This year, I will reflect on the four cardinal virtues through daily practice and meditation, intentionally focusing on one per season. After starting the year with prudence, I continued with temperance – or the capacity to contain appetites and moderate sensual pleasures.
In this last week with temperance, I reflected on its connection to prudence.
We treat our bodies as an instrument for pleasure: we direct our attention to food, sex, drink and the titillations of entertainment. So what if the body suffers in the process? Maybe, by spending time, energy, money, we seek to restore balance: comfort food, social media scrolls, pornography, give us a momentary high – and this, we believe, will tip us back into sustained happiness. As if, by feeding fleeting passions, we could nourish our deeper core.
This – however – carries danger, as excessive pleasures loosen our connection to our own body. Sometimes, it is wise to stretch limits, accept a measure of pain, and disregard our body’s warning signals; sometimes, on the contrary, we should listen to the body, stop running, and rest, avoiding burn out. The more temperate we become, the more likely that we will perceive the right signals, rest when we need, extend boundaries when appropriate.
We should also think of temperance as a social virtue. Wednesday, I spent a pleasant evening sharing spicy food and sake with a friend. Sharing food or drink – and in certain contexts, even sex – is a potent bonding ritual. For over 25 years, I have reflected on a quote by Andre Gide, ‘it is our duty to make ourselves happy’. Temperance should not stand in the way, but rather, support wise indulgence – including appropriate excess.
When is excess appropriate? This will vary, from person to person, and culture to culture. I did something unusual on Thursday: I left half my lunch for the following day, I was full. At other times, I would keep eating, without considering my own hunger, following a script. For once, I did not act in a distracted manner. We live in highly complex environments, and in the resulting clutter, pleasure triumphs. Temperance has no worth of its own, if not guided by prudence. But, if prudence prevails, how potent is temperance.