Temperance hurts

If it hasn’t become clear already, I don’t want to do this blog. But I do want to write books, and I’ve been told a dozen times now that publishers won’t consider you unless you’ve got a “popular following.” So now I have to practice near-superhuman virtue by maintaining this horrible thing until somebody gives me a book deal, at which time I will never blog again.

In that vein, and with that theme, here’s an excerpt from my (God-and-publisher-willing) upcoming book Advice from Aristotle: Life Lessons from the Nicomachean Ethics.


“The temperate man is so called because he is not pained at the absence of what is pleasant and at his abstinence from it.” Nicomachean Ethics III.11

Later followers of Aristotle broadly divided emotions into two types, which they called “concupiscible” and “irascible.” Irascible emotions generally had to do with the difficulties of life and all the obstacles we face when trying to get what we want (the short list is: hope, despair, fear, daring, and anger). Concupiscible emotions, on the other hand, just have to do with things we want or don’t want, without reference to how difficult it is to get them (they’re usually listed as: love, desire, joy, hatred, aversion, and sorrow). I’m not going to say much more about this division, and it’s not really that important for my point right now except to say that, generally speaking, courage seems to be a virtue that moderates an irascible passion (namely fear) whereas temperance, then next one he talks about, moderates the principle and boss of all concupiscible passions, pleasure. 

Whereas fear pushes us away, pleasure pulls us in. As usual, you can use any example you want in order to understand what Aristotle is saying: the pleasure of eating french fries, the pleasure of avenging your father’s death, the pleasure of watching a sunset. However, the virtue of temperance isn’t as important in all these different cases, and that’s because lots of the things we take pleasure in aren’t really so addicting that they can harm or screw up our lives, which means they don’t really need much effort to moderate. You don’t really see people living on the streets because of their addiction to sunsets or the smell of orange blossoms. 

When specifying which pleasures need to be moderated by the virtue of temperance, he boils it down to two: eating and sex. He gets even more specific and seems to be more concerned about sex than eating, but instead of being more specific, I’ll actually add to his list. I think temperance should also be concerned with moderating alcohol and drugs, and other things like the amount of time we spend watching Netflix and playing video games. I’m adding to his list because I’ve noticed all these things become directly or indirectly harmful to people’s lives, and therefore detract from their happiness. 

Still, though, Aristotle does have a point when he focuses on the pleasure of sex. It’s not only about its intensity or its ability to create, but also about its ability to destroy. You don’t even have to include acts of terrible violence like rape or child abuse in this, since those are as much about power and pain as they are about pleasure. Just think about how easily sexual desire can destroy marriages through adultery, or how quickly it can breed obsession, or cause someone to allow themselves to be hurt or disrespected, or, in all these cases and more, how it can cloud the mind. Sex seems to have the tendency to take over all of life like a tyrant. I don’t think it’s love that is blind, or even blinding, but lust. And if something clouds the mind that easily, by definition it can be irrational, and take away the happiness that is defined as rational activity. 

Of course, that’s not to say that the desire is itself bad, but only that it needs to be moderated. Whether or not you believe that sex should be reserved for marriage, it should be reserved in one way or another, and it, like everything else we do, should be guided by reason. By the way, if you’re unconvinced about how dangerous sexual desire can be, try giving it up for a while. If you find it difficult, it might have more power over you than you think. Then, if you’re convinced of its power and want to learn the virtue of temperance, practice.


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