This post examines the virtue of temperance. It is meant mostly as an exploration of what others have learned about this virtue, rather than as me expressing my own opinions about it, though I’ve been selective about what I found interesting or credible, according to my own inclinations. I wrote this not as an expert on the topic, but as someone who wants to learn more about it. I hope it will be helpful to people who want to know more about this virtue and how to nurture it.
What is temperance?
Temperance is not a word that you hear a lot these days, and when you do, it’s often in the context of historical discussions of the “temperance movement” that culminated in the experiment with alcohol prohibition. But temperance used to be central to discussions of ethics and personal excellence. It was one of the four “cardinal virtues” of ancient Greek philosophy, for example.
To be temperate is to have a well-regulated set of desires, meaning that the desires themselves are good ones, that they are well-proportioned (none are exaggerated to unhealthy levels), and that the way we respond to them is appropriate. This of course raises the questions of which desires are the healthy ones, how to know how much of a desire is too much, and what is the proper way to respond to a desire. Another difficult question is to what extent our desires are tractable, or whether perhaps they are just givens that we have to work with or around.
Aristotle suggested a comparison between temperance and courage: Courage enables us to keep our wits about us and behave honorably in the presence of frightening things (rather than behaving shamefully from cowardice); temperance enables us to do this in the presence of desirable things (rather than behaving shamefully from self-indulgence or covetousness).
He also drew a distinction between temperance and self-control. While a person with self-control is able to resist the temptation to do something they are sorely tempted to do, a temperate person is not so very tempted in the first place: they have better-regulated desires and do not typically need exceptional self control to overcome them.
In addition to the ordinary failure of intemperance, you may also respond to desire with an unhealthy asceticism or anorexia as a sort of counterfeit temperance. Such a thing suggests either that you are so intemperate that you cannot trust yourself to respond to desire appropriately, or that you are ironically giving into desire but in a pathologically inverted way.
Can we shape our desires?
You sometimes hear expressed the opinion that our desires are innate characteristics rather than choices. This became a major point of contention in the LGBT&c rights movement, and its pushback against the term “sexual preference” in favor of “sexual orientation.” (It is not unusual to hear someone say “and that’s when I realized that I was sexually attracted to women” but you almost never hear someone say “and that’s when I decided to be sexually attracted to women,” for instance.)
“De gustibus non est disputandum” (there’s no accounting for taste), goes the saying, suggesting that when we get down to the level of desire and raw preference, we leave the arena of argument and reason and choice for a place where the irrational holds sway and we must simply take at face value what we find.
But it is not so simple as that. For one thing, our desires do change over time, and while some of this is not under our control (hello puberty!), some seems to be.
Your desires may become more refined: For example, if you have a yen for the manly-men-in-action genre, a college literature class or an influential friend may help you see delights in For Whom the Bell Tolls such that you can never go back to The Executioner with the same appreciation.
You may learn something about an object of desire that makes it less desirable. For example, you might learn something about how animals are raised and slaughtered or see a video about the manufacture of some mass-made meat slurry and lose the desire you used to have for fast food burgers. The guy you’ve been flirting with might tell a racist joke and lose all appeal to you. It may dawn on you that horoscopes are hogwash, and your desire to know the astrological signs of those you meet evaporates.
It’s not unheard of to become critical of your own desires and overthrow them. (“Wait a minute… why do I keep doomscrolling when it only makes me angry. I quit.”)
You might discover that you have been mistaken in your desires. For example: maybe I thought I desired the sweet taste of tobacco, and then one day I realize that all along what I really desired was the relief from nicotine withdrawal. Or, more subtly and psychoanalytically: I thought I really loved ice cream, but what I really desired was my mother’s love which I’d learned to associate with ice cream. We don’t always know our own desires well and shouldn’t just take them at face value. We can become more self-aware about our desires: what do we really desire as opposed to what we have learned to assume is the medium through which we can fulfill that desire.
People sometimes use intemperate self-indulgence to self-medicate, to relieve stress, to self-comfort, or even to self-punish. In such cases the explicit desire is just an excuse that masks something under the surface.
Some desires seem to infect us to our detriment, and with work we can expel them. The nicotine addict who beats the addiction and comes to hate the smell of cigarettes, for example.
The sculpting of desire is the science of the advertiser and the propagandist. (“You must love Big Brother. It is not enough to obey him: you must love him.”) This also suggests both that it is possible to change our desires and that maybe we ought to be paying closer attention so that our desires are not changed on someone else’s behalf.
How should we shape our desires
If we can shape our own desires, how can we know how to do so? Is there some objective metadesire we can use as our lodestone? Are there other criteria we can use? There have been many attempts to answer this question; here are a few:
A Buddhist perspective is that our desires are typically out-of-joint in this way: they aim for an unachievable stasis in which pleasant states are fixed in place and unpleasant states are kept forever at bay. This cannot be accomplished, and so if we stick with such desires we will always be frustrated, and thereby desireify ourselves into unhappiness. Pleasant states are all impermanent and will slip through our grasp no matter how tightly we hold onto them, and unpleasant states (e.g. sickness, old age, and death) are inevitable ingredients of our destinies. The key, then, is to really grok this flux and impermanence such that you replace your unrealistic desires with something more in tune with reality. Temperance in Buddhism culminates in nirvana: the quenching of desire.
Aristotle felt that the key was to align your desires with what is good for you. If you desire those things that make you a flourishing, thriving human being, then your desires will guide you to your best potential (at least to the extent that accidents of fate allow). These proper “objects” of desire, thought Aristotle, were not really objects at all, but personal characteristics: the virtues. The virtuous person acts virtuously because they desire the virtue (they don’t, in other words, act virtuously in a spirit of self-denial, or in opposition to their desires). He thought that it was difficult to mold desires correctly in people once they have hardened into adulthood, and that people do not necessarily hit upon the virtues instinctively on their own, and so it is important to educate children in the virtues from an early age. Temperance to Aristotle is the alignment of your desires with the virtues, and the pursuit of those desires in a measured way.
Stoic ethics was all about changing desires. We are frustrated in our desires, and thereby become disturbed, taught Epictetus, whenever we desire things that are outside of our control. When we desire the weather to be a certain way, or for the plague to spare us, or for some distant politician to make the right decision, or for someone else to love us, we set ourselves up for disappointment. Instead, he counseled us to accept everything that is outside of our control with absolute equanimity: this, exactly this, whatever this is, is the playing field I have been sent to play on. What is in my control is how I play, and there alone will I exercise my desire. Temperance to Epictetus might be summed up by the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; the courage to change the things I can; and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Responding to the call of our desires appropriately
Having the right desires is part of temperance. Another part is responding proportionately and appropriately to the desires we have. Desire cocoa puffs if you must, but do not go cuckoo for them.
When we are very young, the circuit between desire and pursuit is very short. Part of maturity is to add more deliberation between desire and action. I want this… but do I really want it? do I want it more than what I would have to give up to obtain it? do I want to be the sort of person who indulges such a want? does this interfere with other things I want even more? …okay then.
The word Aristotle used for “intemperate” was the same as the Greek word for “unchastened” — the intemperate person is in that way immature: they haven’t grown past the candy-grabbing stage of development.
But how do you go about maturing in this way if you didn’t get the right tutelage as a child?
Some people have reported success using forms of mindfulness meditation to bring desire into focus and defang it: When you feel a desire, really stare it down. Examine it from all angles. How do you know it is a desire? How is it prodding you to act and what does that feel like? And so forth. Eventually under such a withering gaze, the desire may melt away or show itself to be not so very substantial as it was when you gave into it reflexively.
Sometimes people feel a disconnect between their short-term and long-term desires, where the immediacy of what short-term desires promise overwhelms the more delayed gratification of long-term desires when they conflict. I have heard of people using imagination to frequently make the results of long-term goals more salient, or visualization to model the process of spurning short-term temptations in the service of long-term goals, each of which may help you when temptation strikes.
Some people are more impulsive than others. They’re more likely to indulge their whims right away rather than thinking it through first. I don’t know much about impulse control issues, but it is something that psychologists study and treat, so if you think this is something you have trouble with, they might have the answers.
For particularly strong but unwanted desires, such as addictions and other obsessive behaviors, there are a variety of approaches. Alcoholics Anonymous, for instance, has developed by trial-and-error over generations from the efforts of insightful and desperate people, and contains nuggets of hard-won wisdom about desire and our power over it that are worth careful study.
Our screen time (such as gaming and social media) is being deliberately engineered in increasingly addictive ways. If we want to lead healthy, fulfilling lives, we will need to attend more closely to the state of our desires, cravings, and habits.
(Some of this touches on the related virtue of self-control, which I cover in a separate post.)