3 min read

Temperance: for the lovers of life

Restraint forms the river banks that allow a human life to flow deep and true. Andrew Davison concludes his series on virtue.

Andrew works at the intersection of theology, science and philosophy. He is Starbridge Professor of Theology and Natural Sciences at Cambridge University and is currently a visiting fellow at the Center of Theological Inquiry, Princeton.

A bird's eye view of a river, with a lock and weir to the left and an island with two bridges to the right.
Day's Lock on the River Thames, Near Wittenham.
Lawrence Hookham on Unsplash.

At the end of this series on the cardinal virtues, presented during Lent, we come to what may seem the most Lenten of them all: to temperance, or restraint. In a certain sense temperance is Lenten. I’ve been drawing on Thomas Aquinas as we journey through the virtues, and Lent features in his discussion of temperance in a way that it doesn’t in his treatment of the others. He brings in Lenten fasting, for instance. In another sense, however, Lent cannot be said primarily to be the season of temperance, simply because Lent is supremely the season for virtue, and temperance, while a virtue, is a lesser virtue than either prudence (the capacity to make wise moral decisions) or justice (or fairness). Those are the virtues of the first rank. We need temperance, and courage, as the virtues in the second rank, only as aids in the prudent attainment of justice.

On love of life

Aquinas is a cheerful theologian, and an upbeat writer. We see that in his insistence that temperance is ultimately about love of life, not hatred of it. Indeed, temperance is about self-preservation. Indeed, that applies twice over: first, because the domain of temperance concerns things that make for life (for instance, food, drink, sleep, and sexual relations), but also, and all the more so, because temperance is about moderation in those areas precisely for the sake of self-preservation. Human nature being as it is, the very things that most make for life, and which we therefore desire strongly, can – because we desire them so much – be taken up immoderately, and then impede life. Eating again serves as an example, or the loss of the very great good of a life-long relationship because of a promiscuous moment. It is the greatest goods than need the most diligent preservation. Just as courage recognised the good of what it was prepared to lose for the sake of the doing the right thing (for, if they were not good, why would we need to show courage in losing them?), so does temperance.

Aquinas praises fasting, for instance, but exactly not because it stands against human life or the body. Rather, he praises fasting as a way to bodily and spiritual health. Indeed, he thought that the connection, especially with respect to spiritual wellbeing, was so strong and obvious that it would oblige everyone to fast sometimes, as a matter of universal common sense, even outside the strictures of any particular religious tradition.

The middle way again

His discussion of temperance is really all about moderation. We saw in the last article that virtues have the character of a ‘mean’ or middle way, such that hope lies between despair and presumption, and courage between cowardice and foolhardiness. In this way, temperance lies between harmful excess and harmful restraint. There is a vice of too much foregoing as well as one of too little.

I began by remarking that temperance, for Aquinas, is a secondary virtue, vital but needed only because of human weakness. Josef Pieper, among his most insightful twentieth century followers, offered an admirable summary. Temperance, or moderation, does not, in itself ‘realise the good’, but it remains an important part of that realisation. Pieper offers the image of a river and its banks. Without temperance

‘the stream of the innermost human will-to-be would overflow destructively beyond all bounds, it would lose its direction and never reach the sea of perfection. But it is the shore, the banks, from whose solidity the stream receives the gift of straight unhindered course, of force, descent, and velocity.’

The magnetic pole of virtue is the good. It is not defined by difficulty or hardship. Temperance, or the virtue of restraint, is not the goal of the river that is human life, but it does form the river banks that allow a human life to flow deep and true.

1 min read

Johannes Hartl: the sign of the times

The philosopher and theologian on meaning, connectedness, beauty and faith. A GodPod bonus episode.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Two people sit on a stage in a relaxed manner, having a converation.
Johannes Hartl and Graham Tomlin.
Mark Tatton.

This episode is a little bit special.

Recorded live as a part of HTB’s 2024 Leadership Conference, GodPod’s Graham Tomlin interviews Dr Johannes Hartl. Johannes is a philosopher, theologian, spiritual leader, musician and author, dealing in topics of meaning, connectedness, beauty and faith. He is also the founder of the House of Prayer in Augsburg and, more recently, Eden Culture.

Graham and Joahnnes, joined by a live audience, speak of the self, language, how the transcendent is understood in our cultural moment and the power and beauty of prayer. This conversation is diverse and rich, and absolutely not to be missed. 

For more from Johannes visit his web site.

Find Johannes’ main stage talk at the Leadership Conference main stage (along with other curated highlights for the event).

For more about St Mellitus visit its web site.