fact vicious and is evidence of an imperfect love of both the common good and the individual good of the offender. Some parents, for example, do not love their children enough to become angry with them. Or consider the impassivity of the school administrator, who loves his job and the personal benefits that accompany it more than the students and the common good of the school as a whole. His vice passes for professionalism and composure, but it is really nothing more than bureaucratic selfishness.

The truly clement heart is one that loves with a sober and kind love. Thomas writes: "This moderation of soul comes from a certain sweetness of disposition, whereby a man recoils from anything that may be painful to another." This is opposed to the "roughness of soul" in one who is unreasonably severe, that is, in one who fears not to pain others or humiliate them in the courtroom or the classroom, for example. Thomas speaks of a "humane feeling whereby everyman is naturally friendly towards all other men." This is lost in the person who is cruel--and it is also absent in the unreasonably lenient. Thomas refers to this depravity as "unsoundness of mind", wherein the mind lapses from the disposition due to the human species. But the positive feeling that begets leniency is also not humane, because it is not "sound of mind". It is a feeling that dulls the mind to the true requirements of justice ordered towards the restoration of the order of fairness and the common good. A truly humane feeling does not cloud the judgment, but helps it.

Clemency is an important virtue to cultivate, first on the part of the court judge for the sake of the common good of the civil community, and on the part of parents for the sake of the emotional well-being of their children. Both the defect and excess of clemency are signs of a weak character, and this in turn brings about a similar influence on the character of the children. Child rearing and discipline in former times may have been characterized by a defect of clemency, but today we witness more frequently an unreasonable excess of clemency that has damaged the child's ability to acquire the foundation for a more complete development of the virtue of justice, which begins with learning to say "please and thank-you" (the virtues of courtesy and gratitude).

When perfected by clemency, anger propels us forward and helps us in the execution of reason's command. There is no requirement to suppress anger, but to direct it, as water is directed and channeled in order to generate power. But unresolved anger can generate a choleric, sullen, or ill-tempered character. The choleric person becomes angry too quickly and for a slight cause. Consider the teenager who "flies off the handle" on the basis of what he interpreted as being "looked at the wrong way". This can develop into a more sullen character. Here the cause of anger endures in the memory and often becomes subconscious. This in turn can color almost everything the sullen person does henceforth. This influence is also subconscious and leads one to function daily on those unhealed memories, that is, to be subconsciously motivated to attempt to resolve the anger in almost everything one does. These unhealed memories can, with the help of a sound therapist, become sources of blessing for the person, or they will cripple him and prevent him from achieving the emotional harmony and character structure of a healthy personality.

The ill-tempered person will choose to hang on to his anger and will stubbornly seek to inflict punishment on the perceived cause of that anger. But excessive anger affects one's ability to judge well, and so the ill-tempered person will rarely, and on his own, come to an understanding of the true cause of his displeasure. The remedy of unresolved anger is nothing other than forgiveness, which often requires a great deal of time and, more importantly, the help of another who has the ability to lead the angry person through the necessary stages on the way to the final stage of healing. This is the point at which he can begin to accept the injury and readily forgive the offender, which, more often than not, turns out to be a parent who did not have the strength of character to rear the child properly, protect the child from an abuser, or adequately provide for the child, or discipline the child with moderation.

The principal offspring of anger include habitual contempt of certain others, a kind of "looking down one's nose" at others, as well as an obsessive preoccupation over perceived injuries, what Thomas calls a "swelling of the mind". This swelling results in a living in one's own mind. This of course affects one's judgment or assessment of the situation in which one finds oneself. One can no longer see straight, that is, one is no longer able to take in the larger picture. That is why it is important to take the views of such people with a grain of salt, whether the person is an angry liberal, or an angry conservative, or an angry teacher, etc. And more importantly, one must learn not to place too much trust or confidence in one's own judgments and ways of perceiving things during those times in which the onslaught of anger has been released.


Humility is that part of temperance that perfects hope, in particular hope in oneself; for it belongs to humility to temper and restrain the mind from tending inordinately to that which is above it. As Thomas writes: "Humility observes the rule of right reason whereby a man has true self-esteem." Pride, which is a vice opposed to humility, involves an excessive love of one's own excellence. And so humility moderates the hope that one has in one's own excellence. Humility is such a foundational virtue, and so recognizing the good qualities in others and affirming them is an important ingredient in their development as emotionally healthy human beings. The person who pursues his own excellence inordinately and who wishes to appear more excellent than he is, and thus who wishes to be preferred to others, is almost always a person who was inadequately affirmed as a child. That is why it is very important for parents to affirm the achievements of their children, and for teachers to affirm the achievements of their students, even when the achievement is not particularly extraordinary. The current emphasis in education on self-esteem is not, in this light, as exaggerated and unfounded as conservatives tend to believe.

The humble man inclines to the lowest place, but he is not obsequious, which involves a self-abasement that is not true to the facts. In fact, obsequiousness can be a pretense, an instance of personal pride disguised as humility. But humility does involve an awareness of one's own deficiencies, and it is this awareness that is the rule that moderates this hope. If a person is secure in the knowledge of his gifts, which come ultimately from God, he will have little difficulty accepting and acknowledging his own deficiencies. The proud are not at ease with the knowledge of their finitude. Hence, the fullness of pride is the rejection of God, for "humility regards chiefly the subjection of man to God, for Whose sake he humbles himself by subjecting himself to others." Once again, we note the importance of self-awareness that is the fruit of temperance. But self-awareness is, of course, not enough here. One must be willing to embrace the knowledge of one's deficiency. One must accept it. If a person cannot tolerate the specter of his own finitude, he will certainly not choose to grow in the knowledge and love of God, Who is boundless and infinite; for I cannot help but see my own finitude against the background of the divine being.

But we must not be led to believe that the perfect possession of humility is necessarily the property of the believer. Even one who accepts his own limitations and regards his deficiencies in the light of faith does so, for most of his life, only very imperfectly. He may still desire his own excellence inordinately. We see this in those who envy, who are displeased at the excellence of others because such excellence turns the attention of others away from them. We see this in the philosopher or theologian who writes so as not to be readily understood by most others, in order to appear exceedingly excellent and in possession of truths out of the reach of everyone except a small few.

The proud have lofty eyes, which when focused on you tend to bear downward, fearlessly and without reverence, " for fearing and respectful persons are especially wont to lower the eyes, as though not daring to compare themselves with others." And that is why those who lack humility tend to compare themselves to others, and are always on the lookout for others' deficiencies and shortcomings--and are always satisfied when they have discovered them.

Humility will, with regard to one's work, keep one from veering away from the ordinary, for pride desires recognition, and so it moves one to the extraordinary way. We see this in the priest, for example, who alters the liturgy and introduces all sorts of unapproved innovations. Moreover, humility is not in a hurry to speak, in contradistinction to those who are not aware of their own deficiencies. The proud are quick to "enlighten" others whom they never suspect might not at all need to be so informed. The proud tend not to moderate their speech, nor do they restrain their haughty eyes and laughter.

Pride also destroys every virtue; for it finds in every virtue an occasion to flourish--after all, virtue is a mark of excellence. Every virtue is ordained to the service of glorifying the proud man, rather than God. That is why the proud readily believe that their good is from themselves, and not from God. Or, if they are not entirely without faith, they believe their good to be from God, but are prone to believe that these gifts are due to their merit. The proud cannot resist the opportunity to boast, for their desire to be admired by others is beyond the control of virtue, and they tend to observe carefully the failings of others. They tend to despise others and wish to appear the exclusive possessor of what they have. And the believer who inordinately loves his own excellence will fall into singularity, by which he wishes to appear holier than others. In the proud man will also be found license, which is the delight in doing freely whatever one wills. That is why pride begets disobedience and vainglory, by which he covets the outward show of excellence.

The Desire to Know

As Aristotle writes in the first line of his Metaphysics, "all men by nature desire to know". Knowledge of truth is a basic intelligible human good that perfects us as human persons, and so the desire for knowledge is a desire for a good. But the desire itself can become immoderate. The moderation of this desire pertains to the virtue of studiousness.

The defect of this virtue amounts to an indifference to truth, which, as was said earlier, is the fruit of an inordinate attachment to the pleasures of touch. The excess is the vice of curiosity, which is certainly an offspring of pride. The proud desire knowledge, which is a matter of excellence, in order to glory in it.

But the desire itself can be inordinate in a number of ways. First, it is possible for a person to pursue a less profitable study over a study that is an obligation incumbent upon him. Thomas offers the example of a priest who rather than studying and nourishing his faith in the reading of Scripture, chooses to study plays or read novels, etc. It is also possible for a parent to neglect his children in favor of the study of some discipline that is in itself good, but of far less importance than the emotional needs of the child.

The desire for knowledge is inordinate when a person studies in order to learn from one by whom it is unlawful to be taught, such as dissident theologians with respect to Roman Catholicism, or occult sources. Desire for knowledge is also inordinate when a person studies in order to know that which is above the capabilities of his own intelligence. There are different intellectual dispositions, and each person has his gifts. Some people have a disposition to think historically, others mathematically, others philosophically, and still others scientifically. Some have great literary intelligence, while others have a profound psychological intelligence and understand themselves and others in ways that are beyond the ability of most people. We have to learn to rely on one another's gifts. But curiosity wishes to bypass this reliance on others and tends to rely on oneself and delve into areas that are clearly outside of one's natural capacities. Curiosity is, accordingly, an offspring of pride.

Finally, desire is inordinate when we desire to know the truth about the created order without referring this knowledge to the knowledge of God. For creation is the communication of the goodness of God. Consider that virtue makes its possessor morally good. One is not necessarily morally good because one has knowledge. But man's sovereign good consists in the knowledge of the sovereign truth, and not in the knowledge of any other truth. The desire of the knowledge and love of God ought to form our entire life, and it ought to govern every other desire we have, including the desire to know other things. Consequently, the desire to know the truth about creatures without that final reference to God, the source of all truth, cannot be a virtuous desire, but ultimately a vain one, for this universe is passing away.

Curiosity is also about sensitive knowledge, and this kind of curiosity is more disgraceful than the previous, if not more serious. For knowledge of sensible things is directed at both the preservation of life and intellectual knowledge. The former is very useful, but the desire for sensitive knowledge becomes inordinate when the knowledge is no longer directed to the useful. This is very difficult to explain, not to mention difficult to determine. But consider the person who reads cooking magazines not for the sake of finding useful recipes, but for its own sake, that is, for the sake of arousing the pleasure appetite. Certainly reading pornography is an instance of inordinate curiosity, as well as pornographic literature, or violent literature or film. We would also argue that watching popular talk shows one finds on television today is an indulging in inordinate curiosity. Busy inquiry into other people's actions and tragedies, which may ultimately be directed towards detraction or gossip, is an indulging into curiosity. In fact, the root of all gossip is inordinate curiosity, which is a very difficult vice to overcome.

Modesty of Movement and Apparel

The way a person moves, speaks, and gazes at others, and the way he dresses or adorns himself and the things around him, such as the house in which he lives, all pertain to the emotional life, for all these reflect the inner disposition of a person, and so they pertain to what Thomas calls the "beauty of honesty". We have already seen how the beauty of a temperate soul manifests in the countenance. It also manifests in the way a person carries himself and in the way he adorns himself.

We have seen that locquaciousness is an offspring of gluttony. Not only will the intemperate person speak immoderately, he may even be coarse and boorish in the inflections of his voice. At the other end of the extreme, a person may be what Ambrose refers to as "unduly soft and nerveless." We've all come across people whose voices reflect a softness and "gentleness" that can drive a person to consider suicide. There is something terribly immoderate in the softness of their voices, a softness that speaks of impassivity than patience, or is passive-aggressive and is thus anything but gentle.

A person's bodily movements may be directed according to reason in two ways. First, in respect to what is fitting for the person. Outward movements, keep in mind, are signs of the inner disposition of a person. Hence, there ought to be modesty in looks, in one's words and tone of voice, in the way a person walks, and in any other way the human person expresses himself in movement. A person's walking can carry sexual overtones, or a person's gaze can ooze with condescension. A person may walk "high and mighty", or carry himself pretentiously. If there is no inward arrogance, for instance, a person ought to correct his manner of speaking, gazing or walking in order that his movements become more honest. Or, if a person is inwardly immodest, he can begin to change his immodesty by modesty of movement.

Reason may also direct one's movements according to the fittingness of circumstance. Thomas refers to this as methodicalness, which regards that which is becoming to the business at hand.

Modesty also regards the use of play or fun, which is a very important part of a healthy emotional life. We can refer to this virtue as pleasantness, which is also closely connected to the virtue of affability. Preoccupation with the things of the mind can weary the soul. Pleasantness regards the resting of the soul through the application of some pleasure, for example in "words or deeds wherein nothing further is sought than the soul's delight." And so a person applies himself to games or sporting activities, such as chess, cards, hockey, tennis, or golf, or things humorous. Games or humorous play that involve vice of some kind are obviously not part of the virtue of leisure.

The virtues are character traits, and so this virtue of leisure or pleasantness will accordingly become a part of the person's character, making him pleasant, so to speak. Thomas writes: "Éa man is said to be pleasant through having a happy turn of mind, whereby he gives his words and deeds a cheerful turn." This virtue, though, is contained under modesty in so far as it restrains a person from immoderate fun. Cheerfulness and affability also come under fortitude and justice in so far as they manage sorrow and relations with others. But the pursuit of fun can become immoderate, and is indeed immoderate in those who make the pleasure of games their principal end in life, or in those who account their life a pastime. When this happens, for instance, when a person pursuesfun excessively as in a sport like tennis or golf, they very quickly cease to be pleasant, and often will become greedy, inconsiderate and quick tempered. The moderate use of fun makes one a cheerful and affable person.

The defect of play is a vice found in those who are consistently lacking in mirth. Thomas writes: "Éit is against reason for a man to be burdensome to others, by offering no pleasure to others, and by hindering their enjoyment." It is in this way that the virtue of pleasantness is a kind of affability or friendliness, which is a part of justice. The defect of leisure leads to a kind of unfriendliness, another example of how temperance channels justice.

A person can lack moderation in the way he adorns himself either with regard to clothing or with regard to his home. He can lack moderation in two ways. First, in comparison with the social customs. It may not be immoderate for a woman of some African tribe to go around topless, but it is certainly immoderate for a woman living in the United States to proceed topless around the yard. A person may also become inordinately attached to outward apparel and take too much pleasure in them. This is evidence of an excessive preoccupation with the self. This attachment may be rooted in a desire for attention, or it may be rooted in an excessive desire for sensuous pleasure. Humility, which avoids "excessive expenditure and parade", is the remedy against the former. Contentment and simplicity are the virtues that overcome the latter. One who is married is not required to live like a religious in a monastery, but neither is he required to spend thousands on a chandelier or the finest furniture.

Deficiency in attire is also inordinate and can be rooted in a lack of reasonable self-respect, which is not humility. There is a reasonable amount of trouble one ought to be willing to go through in order to adorn oneself so as not to stand out. Such neglect of oneself may very well be a form of attention seeking, rooted in the desire to appear virtuous, simple, and unconcerned about vain things.

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