Home - Jan 2023

Well-Ordered Life Series: Part 7

By Mr. Ben Walter
Part 7 - Temperance
Temperance is the restraint of appetite and the moderation of passion. The ancient Greeks held the virtue of temperance in high esteem, partly due to their military tactics. Both the 200-oared trireme and the tightly packed phalanx required tight unit formation rather than acts of individual valor. Temperance in courage was necessary to prevent some from charging blindly and others from turning to run. Steady, patient, temperate courage won the battles.
The military application of temperance relies on an important aspect of this virtue: training. Babies, for instance, are constantly being trained not to put dirt in their mouths or drink out of puddles. When children are a bit older, they need to be taught other limits of appetite so that they don't eat themselves sick on cotton candy or M&Ms. 
This learned self-restraint is an important mark of true temperance. It is needed to moderate our appetites, our emotions, and perhaps most of all, our execution of the other virtues. The immoderately just person might place himself as a judge over others. The immoderately courageous person might place herself in unreasonably dangerous situations. Intemperance in the pursuit of any virtue is the unwillingness to accept human frailty and fallibility. It is the most dangerous form of intemperance - it is man playing God.
Many Greek myths tell of kings who reached too high and were cruelly disillusioned. The story of Tantalus stands out in particular. Tantalus was the wealthy and powerful king of Sipylus (modern day Turkey). He was born the son of Zeus and a nymph. Because Tantalus was such a renowned king, and had a divine father, he was once invited to eat with the gods on Mount Olympus.
There are two versions of what happened at dinner. In the first story, Tantalus stole ambrosia and nectar, the food of the gods, and brought them down to humans. In the second version, Tantalus killed his son Pelops, boiled him in a stew, and brought it up to Olympus.
In both versions of the story, Zeus was absolutely furious. As a punishment, Tantalus had to spend eternity in a pool of water. There was a tree of delicious fruit growing above him. Every time he reached for the fruit, wind would blow the bough just out of his reach. When he was thirsty, he would bend over to get a drink, but the water would run away before he could get to it.
Whether Tantalus steals ambrosia (the food of the gods) or cooks up his son (forbidden cannibalism), there is something wrong with his physical appetite and consumption. But this consumption points to a bigger problem with Tantalus--he thinks he is above the rules. Reading the myth in either of its forms, Tantalus' actions are intemperate: gluttonous, prideful, and perversely pious.
In ancient cultures, feasting was a ritual that reinforced relationships between humans and the divine. Feasts and sacrifices were one and the same, as the animal would be partly eaten, partly burned for the gods. Thus the ideal feast was an orderly affair that satisfied both physical and spiritual need. In Homer's Iliad, feasting punctuates the fighting as the men establish an ordered respite from the chaos of war. When they eat, the warriors admit their mortality, and they only eat until desire for eating goes away1
In contrast, improper feasting is portrayed in Homer's Odyssey. At the beginning of the epic, Odysseus' wife Penelope has been at home for twenty years as her husband is off fighting at Troy. She has many suitors who spend all day at the palace feasting and carousing. There is no order to the celebration--for these young men, life is a constant carnival of roasted meat and pitchers of wine. Eventually Odysseus returns to violently establish order.
Considerations on the proper role of feasting occur in the Hebrew scriptures. The feast of the Passover is full of religious and symbolic meaning--it is both a feast and a sacrifice. Similarly, the love feast of the Eucharist similarly reaffirms the spiritual bond between Christians and Christ2.
However, there are also numerous instances in the wisdom literature and the prophets in which feasting is a sign of the moral decay of the land when carried out improperly.
"Woe, O land, when your king is a child,
And your princes feast in the morning!
Blessed are you, O land, when
your king is the son of nobles,
And your princes feast at the
proper time--
For strength and not for drunkenness!"
Ecclesiastes 10:16-17
The best example of how intemperance combines physical appetite with spiritual pride is the temptation and fall of mankind in Genesis.
Now the serpent was more cunning than any beast of the field which the Lord God had made. And he said to the woman, “Has God indeed said, ‘You shall not eat of every tree of the garden’?” And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat the fruit of the trees of the garden; but of the fruit of the tree which is in the midst of the garden, God has said, ‘You shall not eat it, nor shall you touch it, lest you die.’ ” Then the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that in the day you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree desirable to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate. She also gave to her husband with her, and he ate. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves coverings.
Genesis 3:1-7
Eating the fruit is an intemperate act of appetite though "the tree was good for food and pleasant to the eyes." Adam and Eve eat the fruit with the intention to become wise "like a god"--in other words, to become God's equal. 
So, what does this have to do with the well-ordered life?
A common approach to temperance focuses on the what? and the how much? What exercise program, how many carbs, when to get up, etc. But being temperate is not figuring out the perfect work-life balance or even being virtuous in ten easy steps. This "well-organized" approach is tempting, but it is bound to fail. Most of the ancient Stoics worked so hard to be temperate through sheer will-power that their philosophy became inhumanly rigid and their lives looked ridiculous. Of course, the antidote to this is not getting comfortable with our failings. The well-ordered approach to life looks instead at temperance not only in the particulars, but also in the principles. It above all recognizes human frailty. True temperance accepts that mortals need divine assistance on the path to virtue.
[1] At the climax of the epic, Achilles refuses to rest or eat in his murderous rampage against the Trojans. His heroic pride is mingled with the knowledge that his death is coming soon.
[2] At its ideal! In 1 Corinthians 11:21 St. Paul chides some in the church there for getting drunk at the Lord's Supper.

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