6 min read

Temperance: neurotic vice or self-control for future benefit?

We’re better at bravery than temperance, just when we need that self-control more than ever.

Barnabas Aspray is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at St. Mary’s Seminary and University.

A casually dressed man perches on railing balancing, clasping his hands and looking around.
Jed Villejo on Unsplash.

The 21st century is witnessing a crisis of temperance, self-discipline, and self-control. Lent is one way to combat this.  

According to the international Leader Character framework, there are eleven “character strengths” important for human wellbeing and good leadership. These include virtues like justice, accountability, courage, and good judgment. Researchers have used this framework to perform thousands of studies on teams and groups of people around the world. These studies show that, almost without exception, temperance is the weakest virtue in every team everywhere. (Not quite every person – each team has one or two members with strong temperance, but temperance is still weakest on average for a group). 

The modern world is not only intemperate: it actively encourages the opposite: immediate gratification of desires. Every day we are bombarded with online ads, posters, and TV commercials that tell us to ‘Indulge yourself’; ‘treat yourself’, ‘look after yourself’, along with images of sensually pleasing people and objects. It is a rare advert that appeals to your calm rationality and long-term thinking. The advertising industry knows that it can make much more money from people who lack self-control. If it targets your basic animal impulses, then you are more likely to buy things you don’t need and wouldn’t have thought of without ad’s enticing promise. 

Temperance is the power to choose what you won’t regret choosing later on. 

Worse still, there are elements of Western thought that praise intemperance as a virtue and pathologize restraint as a psychological disorder. Elements of Freudian psychoanalysis, popularised in the media, suggest that you do damage to your mental health if you suppress your desires or try to hide them. It is far healthier to give free rein – to sexual desire first of all, but to all desires in the end. Temperance is no longer a virtue to be admired, but a neurotic vice that fills your subconscious with envy, bitterness, and psychological problems. 

What is temperance anyway and why is it a problem if we lack it? 

Temperance is self-control. It is acquired by self-discipline. Its purpose is to organise and order your many desires, giving priority to the ones that matter most to you. Let’s say you want to lose weight, and you also want to eat that doughnut you can see in the shop window. Or you want to save money to buy a house, but you also want that new and larger TV screen. Those are competing desires. Temperance is the power to choose what you won’t regret choosing later on. It doesn’t tell you what you ought to choose: it simply gives you control over your desires so you rule over them instead of them ruling you.   

What does lack of temperance look like? Whenever you keep doing something you wish you didn’t keep doing, you are being intemperate. I don’t mean one-time actions that you later regret. I mean things you know you’ll regret even before you do them, yet you still do them. Things like: smoking (for most people), eating too much, browsing Instagram or TikTok instead of working, failing to show up for gym class. It can also mean any kind of procrastination: avoiding doing a task you know you have to do but don’t want to do ‘now’. In sum, it reveals a disorganisation in your priorities and goals, so a lesser priority subverts a higher priority because it’s more immediately available and enjoyable. 

We need temperance if we’re going to be happy with where our lives are going

The problem with lacking temperance is that it undermines your own goals for your life and makes your future self a helpless victim of your present self. It leads to a downward spiral of the heart of intemperance is that some desire, some pleasure, some indulgence, has gained so much power over our life that we no longer have control over it. It is in the driving seat, not us. Intemperance is also a cause of self-hatred and low self-esteem. One of the best ways to feel better about yourself is to set long term goals and stick to them. It makes you feel like you’re heading somewhere good.  

By contrast, the heart of temperance is to subordinate everything we think, feel, and enjoy to our will, our clear-headed decisions about the kind of person we want to be in the long-term. We need temperance if we’re going to be happy with where our lives are going. Temperance is even needed for worldly success. Warren Buffett once said, “Investing is not a game where the guy with the 160 IQ beats the guy with the 130 IQ. Once you have ordinary intelligence, what you need is the temperament to control the urges that get other people into trouble.” 

Why is temperance so lacking in our own time? I can think of at least two reasons.  

First, we are one of the wealthiest societies ever to exist. Wealth may have benefits, but it also enables us to get what we want, when we want it. Wealthy people are less used to having their desires unsatisfied than poor people. Unfulfilled longing is a less common occurrence for the rich, so there is little natural opportunity to exercise the muscle of self-denial. 

Secondly, we are one of the least religious societies ever to have existed. In contrast to secularism, religion has always had practical tools to cultivate temperance. All major world religions have ritual practices of fasting and feasting designed to exercise and strengthen self-discipline. Every year Muslims endure the gruelling discipline of Ramadan. Orthodox Christians restrict themselves to a vegan diet during the forty days of lent, and many other Christians give up some indulgence. Both rich and poor share alike in this voluntary self-denial. Now that these practices are eroding away, they are being replaced not by other self-discipline practices, but by the worship of I-want-it-here-and-now. This is shown most poignantly in the 2000 movie Chocolat, which explicitly puts up sensual indulgence in competition to traditional religion and abstinence – and indulgence wins.  

But the decline of religion has done more than this: it has also undermined the sense of transcendent purpose in many people’s lives – which was what motivated them to look beyond their physical desires. Without hope and without a larger sense of meaning to life, people have less reason to sacrifice short-term pleasures for the sake of longer-term goals. 

Nor are sensual desires the only way we can be intemperate. An outburst of rage on social media is a sign of intemperance. 

I don’t mean that short-term pleasures are always bad, or that sensual desire is evil in itself. The whole point of temperance is that it involves the right amount, and not too much, of something good. That is what makes it so tricky. If eating a doughnut was like stealing or violence, we would have a stronger voice telling us not to do it. But because it’s not bad in itself, we find it harder to resist. We need temperance to say no to something good when we’ve already taken enough of it, so we don’t take too much.  

Nor are sensual desires the only way we can be intemperate. An outburst of rage on social media is a sign of intemperance. A father who spends too long in the office and not enough time with his children is being intemperate. He is sacrificing the long-term goal of healthy family relationships for the short-term goal of career success. We lack the self-control to express our anger in the right place at the right time.  

Temperance is needed for so many of the other virtues to function. If you’re not temperate, then you will be late for meetings, fail to deliver work on time, or makes too many commitments that you can’t keep. You’ll be a liability to your friends and colleagues.  

Temperance doesn’t tell you what you should aim for in life. But no matter what you aim for, you won’t get it without temperance. So, what are you giving up for lent?  

6 min read

The rest is Luther

Can popular podcasts really do justice? The expert’s verdict is in.

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

Two podcast hosts in different rooms appear on a split screen talking to each other
Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook rank Luther's influence.

I’m not one of those who listens to every episode of The Rest is History - does anyone do that with the sheer volume of material they produce? Yet when I see something that interests me – 1970s Britain, the Lost Library of Alexandria, the Easter Rising of 1916, I’m in. So, when I saw they were doing a series on Martin Luther, I just had to listen.  

With much of what they cover, take the Lost Library of Alexandria for example, I wouldn’t really know whether they were telling the truth or not, having a passing interest and only a vague knowledge of the topic. Yet this one was different, because, without wanting to blow any trumpets, I do know a fair bit about Luther. I’ve written a doctorate, a biography and a couple of other books on him, lectured on Luther at Oxford University for many years, and spent a lot of time in libraries, poring over his commentaries and treatises, wading my way through dense books by German scholars picking apart the most minute aspects of his theology. 

 Very often when you hear something on the TV or radio that you know something about, you realise the journalists are winging it. They get away with it because no-one knows any better. So, I wondered this time, would I see through the boys on the podcast, and realise they were winging it too?  

They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was. 

Well, my admiration for Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland went up massively. I once asked Tom whether they had an army of researchers doing their work for them and he told me they didn’t - they read most of the stuff themselves.  So, to have them do five episodes on a topic that is not necessarily their specialist subject and get pretty much all of the story not just right, but really interesting, is quite an achievement. They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was.  

They normally recount history with a good dose of humour, drama and colour. That is taken for granted. They know how to tell a good story. However, they also really know their stuff. Tom led the way, and I must say, told the story with a level of detail, accuracy and sympathy that was quite remarkable. They clearly enjoyed it too – they loved his earthiness, his preoccupation with the devil and excrement that is so distinctively Luther. 

Martin Luther, as they said at the end, was no saint. He was a man of extremes. He could inspire devoted loyalty from his friends, and fury from his enemies in equal measure. He was never dull. He always said his besetting sin was anger – he claimed to write best when he was cross. That explains the vituperative language, the skill at invective, his genius for insults. He said terrible things about the peasants and even worse things about the Jews. Yet he launched a movement that brought fresh dignity and purpose to countless people across Europe and beyond – he can be said to have touched the lives of the one billion Protestants in the world today. He literally changed the world. And Tom and Dominic helped us understand why. 

Definitely a nine out of ten.  

But why not ten? 

Well, I did have one small quibble. Luther was portrayed as someone who struggled to know that God loved him. So far, so good. His great breakthrough was described by the excellent Holland as “a personal experience of God”, whereby Luther found “a feeling of being washed in the love of God.” Luther’s new discovery was that “If God loves you, you exist in a state of grace… which is a feeling that Christ is present in you, in your secretmost heart, and the certainty of that grace gives you a peace of conscience.”  

Now there is something of that in Luther, and it was close, but it’s not quite the way he would have put it.  

Luther is really not that interested in experiences of God. In fact, he distrusts them. in 1521, a group of prophets arrived in Wittenberg from a small town called Zwickau claiming experiences of God, but Luther was having none of it. He asked about their experience – but not whether they had experienced the love of God, but whether they had experienced his absence. Had they experienced what Luther called Anfechtung – the experience of feeling God is against you, when you struggle with temptation, are driven to despair, when God doesn’t answer your prayers, and when all you know is your own shame, sin, and disgrace? What do you do then?  

And that’s why the Bible was important to him – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

The reason he asked about this was that such experiences so often are the things that help bring faith to birth, because they press the question of who you trust in such times – your own feelings of inadequacy? Or God’s word that tells you something different? 

Luther found peace of conscience, not in some unmediated experience of the love of God for him, but in hearing afresh the Word which God had spoken to the human race in Jesus Christ. Against all the odds, and despite his frequent experience of God’s absence rather than his presence, God had sent his Son, as a pledge once and for all, that God’s heart was full of love and kindness. In sending Christ, God had given himself (or technical language, his ‘righteousness’) to us in Christ, and the only fitting response, is simply to believe and trust that this is true, whereby that ‘righteousness’ becomes ours. We are therefore, in Luther’s classic and paradoxical phrase, ‘both righteous and sinful’ at the same time 

He once put it like this: “God achieves his purposes through suffering, pain and anxiety. Yet of course these are not the things in which you expect to find God. As a result, most people do not recognise this as God’s work, because they expect God only to be revealed in glory, grandeur and splendour. The way God works confounds human expectations and so, faith is needed to see past the appearance of things to their true reality.” 

This was the doctrine of justification by faith – not trying to be extra religious or having ecstatic experiences of God but simply trusting your life on the notion that Jesus is God’s great gift the the world, a gift that tells us he is, despite everything that may point in the other direction, full of love and goodness – and not just to the human race in general, but to you, to me. And that’s why the Bible was so important to Luther – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

This is what gave Luther joy. It was not that an experience gave birth to faith, but it was the other way round: trusting God’s promise in Christ gave birth to the joy that comes from faith.  

Tom and Dominic did a fantastic job in their series on Luther. I really recommend you listen to it – you won’t regret it. But just remember Luther was more interested in faith than feeling:

“Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favour that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God's grace makes you happy, joyful and bold.”  


The Rest is History on YouTube. Martin Luther: The Man Who Changed The World, Part 1.