Temperance (virtue)

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The Temperance of Piero Pollaiuolo, 1470

Temperance in its modern use is defined as moderation or voluntary self-restraint.[1] It is typically described in terms of what an individual voluntarily refrains from doing.[2] This includes restraint from revenge by practicing non-violence and forgiveness, restraint from arrogance by practicing humility and modesty, restraint from excesses such as extravagant luxury or splurging, and restraint from rage or craving by practicing calmness and self-control.[2]

Temperance has been described as a virtue by religious thinkers, philosophers, and more recently, psychologists, particularly in the positive psychology movement. It has a long history in philosophical and religious thought.

In classical iconography, the virtue is often depicted as a woman holding two vessels transferring water from one to another. It is one of the cardinal virtues in western thought found in Greek philosophy and Christianity, as well as eastern traditions such as Buddhism and Hinduism.

Temperance is one of the six virtues in the positive psychology classification, included with wisdom, courage, humanity, justice, and transcendence.[3] It is generally characterized as the control over excess, and expressed through characteristics such as chastity, modesty, humility, self-regulation, hospitality, decorum, abstinence, and forgiveness; each of these involves restraining an excess of some impulse, such as sexual desire, vanity, or anger.

The term "temperance" can also refer to the abstention from alcohol (teetotalism), especially with reference to the temperance movement. It can also refer to alcohol moderation.

Philosophical perspectives[edit]

Greek civilization[edit]

Figure of Temperance from Digges memorial by Nicholas Stone, St. Mary's Church, Chilham

There are two words in ancient Greek that have been translated to "temperance" in the English language. The first, sôphrosune, largely meant self-restraint. The other, enkrateia, was a word coined during the time of Aristotle, to mean control over oneself, or self-discipline. Enkrateia appears three times in the King James Bible, where it was translated as temperance.

The modern meaning of temperance has evolved since its first usage. In Latin, tempero means restraint (from force or anger), but also more broadly the proper balancing or mixing (particularly, of temperature, or compounds). Hence the phrase "to temper a sword", meaning the heating and cooling process of forging a metal blade. The Latin also referred to governing and control, likely in a moderate way (i.e. not with the use of excessive force).[citation needed]

Temperance is a major Athenian virtue, as advocated by Plato; self-restraint (sôphrosune) is one of his four core virtues of the ideal city, and echoed by Aristotle. In "Charmides", one of Plato's early dialogues, an attempt is made to describe temperance, but fails to reach an adequate definition. According to Aristotle, who restricts the sphere of temperance to bodily pleasures, says "temperance is a mean with regard to pleasures".[4]

Marcus Aurelius[edit]

In his Meditations, the Roman emperor and stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius defines temperance as "a virtue opposed to love of pleasure".[5] He argues that temperance separates humans from animals, writing that:

it is the peculiar office of the rational and intelligent motion to circumscribe itself, and never to be overpowered either by the motion of the senses or the appetites, for both are animal; but the intelligent motion claims superiority and does not permit itself to be overpowered by the others[.]

For Marcus, this rational faculty exists to understand the appetites, rather than be used by them.[6] In the ninth book of the Meditations, he gives this advice: "Wipe out imagination: check desire: extinguish appetite: keep the ruling faculty in its own power."[7]

Marcus takes inspiration from his father, someone Marcus remembers as "satisfied on all occasions", who "showed sobriety in all things" and "did not take the bath at unseasonable hours; he was not fond of building houses, nor curious about what he ate, nor about the texture and colour of his clothes, nor about the beauty of his slaves." Marcus writes that temperance is both difficult and yet important. He favourably likens his father to Socrates, in that "he was able both to abstain from, and to enjoy, those things which many are too weak to abstain from, and cannot enjoy without excess. But to be strong enough both to bear the one and to be sober in the other is the mark of a man who has a perfect and invincible soul".[8]

Thomas Aquinas[edit]

In his Summa Theologica, Thomas Aquinas defines the scope of temperance: "Temperance, however, considered as a human virtue, deals with the desires of sensible pleasures".[9] The notion of 'sensible pleasure' receives further expansion when he states, "the object of temperance is a good in respect of the pleasures connected with the concupiscence of touch."[10] In addition, he further defines temperance itself by associating it with the forbearing of sensible pleasures, as opposed to the mere toleration of sensible pain, a distinction he highlights when he claims that "the temperate man is praised for refraining from pleasures of touch, more than for not shunning the pains which are contrary to them".[11]

For Aquinas, temperance need never contradict pleasure in itself: "The temperate man does not shun all pleasures, but those that are immoderate, and contrary to reason."[12] For example, he discusses food and sex, which, when approached with temperance, fulfill human requirements for survival without contradicting the virtue of moderation:

"Accordingly, if we take a good, and it be something discerned by the sense of touch, and something pertaining to the upkeep of human life either in the individual or in the species, such as the pleasures of the table or of sexual intercourse, it will belong to the virtue of temperance."[13]

Michel de Montaigne[edit]

Similarly to Marcus Aurelius, the French philosopher Michel de Montaigne writes in his essay 'Of Experience' that temperance enhances the soul:

Greatness of soul consists not so much in mounting and in pressing forward, as in knowing how to govern and circumscribe itself; it takes everything for great, that is enough, and demonstrates itself in preferring moderate to eminent things.

Montaigne differs from Marcus in that Montaigne believes temperance enhances pleasure, rather than opposing the love of it: "Intemperance is the pest of pleasure; and temperance is not its scourge, but rather its seasoning."[14] Like Aquinas, Montaigne sees no contradiction between temperance and pleasure in the right moral context. Rather, he believes that "there is no pleasure so just and lawful, where intemperance and excess are not to be condemned." For example, he commends a temperate approach to the pleasures of sex within marriage: "Marriage is a solemn and religious tie, and therefore the pleasure we extract from it should be a sober and serious delight, and mixed with a certain kind of gravity; it should be a sort of discreet and conscientious pleasure." Montaigne also discusses the difficulty of temperance. He muses on whether pleasure's tempering creates unhappiness:

But, to speak the truth, is not man a most miserable creature the while? It is scarce, by his natural condition, in his power to taste one pleasure pure and entire; and yet must he be contriving doctrines and precepts to curtail that little he has; he is not yet wretched enough, unless by art and study he augment his own misery[.][15]

In his essay 'Of Drunkenness', Montaigne accepts that temperance neither can nor should completely exclude the possibility of desire: "‘Tis sufficient for a man to curb and moderate his inclinations, for totally to suppress them is not in him to do."[16] But in 'Of Managing the Will', Montaigne warns against failing to curb inclinations: "The more we amplify our need and our possession, so much the more do we expose ourselves to the blows and adversities of Fortune."[17]

Francis Bacon[edit]

In his Advancement of Learning, the English philosopher Francis Bacon, like Marcus and Montaigne, recognizes the difficulty of adhering to temperance in the face of sensations and desires. He writes "that the mind in the nature thereof would be temperate and stayed, if the affections, as winds, did not put it into tumult and perturbation." He believes this problem applies especially to those fortunate enough to enjoy the security of material comfort. Of these, he says, "great and sudden fortune for the most part defeateth men" and quotes Psalm 61's advice that the wealthy ought to emotionally detach from their wealth.[18]

John Milton[edit]

In Paradise Lost, the English poet and revolutionary republican John Milton has the Archangel Michael expound on the value of temperance, or what he calls "the rule of not too much", a virtue he states has the benefit of conferring long life on the temperate person:

There is, said Michael, if thou well observe
The rule of not too much, by temperance taught
In what thou eatst and drinkst, seeking from thence
Due nourishment, not gluttonous delight,
Till many years over thy head return:
So maist thou live, till like ripe Fruit thou drop
Into thy Mothers lap, or be with ease
Gatherd, not harshly pluckt, for death mature[.][19]

However, like Marcus, Montaigne, and Bacon before him, Milton well-estimated the difficulty of attaining temperance. In his essay Areopagitica, he writes that temperance requires prudence in differentiating good desires from evil passions, but also that this prudence comes only from an understanding of temptation, a familiarity which could bring an intemperate person under the sway of evil appetites: "He that can apprehend and consider vice with all her baits and seeming pleasures, and yet abstain, and yet distinguish, and yet prefer that which is truly better, he is the true warfaring Christian."[20]

Blaise Pascal[edit]

For the French philosopher Blaise Pascal, temperance respects the balance between the two extremities of insatiable desire and its total lack thereof. Like Montaigne, Pascal believes it impossible to completely extinguish desire, as advocated by Marcus Aurelius, and yet Pascal does call for a curbing of desire. As he writes in his Pensées, "Nature has set us so well in the centre, that if we change one side of the balance, we change the other also." For example, he calls for a balancing temperance in the acts of reading and of drinking wine: "When we read too fast or too slowly, we understand nothing"; "Too much and too little wine. Give him none, he cannot find truth; give him too much, the same."[21]

Immanuel Kant[edit]

In the first section of his Metaphysics of Morals, German philosopher Immanuel Kant explores temperance as the virtue of "Moderation in the affections and passions, self-control, and calm deliberation" and goes so far as to praise temperance as an essential and beneficial element of every human being's potential, even though he thinks ancient philosophers, which would include Marcus Aurelius, mostly accept the virtue as one requiring no qualification.[22] On the other hand, Kant qualifies temperance by warning it could increase the effectiveness of evil acts by the ill-intentioned: "For without the principles of a good will, [temperance] may become extremely bad, and the coolness of a villain not only makes him far more dangerous, but also directly makes him more abominable in our eyes than he would have been without it."[23] Thus, for Kant, temperance takes on its most important moral effects when it complements the other virtues.

In his Critique of Judgment, Kant writes that art and science, by sharpening rationality, assist the cultivation of temperance in the face of purely animal or sensual desire, or what he termed 'sense-propensions':

The beautiful arts and the sciences which, by their universally-communicable pleasure, and by the polish and refinement of society, make man more civilised, if not morally better, win us in large measure from the tyranny of sense-propensions, and thus prepare men for a lordship, in which Reason alone shall have authority[.][24]

John Stuart Mill[edit]

John Stuart Mill writes about temperance in his book On Liberty. He supports laws against intemperate behavior and asks a rhetorical question:

If gambling, or drunkenness, or incontinence, or idleness, or uncleanliness, are as injurious to happiness, and as great a hindrance to improvement, as many or most of the acts prohibited by law, why (it may be asked) should not law, so far as is consistent with practicability and social convenience, endeavour to repress these also?[25]

Mill also supports the cultivation of public opinion against intemperance.[26] However, Mill advocates public punishment of intemperance, not of the kind affecting a person's close friends and family, but of the kind affecting society at large, and uses the example of a drunk police officer: 'No person ought to be punished simply for being drunk; but a soldier or a policeman should be punished for being drunk on duty.'[27]

Charles Darwin[edit]

In his book The Descent of Man, the naturalist Charles Darwin expresses a strong belief in the human ability to cultivate temperance:

"Man prompted by his conscience, will through long habit acquire such perfect self-command, that his desires and passions will at last yield instantly and without a struggle to his social sympathies and instincts, including his feeling for the judgment of his fellows. The still hungry, or the still revengeful man will not think of stealing food, or of wreaking his vengeance."

Thus, for Darwin, humanity's sociability dictates a level of personal restraint, especially as practiced over time by the socialized person. Darwin also states his belief in the likelihood of temperance's transmittance from one generation to subsequent generations: "It is possible, or as we shall hereafter see, even probable, that the habit of self-command may, like other habits, be inherited."[28]


Representation of temperance (painted wood sculpture, dated 1683, which covers the shrine of the baptismal church Breton Commana in France). Temperance's foot tips over a jug of wine, and presents a pitcher of water

Themes of temperance can be seen across cultures and time, as illustrated here.


Temperance is an essential part of the Eightfold Path. In the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta, often regarded as the first teaching, the Buddha describes the Noble Eightfold Path as the Middle Way of moderation, between the extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification. The third and fifth of the five precepts (pañca-sila) reflect values of temperance: "misconduct concerning sense pleasures" and drunkenness are to be avoided.[29]


"Temperance is the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods."[30] The Old Testament emphasizes temperance as a core virtue, as evidenced in the Book of Proverbs. The New Testament does so as well, with forgiveness being central to theology and self-control being one of the Fruits of the Spirit.[4] With regard to Christian theology, the word temperance is used by the King James Version in Galatians 5:23 for the Greek word ἐγκρατεία (enkrateia), which means self-control or discipline (Strong's Concordance, 1466). Thomas Aquinas promoted Plato's original virtues in addition to several others.

Within the Christian church Temperance is a virtue akin to self-control. It is applied to all areas of life. It can especially be viewed in practice among sects like the Amish, Old Order Mennonites, and Conservative Mennonites. In the Christian religion, temperance is a virtue that moderates attraction and desire for pleasure and "provides balance in the use of created goods". St. Thomas calls it a "disposition of the mind which binds the passions".[4] Temperance is believed to combat the sin of gluttony.


The concept of dama (Sanskrit: दम) in Hinduism is equivalent to temperance. It is sometimes written as damah (Sanskrit: दमः).[31][32] The word dama, and Sanskrit derivative words based on it, connote the concepts of self-control and self-restraint. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, in verse 5.2.3, states that three characteristics of a good, developed person are self-restraint (damah), compassion and love for all sentient life (daya), and charity (daana).[33] In Hinduism literature dedicated to yoga, self-restraint is expounded with the concept of yamas (Sanskrit: यम).[34] According to ṣaṭsampad, self-restraint (dama) is one of the six cardinal virtues.[35]

The list of virtues that constitute a moral life evolve in vedas and upanishads. Over time, new virtues were conceptualized and added, some replaced, others merged. For example, Manusamhita initially listed ten virtues necessary for a human being to live a dharmic (moral) life: Dhriti (courage), Kshama (forgiveness), Dama (temperance), Asteya (Non-covetousness/Non-stealing), Saucha (purity), Indriyani-graha (control of senses), dhi (reflective prudence), vidya (wisdom), satyam (truthfulness), akrodha (freedom from anger). In later verses, this list was reduced to five virtues by the same scholar, by merging and creating a more broader concept. The shorter list of virtues became: Ahimsa (Non-violence), Dama (temperance), Asteya (Non-covetousness/Non-stealing), Saucha (purity), Satyam (truthfulness).[36][37] This trend of evolving concepts continue in classical Sanskrit literature, Dama with Ahimsa and few other virtues present in the evolving list of virtues necessary for a moral life (dharma).[38][39]

Five types of self-restraints are considered essential for a moral and ethical life in Hindu philosophy: one must refrain from any violence that causes injury to others, refrain from starting or propagating deceit and falsehood, refrain from theft of other's property, refrain from sexually cheating on one's partner, and refrain from avarice.[34][40] The scope of self-restraint includes one's action, the words one speaks or writes, and in one's thoughts. The necessity for temperance is explained as preventing bad karma which sooner or later haunts and returns to the unrestrained.[41][42] The theological need for self-restraint is also explained as reigning in the damaging effect of one's action on others, as hurting another is hurting oneself because all life is one.[40][43]


Temperance in Jainism is deeply imbibed in its five major vows which are:

In Jainism, the vow of Ahimsa is not just restricted to not resorting to physical violence, but it also encompasses in itself abstinence from violence in any and all form either by thought, speech or action.

On Samvatsari, the last day of Paryushan—the most prominent festival of Jainism—the Jains greet their friends and relatives on this last day with Micchāmi Dukkaḍaṃ, seeking their forgiveness.[citation needed] The phrase is also used by Jains throughout the year when a person makes a mistake, or recollects making one in everyday life, or when asking for forgiveness in advance for inadvertent ones.[44]

Contemporary organizations[edit]

Values of temperance are still advocated by more modern sources such as the Boy Scouts, William Bennett, and Ben Franklin.[45] Philosophy has contributed a number of lessons to the study of traits, particularly in its study of injunctions and its listing and organizing of virtues.

In positive psychology, temperance was defined to include these four main character strengths: forgiveness, humility, prudence, and self-regulation.[46]

See also[edit]


  1. Green, Joel (2011). Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic. p. 769. ISBN 978-0-8010-3406-0.
  2. 2.0 2.1 Schwarzer, Ralf (2012). Personality, human development, and culture : international perspectives on psychological science. Hove: Psychology. pp. 127–129. ISBN 978-0-415-65080-9.
  3. Peterson, Christopher (2004). Character strengths and virtues a handbook and classification. Washington, DC New York: American Psychological Association Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-516701-6.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Niemiec, R. M. (2013). VIA character strengths: Research and practice (The first 10 years). In H. H. Knoop & A. Delle Fave (Eds.), Well-being and cultures: Perspectives on positive psychology (pp. 11–30). New York: Springer.
  5. Marcus Aurelius. Meditations. Book Seven, Translated by George Long. The Internet Classics Archive.
  6. In Marcus Aurelius. Meditations. Book Seven. The Internet Classics Archive.
  7. In Marcus Aurelius. Meditations. Book Nine. The Internet Classics Archive.
  8. In Marcus Aurelius. Meditations. Book One. The Internet Classics Archive.
  9. Thomas Aquinas. Summa Theologica. Part I, Question 59, Article 4, Reply 3. Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province. Internet Sacred Text Archive.
  10. In Aquinas. Summa Theologica. Part I-II, Question 63, Article 4. Internet Sacred Text Archive.
  11. In Aquinas. Summa Theologica. Part I-II, Question 35, Article 6, Reply 3. Internet Sacred Text Archive.
  12. In Aquinas. Summa Theologica. Part I-II, Question 34, Article 1, Reply 2. Internet Sacred Text Archive.
  13. In Aquinas. Summa Theologica. Part I-II, Question 60, Article 5 Internet Sacred Text Archive.
  14. Michel de Montaigne. Essays III. Chapter XIII, 'Of Experience', Translated by Charles Cotton. Edited by William Carew Hazlitt. Project Gutenberg.
  15. Michel de Montaigne. Essays I. Chapter XXIX, 'Of Moderation', Translated by Charles Cotton. Edited by William Carew Hazlitt. Project Gutenberg.
  16. Michel de Montaigne. Essays II. Chapter II, 'Of Drunkenness', translated by Charles Cotton. Edited by William Carew Hazlitt. Project Gutenberg.
  17. Michel de Montaigne. Essays III. Chapter X, 'Of Managing the Will', Translated by Charles Cotton. Edited by William Carew Hazlitt. Project Gutenberg.
  18. Francis Bacon. Advancement of Learning. Second Book, Edited by Henry Morley. Project Gutenberg.
  19. John Milton. Paradise Lost. Book 11. The John Milton Reading Room.
  20. John Milton. Areopagitica, Project Gutenberg.
  21. Blaise Pascal. Pensées, Section II, 69-71. Project Gutenberg.
  22. Immanuel Kant. Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, First Section. "Moderation in the affections and passions, self-control, and calm deliberation are not only good in many respects, but even seem to constitute part of the intrinsic worth of the person; but they are far from deserving to be called good without qualification, although they have been so unconditionally praised by the ancients." Project Gutenberg.
  23. In Immanuel Kant. Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysics of Morals, First Section. Project Gutenberg.
  24. Immanuel Kant. The Critique of Judgment, Appendix. 'Of the ultimate purpose of nature as a teleological system'. Project Gutenberg
  25. John Stuart Mill. On Liberty, Chapter 4. 'Of the Limits to the Authority of Society over the Individual', pages 151-152. Project Gutenberg
  26. In Mill. On Liberty, Chapter 4, page 152. "And as a supplement to the unavoidable imperfections of law, ought not opinion at least to organise a powerful police against these vices, and visit rigidly with social penalties those who are known to practise them?" Project Gutenberg
  27. In Mill. On Liberty, Chapter 4, page 154. Project Gutenberg
  28. Charles Darwin. The Descent of Man, Part I, Chapter IV. 'Comparison of the Mental Powers of Man and the Lower Animals - Continued. Project Gutenberg
  29. Harvey, P. (1990). An introduction to Buddhism: Teaching, history and practices. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
  30. Standridge, Paula. "Virtue of temperance can offer life balance", Understanding Our Church, Diocese of Little Rock, November 17, 2018
  31. Sanskrit translations for Self-Control English-Sanskrit Dictionary, Germany
  32. Sanskrit Words; See dama and damah
  33. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, Translator: S Madhavananda, p. 816, For discussion: pp. 814–821; Quote - "तदेतत्त्रयँ शिक्षेद् दमं दानं दयामिति", translation: Learn three cardinal virtues - temperance, charity and compassion for all life."
  34. 34.0 34.1 James Lochtefeld, The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Hinduism, Rosen Publishing New York, ISBN 0-8239-2287-1, see article on Yama, p. 777
  35. Monier-Williams Sanskrit-English Dictionary, France, this reference is in French; see explanation under the term dama: contrôle de ses passions
  36. Gupta, B. (2006). BHAGAVAD GĪTĀ AS DUTY AND VIRTUE ETHICS. Journal of Religious Ethics, 34(3), 373–395.
  37. Mohapatra & Mohapatra, Hinduism: Analytical Study, ISBN 978-8170993889; see pp. 37–40
  38. Comparative Religion, Kedar Nath Tiwari, ISBN 81-208-0294-2; see pp. 33–34
  39. Bailey, G. (1983). Puranic notes: reflections on the myth of sukesin. South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 6(2), 46–61.
  40. 40.0 40.1 Heim, M. (2005), Differentiations in Hindu ethics, in William Schweiker (Editor), The Blackwell companion to religious ethics, ISBN 0-631-21634-0, Chapter 35, pp. 341–354
  41. Rao, G. H. (1926), The Basis of Hindu Ethics, International Journal of Ethics, 37(1), pp. 19–35
  42. Hindrey, Roderick (1978), Comparative ethics in Hindu and Buddhist traditions, Motilal Banarsidass Publications, ISBN 81-208-0866-5
  43. Sturgess, Stephen (2013), The Yoga Book: A Practical Guide to Self-realization, Watkins Publishing, ISBN 978-1-84293-034-2, see Chapter 2
  44. M.R.P. Vijaya; K.C. Jani (1951). Śramana Bhagavān Mahāvira: pt. 1. Sthavirāvali. Śri Jaina Siddhanta Society. p. 120.
  45. Peterson & Seligman, M.E.P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
  46. Seligman, Martin (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification. American Psychological Association / Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0195167016.

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