Manvotional: The Cardinal Virtues — Temperance

by Brett & Kate McKay on April 21, 2012 · 29 comments

in Manvotionals

From The Cardinal Virtues, 1902
By William De Witt Hyde


Temperance is closely akin to courage; for as courage takes on the pains which wisdom and justice find incidental to their ends, so temperance cuts off remorselessly whatever pleasures are inconsistent with these ends. The temperate man does not hate pleasure, any more than the brave man loves pain, for its own sake. It is not that he loves pleasure less, but that he loves wisdom and justice more. He puts the satisfaction of his permanent and social self over against the fleeting satisfaction of some isolated appetite, and cuts off the little pleasure to gain the lasting personal and social good. There is a remark of Hegel which gives the key to all true temperance; “In the eye of fate all action is guilt.” Since we are finite, to do one thing is to neglect all the competing alternative courses. We cannot have our cake and eat it too. As James puts it: “Not that I would not, if I could, be both handsome and fat and well-dressed and a great athlete, and make a million a year; be a wit, a bon-vivant, and a lady-killer, as well as a philosopher; a philanthropist, statesman, warrior, and African explorer, as well as a ‘tone-poet’ and saint. But the thing is simply impossible. The millionaire’s work would run counter to the saint’s; the bon-vivant and the philanthropist would trip each other up; and the philosopher and the lady-killer could not well keep house in the same tenement of clay. So the seeker of his truest, strongest, deepest self must review the list carefully, and pick out the one on which to stake his salvation.”

Some selection there must be between competing and mutually exclusive goods. The intemperate man selects what appeals most forcibly to his sensibilities at the moment. The temperate man selects that which best fits his permanent ends. There is sacrifice in either case. The intemperate man sacrifices his permanent and social self to his transient physical sensations. The temperate man sacrifices his transient sensations in the interest of his permanent and social self.

The temptation to intemperance comes chiefly from a false abstraction of pleasure. Finding that some function is attended with pleasure, we perform the function for the sake of the pleasure; forgetting to consider the end at which the function aims, or even disregarding the end altogether. A man seizes on one or another of the more sensitive parts of his nervous system, and then contrives ways to produce constant or frequently recurrent excitation. Thus the glutton crams his stomach, not for the nourishment and vigor food will give him, but for the sensations of agreeable taste and comfortable distention. Muscle must toil, brain must plan, and every other organ do extra work, simply to give the palate its transient titillation and provide the stomach its periodic gorge…

The glutton’s gorging of his stomach, in so far as it produces a pleasurable feeling of distention, is good. If a man were nothing but a stomach, and that were made of cast iron, then gluttony would be not only good, but the highest good. If a man were nothing but a bundle of nerves, and these were of wire and never subject to reaction, then the man who could keep them thrilling most intensely by whiskey and champagne would be the wisest one of us all…If one were a heating-plant chimney, then smoking would be the best he could do. If a man need do nothing but dream, then to neglect the joys of opium or cocaine would be superlative folly.

The evil of these things is due to the greater good they displace. Man is more than stomach or nerves or nose or jaws or chimney or dreamer; and indulgence in these departments of his life, unless very carefully controlled and restricted, involves injury to more important sides of life, out of all proportion to the petty gains in these special departments in question…

[But] let us be careful not to confound a wise temperance with the absurdities and rigors of asceticism. Asceticism hates pleasure, and sets itself up as something superior to pleasure. Hence it is sour, narrow, repulsive. As Macaulay said of the Puritans, “They hated bear-baiting, not because it gave pain to the bear, but because it gave pleasure to the spectators;” so the ascetic seems to hate the pleasure there is in things, and to begrudge other people their joys and consolations.

True temperance is modest. It is nothing in itself, but, like courage, simply the handmaid of wisdom and justice to carry out their commands. Temperance does not hate pleasure. Temperance loves pleasure more wisely — that is all. The temperate man recognizes that the pleasure of an act is a pretty sure indication that the act has some elements of good. But temperance denies that pleasure is an indication of the relative worth of different acts. Reason, not pleasure alone, must decide that point. Temperance never cuts off an indulgence, unless it be to save some greater and more valuable interest of life. Temperance is always, if it is modest, and keeps its proper place as the handmaid of wisdom, engaged in cutting off a lesser to save a greater good. Its weapon and symbol is the pruning knife; and its aim and justification is that the vine of life may bear more and better fruit. To erect temperance into a positive principle, to be merely a temperance man or woman, to cut off the fair leaves of pleasure merely for the sake of cutting them off, is monstrous, unnatural, perverse. The great moral motive power of life must lie in the positive and pleasurable interests which wisdom and justice and faith and love lay hold upon. To cast out evil as an end in itself is as futile as to try to drive the air out of a room with a fan.

Temperance, indeed, often finds itself arrayed against the lower and intenser forms of pleasure. That is because, for purposes of her own, Nature has attached the keenest pleasures to those instincts which are most fundamental to the preservation of the individual and the perpetuation of the species. But temperance, if it be wise, — if, that is, it be truly moral — must ever justify itself by those personal and social goods at which wisdom and justice aim. Hence temperance, though an important virtue in its place, is yet a strictly subordinate one. No man can amount to much without constant practice of stern self-denial and rigid self-control. But a man who does nothing but that; the man who erects temperance into a positive principle, who believes that the pruning knife can bear fruit of itself, and despises the rich soil that feeds the roots and the sweet sap that nourishes the branches of the vine of life, is no man at all. The measure and value of our temperance is, not the indulgences which we lop off from the branches of life here and there, but the beauty and sweetness and worth of the fruit which is borne by our lives as a whole.


{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Harry April 21, 2012 at 10:56 pm

I wish someone had thought to explain this one to me a long time ago. I was raised a strict Catholic, and the way my mother and religious instructors explained it definitely went too far towards the ascetic end. That has caused me a whole mess of guilt and stress. I’m not calling down the Church here, just the way it was explained to me.

This article makes a whole lot more sense. And to think it’s been sitting there for 110 years!

2 Chris April 21, 2012 at 11:21 pm

This is the best definition of temperance I’ve ever read.

3 Derrick April 22, 2012 at 12:06 am

Great post. I love turning to 2 Timothy 1:7 for stuff like this.

4 Sean April 22, 2012 at 5:29 am

.. an article defining the art of using words to explain the perfection and true definition of temperance.. beautiful!!

5 David April 22, 2012 at 6:08 am

Excellent! I’ve had a theory that sin or vice is a pursuit of something good gone astray. This timely reminder set before me once again that when I set my mind on a vice, I am stealing from the true person I should pursue.

6 David April 22, 2012 at 6:12 am

Staple this to my forehead:

“The temperate man does not hate pleasure, nor does he loves pleasure less, but that he loves wisdom and justice more.”

7 Blake Helgoth April 22, 2012 at 7:47 am

Sometimes the temperate thing is a glass of wine and a hot bath. – St. Thomas Aquinas, OP.

8 Curt April 22, 2012 at 9:34 am

I love how the article stresses, all things are good and have benefits, in “Moderation” (except smoking)
I think the man who shuts off all pleasure for the fact it is pleasure, is in fact finding pleasure from this too.

9 Bryan April 22, 2012 at 10:15 am

Mr. Hyde obviously knows his Aristotle.

10 Derek April 22, 2012 at 10:20 am

This excerpt is incredible. I also agree with Curt. I believe that a man can get pleasure from kicking a habit that he loathed, because now he is no longer cursed with doing something he did not want to do, though it may bring him no good from ending such a vice.

11 Terry April 22, 2012 at 1:02 pm

This article, gentlemen, at its core, deals with being men instead of simply males. There is a huge difference between the two. Being a man requires behaving with honor, self-control, and staying away from (and not seeking) people and situations that result in, shall we say, “inappropriate temptations.” It really isn’t that difficult to do; there is always an alternative course of action that leads to honor, and in the end, the honorable course of action also leads to more self-fulfillment, pride in oneself, and joy. Immediate gratification tends to be short-lived, whereas the benefits of good behavior are everlasting and create a ripple effect – not only benefiting us, but our families, those who love us and those whom we love.

12 Brent April 22, 2012 at 2:30 pm

The analogy of the pruning knife is great. This “lesser” virtue can be applied to so many areas of life, one being alcohol. As a training athlete, weekend binges have hindered my fitness level. I’ll try to remember that I am not abstaining for the sake of abstaining but I enter the bars/clubs with prune knife and I “clip off” the 3rd or 4th drink knowing that am going to yield greater satisfaction in other areas of my life. Corny, I know, but there’s nothing corny about the principle here.

13 Hank April 22, 2012 at 5:30 pm

Are “all” things good in moderation Curt? You said except smoking, what about porn, or masterbation, or any kind of illegal drug, or verbal abuse to another, lUstful thoughts, or even adultery in “moderation”. I have to say that “all things in moderation” seems to me to be the opposite of manhood. Is a man not disciplined to say no to destructive behaviors. My only thought is that all things in moderation seems to be a vague way of saying I don’t have many convictuins

14 Zacharia Karami April 22, 2012 at 5:53 pm


I believe he meant that any kind of destructive behavior is always destructive but most other things are good in moderation (even alcohol and masturbation).

15 Splashman April 22, 2012 at 7:54 pm

@Hank, the assumption here is that we avoid obviously destructive behaviors. What that aphorism applies to, is “good” behaviors. For instance, eating is a good thing; it is necessary to sustain life, and usually pleasurable. But taken to an extreme, eating can become destructive, thus the need for moderation.

Without that context, “all things in moderation” obviously makes no sense. So the next time you question the wisdom of a particular aphorism, think about context.

16 Andrew April 22, 2012 at 8:07 pm

@Splashman But in the context of the excerpt, cocaine is specifically cited as something that would be fine to use in unlimited amounts if man were meant only to dream. So it does seem that the author here is suggesting that even some behaviors that are purely destructive are fine in moderation because they are pleasurable. He seems to be assuming that all pleasure is legitimate.

17 Gianfranco April 22, 2012 at 8:52 pm

I’m 18 years old, and this blog and a few other influences are changing my life for better. I thank you

18 Jack April 22, 2012 at 8:57 pm

I finished reading “The Picture of Dorian Gray” a couple days ago and so I’ve been pondering this issue for a while. The advice Lord Henry provides Dorian is to take advantage of his youth, good looks, and social standing to gain as much pleasure from the world as he can. This article has been a helpful reminder that one must be moderate.
I agree that all pleasure is legitimate, and were it not for the social impact (perpetuation of organized crime), illicit drug use (but not something immediately harmful, like meth) in a controlled setting, with small doses would be acceptable. However, because of the crime associated with it, it is wrong to purchase these drugs. For example, it is harmful to the community to buy and use pot in most of the world, but in the Netherlands it has only the impact of buying cigars.

19 mickey d April 23, 2012 at 12:40 am

Choose what you think is right and would prosper you in the long run.

20 Splashman April 23, 2012 at 5:55 am

@Andrew, the context I was referring to was not Mr. Hyde’s essay on temperance, but the aphorism’s author’s intent. He wrote it regarding good things, not destructive things.

Regarding cocaine, one may apply this principle from Mr. Hyde’s essay: “Since we are finite, to do one thing is to neglect all the competing alternative courses.” In small amounts, cocaine *may* be harmless, in and of itself. But there are, in my opinion (and likely Mr. Hyde’s opinion as well), more virtuous ways to use one’s time and money.

21 Bret Weaver April 23, 2012 at 1:52 pm

another great read. Much thanks for posting.

22 Bret Weaver April 23, 2012 at 1:53 pm

going to share this with my Men’s Bible study by the way.

23 Daniel April 23, 2012 at 4:59 pm

An interesting post, though I am a bit sad to see the Puritan-bashing. As someone once said, the negative connotation associated with ‘puritan’ has done incredible damage to our society. We associate truth and purity, now, with what is ascetic, rigid, and laughable. How sad.

24 Dawud April 24, 2012 at 10:15 pm

I actually think this article misses the mark on its definition of asceticism. Asceticism is a spiritual practice for the most part, however the aim is not to deny pleasure but to put of certain pleasures for the sake of the Greater Pleasure. An ascetic may take a hardline against alcohol consumption for example, but not because he is shunning it simply because it is a pleasurable.. .but rather because it has such a great potential, or certainty, of hindering his greater goal. Drawing near to the Divine, for instance.

25 Native son April 25, 2012 at 2:46 am

The lat George Carlin’s riff on “Stuff” puts most of this in a contemporary mode.
What one needs to take into account is that Dr. Hyde’s sermon (I checked, he was an ordained and practicing minister as well as a academic.), is a fairly typical product of the Victorian “Muscular Christianity” school of thought.
While not denigrating the Cardinal Virtues, the late Victorian view he espoused logically leads to a denial of all pleasures, lest one fall foul of the Seven Deadly Sins.
Anyhow, a debate between Dr. Hyde and his immediate predecessor as president of Bowdoin College and manly virtues would have been something to have heard. Dr. Hyde’s predecessor, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlin, Brevet Major General, US Army, Medal of Honor recipient for his action on Little RoundTop, Gettysburg.

26 billster36 April 25, 2012 at 8:24 am

I intend to save this and share it with my son when he is old enough to understand it. I only wish I had read this when I was much younger.

27 Ralmon April 25, 2012 at 10:29 am

A great look at Temperance. Saved it to my computer and maybe make a hard copy of it.

The metaphor about temperance and pruning is quite great.

As to cocaine, drugs, smoking, ect. and some very “good stuff” like affection, kindness, knowledge, etc. … just remember, temperance is like pruning. When we prune we don’t just clip twigs (moderation); we might need to cut out whole branches (abstinence) and encourage certain branches and buds to grow (indulgence). Temperance is a whole arsenal of cuts and no cuts wisely done to shape our life to the fullest.

28 CHristopher April 25, 2012 at 10:59 am

Excellent article! Temperance is one of the rational man’s tools for creating the life he wants. More, please, Brett!

29 nick June 21, 2013 at 11:45 am

thank you so much for your views on temperance, that is a great definition and explanation…

however as was explained by ralmon, indugence in the ‘healthy things’ is temperance as well, but indulgence, is temperate and moderation is the key.. however, animals aren’t ours to eat, and yet what’s good to keep civilisation strong, and the weak suppressed, is if the weak eat animals – which causes a great deal of suffering to the animals…

so suffer for society, or live outside of society and flourish?

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