Contact Us

The virtue of temperance

30 November, 1999

The Catechism of the Catholic Church treats temperance in the context of the dignity of the human person, the human vocation and human virtues as the power for right living. It is not depriving a person of anything, but is totally a positive acquisition. Patrick Duffy explains.

Virtue is power
The word “virtue” derives from the Latin word vir-tus, literally meaning “manliness” or “courage” and it has the connotation of someone who is forceful, influential, compelling.  A person of virtue is not a wimp; quite the opposite. 

Human virtues are distinct from the theological virtues – faith, hope and charity – which relate directly to God and dispose a person to live in a relationship with the Holy Trinity.

Human virtues, also called moral virtues, are described in the Catechism as “firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith”.  A virtue inclines the person not only to perform good acts, but to give the best of themselves.  The virtuous person vigorously chooses the good in concrete actions and pursues it with all their sensory and spiritual powers. 

Virtue is acquired by human effort.  It begins with decision, which means literally, ‘cutting’ or ‘killing’ off (Latin: de + caedere) other possibilities. Consistent practice then makes self-mastery easier and gradually produces joy in doing the good. 

The four virtues which play a pivotal role – prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance – are called “cardinal” or “hinge” virtues; all the others are grouped around them.

What is temperance?
Temperance is the moral virtue that enables us to moderate the attraction of pleasures and to be able to balance our use of created goods.

The temperate person trains the will to be able to master the instincts and to direct the sensitive appetites toward what is good, while maintaining a healthy discretion.

The Book of Ben Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 18:30 advocates temperance in these words: “Do not follow your base desires, but restrain your appetites.” The New Testament calls it “sobriety” or “moderation”.  Paul warns Titus that we ought “to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world” (2:12). `

Related virtues
St Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica, groups many other virtues around temperance and relates them to it, namely, honesty, studiousness, abstinence, fasting, sobriety, chastity, modesty and humility, clemency and meekness.