Temperance and Emotional Well-Being

Doug McManaman
September, 2001
© 2004
Reproduced with Permission

Temperance is the first virtue that perfects man's ability to act well with one's self from within one's self. For it brings order to the concupiscible appetite, and thus to the emotions of love, hate, sensible satisfaction, desire, aversion and sorrow as they bear upon a pleasant good.

Temperance is primarily about desires for the greatest pleasures, and the greatest pleasures result from the most natural operations, which are those that have as their purpose the preservation of the individual and the preservation of the species. That is why the greatest pleasures are to be found in the consumption of food and drink and in the union of the sexes. And so temperance is properly about "pleasures of meat and drink and sexual pleasures." These pleasures, moreover, result from the sense of touch. Thus, temperance is principally about the pleasures of touch, and secondarily about the pleasures of taste, smell, sight and sound insofar as the objects of these latter senses, ie., the smell of food, the sight of a beautiful body, etc., are conducive to the pleasurable use of things that are related to the sense of touch.

The measure of temperance is the order of reason. The determination of the mean of reason depends upon the real needs of the present time. It depends upon intelligible human goods (life, truth, beauty, leisure, sociability, religion, etc). As we said above, the good has the aspect of an end. Human goods are intelligible ends. A good life on the whole is one that is ordered to its proper end, which is the possession of God. The good of virtue consists in that order; for the proper end of a thing is the rule and measure of whatever is directed to the end, and everything within the human person is to be directed to the supreme end, which is the possession, in knowledge and love, of the Supreme Good. But there are a number of intelligible human goods that motivate the human person who is himself ordered to this supreme end, and the pleasurable activities of eating and drinking are evidently ordered to the intelligible end of human life, that is, its preservation. The rule and measure of sexual desire will also be discovered in the intelligible ends of the sexual powers.

In the case of temperance, therefore, the real needs of this life constitute the rule of reason that makes temperance a virtue. Thomas writes: "Wherefore temperance takes the need of this life, as the rule of the pleasurable objects of which it makes use, and uses them only for as much as the need of this life requires."

The mean of virtue here is not a real mean, as in the case of justice, but a mean of reason. The mean of justice is often a real mean, for instance, if one is robbed of twenty dollars, the real mean between excess and deficiency will be twenty dollars, not fifteen, and not fifty. But determining the mean of temperance is not so simple a matter. One cannot say that 8 ounces of Corn Flakes constitute the mean of temperance when it comes to eating a bowl of cereal for breakfast. The mean depends upon the needs of the individual person and his circumstances. A large breakfast may very well be reasonable for the mailman who is required to walk twenty kilometers that day, but it may be excessive for the one who is only required to drive a bus.

Furthermore, the mean of reason in this case does not refer to a measure that is based on the strict needs of this life. St. Thomas understands necessity in two ways. There is the necessity of that "without which something cannot be at all." But there is also the necessity for something "without which a thing cannot be becomingly."

Temperance embraces both meanings of necessity. Some things, Thomas argues, are a hindrance to a person's health and to a "sound condition of body." Temperance makes no use of these, despite the availability of Malox or any other medicines designed to combat the effects of unhealthy eating so as to allow others to continue to enjoy the foods that do so much harm to the stomach or the arteries, etc. But temperance makes moderate use of those things that are not a hindrance to health and a sound condition of body, and uses them according to the demands of the situation in which one finds oneself. It is thus not contrary to temperance to desire other pleasant things that are not strictly necessary for health, as long as they are congruent with the demands of place and time. So for instance, it is not necessarily immoderate to snack on potato chips or popcorn while watching a movie with some friends, or to enjoy some appetizers at a Christmas party.

Insensibility is one vice opposed to temperance. Pleasure itself is not evil, but is part and parcel of the natural operations that are necessary for man's survival. Hence it is fitting and reasonable that we make use of these pleasures to the degree that they are necessary for our well-being (our own, or that of the species). To reject pleasure to the extent of omitting things that are necessary for our preservation is unreasonable and immoderate. Moreover, the use of reason depends upon the health of the body, and the body is sustained by means of food and drink. It follows that the good of human reason cannot be maintained were we to abstain from all pleasures.


Intemperance brings about an arrest of emotional development, a personality arrest, so to speak. Thomas refers to intemperance as a childish vice. Unchecked concupiscence is like a child in a number of ways. Anyone who has raised children knows that a child left to himself does not attend to the order of reason, for example in his choice of food, or in his choice of things to play with. Taking a child to a department store can be very taxing; for there is virtually no end to what a child thinks he needs. In the same way intemperance strays from the order of reason. Moreover, a child left to his own will becomes more self-centered. Similarly, the concupiscible power left to itself, without the governance of reason, gains strength and becomes less and less able to subject itself to the direction of reason, like the spoiled child. Finally, intemperance is like a child in its remedy. A child is corrected by being restrained. So too, it is by restraining concupiscence that we moderate it according to the demands of virtue. As we said above, failing this one cannot successfully cultivate the other three virtues, especially justice, which perfects the will. The will must be free, but a person who is at the mercy of his own concupiscence is not a free man, but a slave.

There is a certain beauty in the child, the beauty of innocence and docility. But there is nothing beautiful about a spoiled child. Similarly, temperance brings about a spiritual or moral beauty to the person who has cultivated it, a beauty that Thomas calls "honesty". Intemperance destroys the clarity and beauty that belongs to temperance. Now beauty is the result of harmony and due proportion. Beautiful prose, for example, is harmonious and clear. It is the lack of clarity that diminishes the beauty of a piece of prose. Intemperance, in the same way, is a disorder, or lack of harmony between reason and the concupiscible appetite. This lack of dueharmony gives rise to a certain disgracefulness. For intemperance is the most repugnant to human excellence, since genuine human excellence is essentially related to those abilities that are most characteristic of the human person, namely, intelligence and will. But intemperance is about pleasures that are common to man and brute animal. The intemperate man, as he moves away from reason, approaches the bestial level. Now as he moves away from reason towards the sentient level, the light of reason is increasingly dimmed. But it is from this source, the light of reason, that the clarity and beauty of virtue arises.

And so temperance brings about a spiritual beauty that in many ways overflows into the body, especially the face of a person. A woman might be, from a strictly physical point of view, stunningly beautiful and a perfect candidate for a successful modeling career. But often it happens that after a few moments of conversation with such persons, their beauty thins out and begins to ring hallow. As Thomas writes: "a thing may be becoming according to the senses, but not according to reason." Conversely, the appearance of an average looking woman can begin to acquire a beauty and attraction that is not immediately evident from a consideration of her physical features alone. This is the spiritual beauty that comes from the excellence and honorable state resulting from the cultivation of the virtue of temperance, the beauty of a heart that recoils from the disgrace that is contrary to temperance and a love of the honor that belongs to it; in short, the beauty of an unselfish heart.

The Parts of Temperance

The first of the subjective parts of temperance is abstinence, which indicates a cutting back of food. Quoting Augustine, Thomas writes:

It makes no difference whatever to virtue what or how much food a man takes, so long as he does it with due regard for the people among whom he lives, for his own person, and for the requirements of his health: but it matters how uncomplainingly he does without food when bound by duty or necessity to abstain.

Inordinate appetite for food is more common than the imagination tends to allow. As an example, consider a Christmas party with a buffet lunch or supper. One will come across people if one hasn't already, who when in the process of stacking their plates, have little regard for those in line behind them. It seems to matter little that there will not be enough for many others if they continue to take what they judge to be their need, a judgment no doubt clouded by inordinate appetite. Their ability to consider others has been drastically compromised, and where there should be a spirit of celebration and friendship in the air, one seems to detect a spirit of loneliness and alienation. Note also the current popularity of "All-You-Can-Eat" buffets. Here people feel they need to gettheir money's worth, and so they believe it their right to eat until they can no longer so much as gaze at another plate without feeling ill. And how many would be surprised to read of Augustine speaking of abstaining uncomplainingly? It is very rare today that one will come across a person complaining of having to go without food, since most people simply choose not to--despite the religious requirements of Lent.

But the habit of abstaining from food is very important. Some professions require a great deal of patience, kindness and gentleness, such as the teaching or nursing professions. A necessary pre-condition for consistent patience and a genuine and consistent spirit of kindness and gentleness is a habitual detachment from the pleasures of touch. Love involves a real transcending of the self, for it involves loving the other not for my sake, but loving the other as another self, and thus as an end in himself. This cannot be consistently done nor done well unless one has cultivated this habit of reasonable detachment from the pleasures of touch, one mode of which is the pleasure of food. That is why the practice of fasting is not only a religious requirement, but also has a basis in natural law.

The principal purpose of fasting is to bridle the lusts of the flesh. Thomas refers to fasting as the guardian of chastity. Contemporary popular culture has taken lust as "the mean" of virtue, the only criterion for sexual vice being the violation of a person's will (rape). There are a number of reasons for this, but the principal reason has to do with what is commonly regarded as the ultimate end of human life (or that which gives life meaning). If the purpose of human existence is simply the complete and ongoing satisfaction of the self's personal passions without reference to intelligible goods such as life, marriage, justice, or religion, then self-love is the only kind of love that is possible for the human person.

The failure of marriages today is testimony to our inability to achieve, as a culture, a disinterested love. But the battle against self-love is difficult, for it is a battle for personal freedom, the freedom to live for love--a disinterested and holy love. The way to begin this battle is to fast, for almost every aspect of our culture revolves around the celebration of food and sexual pleasure. Freedom from the negative influence of this culture as a condition of freedom for genuine love begins at the locus of the concupiscible passion for food.

Secondly, one fasts so that the mind may rise more freely to the contemplation of truth. As a culture, we tend to be indifferent to truth. In fact, the denial of truth in any objective sense of the word has become quite popular, in particular in the area of morality. No doubt this lack of interest in truth has its roots in popular culture's almost exclusive preoccupation with sensible goods. For as one approaches the sensible, one at the same time moves away from the intelligible. Excessive sensuality compromises one's interest in the realm of the intelligible. The sensual mind is darkened on account of its almost exclusive immersion into the realm of matter, and it thereby shares in matter's opacity.

Gluttony and its Offspring

Gluttony is, of course, a vice against temperance. Principally, this vice regards not the quantity, but the desire for food and drink, a desire that is outside the order of reason. This is an important point, because although a person may seem to exceed in quantity of food, this may not pertain to gluttony; for it many not involve inordinate desire. So too, a person might rarely ever exceed in quantity of food, yet sin continually in this regard.

Gluttony can destroy the entire moral and emotional life of a person on account of the vices to which it gives rise. The glutton does not eat in order that he may live; rather, he has reorganized his life in such a way that he now lives primarily to eat. Food and drink are no longer a means to an end, but have become the end towards which almost everything else in his life is ordered. One can bring about this reordering inconspicuously. This is so because gluttony is not limited to over-consumption. Inordinate concupiscence is at work in those who seek only the finest and sumptuous dishes. It is found in those who are impatient at the delay of food, and who eat hastily and greedily.

But in what way does gluttony bring virtue to naught? Inordinate desire for food and drink gives rise to a host of offspring. Firstly, on the part of the intellect. We have already seen that attachment to the pleasures of touch compromises one's interest in the realm of the intelligible. But gluttony is already an immersion into matter that is unreasonable, and so the mind is dulled, for it has been drafted into the service of inordinate appetite. This affects prudence, for prudence has the intellect as its subject. And prudence is the mother of the virtues, for without prudence, there is no virtue.

Thomas includes "unseemly joy" as a vice arising from gluttony, a "random riotous joy," he says in another place. This is the disingenuous joy of the "Jolly Rogers" type of fellow, a joy that the shrewd will find suspect. One easily detects that the slightest change of circumstance that causes inconvenience will quickly bring down this fragile house of cards, which is a false joy.

Loquaciousness, or inordinate words, is another offspring of the gluttonous heart. We all know people who can't seem to "shut up", or who "love to hear themselves talk." Consider that the emotion of love (not the love that is an act of the will) amounts in the end to a love of self, for as St. Thomas says, we cannot say that we love that which we choose to destroy, such as the wine we consume or the apple we eat. It is the self that is loved in the love of these things. That is why inordinate love of food and drink amounts to inordinate self-love. And this is the root of the habit of loquaciousness. The loquacious love to be the center of attention and for some reason believe that others delight in them about as much as they delight in themselves. And so they employ their words to that end, namely, being the object of others' attention. As long as they are talking, others have no choice but to listen, and so they prolong their discourse as long as circumstances allow, if not longer. And the matter of their conversation will almost always center around themselves in some way, either directly or indirectly.

Scurrility, or unbecoming words, is a vice that springs from gluttony, for it proceeds from a loss of sense and a lack of awareness that is also part and parcel of inordinate self-love. The self is so focused on itself that awareness of others as "other" has virtually disappeared. One is aware of the other as "spectator" or onlooker who cannot but delight in what he sees and hears. Consider what is implied in the expression: "If only you could hear yourself now." They are too immersed in themselves to know how their words really affect others outside of themselves. This is especially the case with regard to alcoholic drink. As Thomas says: " it hinders the use of reason even more than excessive eating."

The problem with intemperance is precisely this inordinate self-love, which is the reverse of a genuine love that loves the other as other. In genuine disinterested love, I become all others whom I love. I expand and become more than what I am in myself. With inordinate self-love, all others become me, and my love is thereby self-centered.


Chastity is that virtue which moderates the emotions relating to sexual pleasure. These pleasures, as Thomas points out, "are more impetuous and are more oppressive on the reason than the pleasures of the palate: and therefore they are in greater need of chastisement and restraint, since if one consent to them this increases the force of concupiscence and weakens the strength of the mind."

Restraint is particularly difficult today, especially for young people. From the point of view of contemporary Western culture, directing the emotions of the concupiscible appetite, as they bear upon the sexual act, according to the order of reason is regarded for the most part as pointless and arbitrary, since fulfillment is popularly understood to mean the fulfillment or satisfaction of desire, as opposed to the proper ordering of desire. The decision to ignore this and make the effort needed to cultivate chastity will nevertheless bring rich rewards to the emotional and moral levels of a person's life.

The criterion for the mean of virtue is, as in the virtue of abstinence, human life -- in this case, the begetting of human life. Now the context that is most favorable to the physical, emotional and moral well-being of offspring is the marriage union between both parents. That is why marital communion is part and parcel of the criterion of the mean of reason when it comes to sexual activity. In fact, marital communion and procreation constitute the single reality of marriage, for all genuine love is both unitive and effusive, and this is true above all of marital love. The act of sexual union has a conjugal meaning. In other words, sexual union is a marriage act. The reason is that it is precisely a joining of male and female into one flesh, one body. In this unitive act, the two become reproductively one organism. The male by himself is reproductively incomplete, and the female by herself is reproductively incomplete. In the act of sexual union, the two become a reproductive unity.

But marriage itself is a freely intended joining of two into one flesh, one body. It is a unique relationship, established by a mutual self-giving. And since a human person is his body, that self-giving includes in its meaning the giving of one's body to another. This self-giving is mutual. It is this relationship that the two will for one another and establish by a free consent. And that is why marriage is consummated by the couple's first act of sexual intercourse. In this act, the two become one body. This first act, moreover, must be fully expressive of the integral meaning of the sex act if it is to consummate this union.

The sexual act ought to be expressive of a genuinely disinterested love, a love that wills good for the other as another self. The intense pleasure that accompanies this act makes this very difficult to do, and almost impossible if one's sole source of moral direction is contemporary popular culture. Loving another for what he does for me is nothing more than self-love, and it is all too easy for the sex act to become little more than an instance of this kind of self-centeredness. The problem with self-love with regard to the sexual act is that the means of the benefit that accrues to the self (pleasure) is another human person, and to use a person is to abuse a person. That is why using a person sexually is always contrary to virtue, whether it occurs within marriage or without.

Disinterested love wills good for the other as another self, and not as a means to one's self. Now what is willed for the other makes the difference between a genuine love and a disordered love. Willing merely sensible good (pleasure) for the other and surrendering oneself over to her as a means of her sexual pleasure is not to will virtue for the other--and virtue is a greater good than mere pleasure. For I am allowing the other to use me as a means to an end, that is, I am allowing the other to use me as an object of her self-love. And using another human being as a means to an end is always contrary to his status as a person equal in dignity to oneself. Willing good for her that does not involve a violation of self-respect on my part entails willing that her act of intercourse be expressive of a disinterested love. I must will that she love me as an end, and not as a means to an end. Now sexual intercourse is an act of one flesh union, which is marriage. The physical act ought to express one's intention, in this case the intention to be one flesh, otherwise the act bespeaks a lie. If I love the other as another self, I must will a good for her, a good that is in keeping with virtue. Marital communion is more than a mere sensible good. It is an intelligible human good that the two establish through their mutual self-giving. And so the good that is willed in the act of sexual union is precisely the good of marital communion. Sexual union is thus a celebration and expression of marriage. Having sex while withholding the intention to be one body is to engage in an act that lies, an act whose symbolic value is not congruent with the intention of the heart. The act is inevitably one of self-love, which reduces the other to a means of venereal pleasure.

And so non-marital intercourse is unchaste and contrary to reason, and as such cannot lead a person to emotional fulfillment. Joy is an effect of disinterested love. But this joy is very different from the emotional complacency experienced through union with a pleasurable object. Joy that is in the will is more enduring, while satisfaction of desire lasts until hunger is once again aroused, which is never long in coming. Those who indulge in non-marital intercourse will experience this temporary sensible "satisfaction", but not the enduring joy of a disinterested and holy love. A feeling of emptiness succeeds this sort of behavior; for it has failed to deliver what it promised, namely, ecstasy. In fact, the very word ecstasy comes from the Greek word ekstasis, which indicates a standing outside of oneself. A genuine human ecstasy is one rooted in genuine human love, not self-love; for only genuine disinterested love reaches out beyond the self to another person who is loved for his own sake. Self-love does not tend beyond the self, and so is never ecstatic. Furthermore, this ecstatic joy, on account of man's psychosomatic unity, is communicated to the body, thereby increasing the pleasure of the sexual act. And so unchaste sex is never as pleasurable and meaningful as chaste marital intercourse. The search for ever more perverse forms of sexual play is only testimony to the emotional emptiness that indicates the presence of inordinate self-love as the root and motivating principle of one's sexual practices.

Lust and its Offspring

As gluttony tends to reduce virtue to naught, much more so does lust, the capital vice opposed to chastity. Lust involves using another sexually as a means to an end. It involves engaging in the sexual act outside of the context of the intelligible end of marital communion. Its offspring are many. Like gluttony, lust darkens the mind, and it does so by affecting four acts of the intellect, according to Thomas. Firstly, it affects our ability to apprehend certain ends as good, which Thomas calls blindness of mind. What is evil is regarded as good, and what is good is regarded as evil. One's mind becomes so immersed in the sensual that the criteria one employs to determine the good are no longer intelligible principles, but sense pleasures. For instance, some people have been so affected by lust that they can no longer see marital fidelity as a good. In the past, some have chosen to "open" their marriages as a means of bringing excitement and new life into their relationship. Some have even risked their high position in government--not to mention the risk of bringing shame upon their wives and family--for the sake of a momentary experience of sexual pleasure. Clearly "blindness of mind" is the only thing that accounts for such attitude and behavior.

Furthermore, lust affects the intellectual act of counsel, which inquires into the means to the end--a part of prudence. This requires patience, which a person on fire with lust does not have, and thoughtful consideration, to which he is not disposed on account of his immersion into the sensual. And so Thomas numbers rashness or impetuosity as a daughter of lust, which is the absence of counsel. Thoughtlessness, a vice contrary to good judgment, is also an effect of lust, for thoughtfulness regards others, and as such presupposes an ability to forget oneself--at least for a time. But the habit of lust attaches a person to himself and renders the exit-of-self required by thoughtfulness very difficult if not impossible to achieve. Reason may command one to do certain things, but because of the habit of self-attachment, a person is inconstant. Hence, lust destroys prudence, the mould and mother of virtue.

Because of the habit of inordinate self-love, the achievement of a holy love is all but impossible. Consequently, the lustful person is not only indifferent to God and his commands, but such indifference quickly turns into a hatred of God who forbids the desired pleasure and His Church, who consistently echoes His commandments throughout the ages.

Lust also begets an inordinate love of this world, as opposed to a sober love that rebounds towards God who is the author of this world and the world's redeemer. It is the kind of love indicated in the expression "love is blind." For it is a love that fails to mind the world's defects, a love of the world for its power to provide for one's lusts.

Lust also begets despair of a future world, that is, of eternal life. Spiritual joys are distasteful to those immersed in sensuality. Furthermore, there is a hatred for God and a total lack of "fear of God" in those who live for venereal delight. And so we should not be surprised to learn of such despair. This is quite possibly the principal reason for the apparent increase in atheism today. It has been said that at the root of atheism is a revolt of conscience, and this revolt almost always centers around a decision concerning sexual acts.

And as gluttony begets loquaciousness, so too does lust have its own store of linguistic vices, such as obscenity, scurrilousness, wanton words, and foolish thinking. These of course flow from the intellectual vices of rashness, thoughtlessness, and lack of awareness. Of particular note regarding obscene words is their reductionism. Because lust alters the way the other is regarded--for she is seen and evaluated primarily in the light of her capacity to satisfy lust--the scope of one's vision tends to narrow down and focus solely on those aspects of the person that alone are relevant to the lustful appetite. The whole person tends to be reduced to a part. And this is reflected in obscene vocabulary. This way of regarding the human person is culturally widespread and has become somewhat the norm. During televised sporting events, for instance, camera shots taken from angles that highlight the nether parts, while the countenance of the athlete is hidden from view, are rather common.

This habit of looking at others reductionistically directly affects one's thinking and consequent ability to understand the meaning of human sexuality. The meaning of the sexual act cannot be properly understood as an interaction of genitalia. Yet such a way of looking at the sex act is becoming widespread. Some are no longer able to discern any significant difference between anal and vaginal intercourse. Such people fail to see that the unitive good of the sexual act regards a union of persons, not parts.

As we said above, prudence is the mother of the virtues, and it is intemperance that is the "chief corruptive for prudence." The principal species of intemperance is lust, and so it follows that the habit of lust destroys the entire structure of the virtuous life, rendering emotional health impossible.

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