It constantly struck me in my own freshman year that this was the fitting time for feats of raucousness, that drunkenness and intemperate passion were habits proper to youth or at least could be winked at on account of immaturity. As a young man they were almost not faults so much as nature itself, and to be temperate, restrained, moderate, and sober was to be unnatural, awkward, and old, a prude unwilling to know the world in all its dizzying variety. This amusing experience of blazing passion was a source of interest and reflection for my dispassionate rational self, which observed the inferno at a remove. My first thought was that this sort of life represented a desirable balance between work and play and that the end of the party would only come with age. Yet ultimately, it was not my age but my youth, that innocent youth I had abandoned too soon, which recaptured me. It was storybooks and nursery rhymes; it was romances for teenagers and the nobility of knights and castles. I found myself temperate, restrained, moderate, and sober—not from middle-class sensibility or from middle-aged inability but from childlike affection, from first love.
I would tell you the story, but it’s a long one and perhaps would do you little good. Instead, I will tell you what I learned from my observations. One of the reasons we drink and act like fools is so the next day we have a story to tell; there’s something very human in this. Yet the stories we tell are the sort that feel worn by the second telling; the speaker senses the little tears and holes in their plot. He can feel how shabby the story sits upon his character and how easily the cold wind blows through it, so that in a week he must throw it out and find a new one. It is for the telling of these tales that we go through the giddy excitement of dance and drink week after week, because we need more than the rush itself; we need the verse that tells us what the rush means. It is really meaning that we search for in our escapades. But often we search in the wrong ways, and in the wrong places.
I have lost my track though and not told you what the old stories of childhood love and knights and dragons and the novels of Jane Austen mean. These are the stories that stick with us, especially their coming-of-age plots. They are stories about two things: men who become good and good men who do right. Put in their barest form of course, these stories sound moralistic and naïve. But read a book like The Lord of the Rings, and there on every page are power-hungry men like Boromir becoming good through a generous sacrifice of their lives and courageous men like Aragorn facing overwhelming enemies for the sake of his homeland. These stories are moral and not moralistic because they are intensely human; they do not say that what is human is our basest and plainest impulses but rather the fullest measure of our compassion and reason.
Although I wish you well in winning for yourself such an adventure, I should warn you that such stories ought not be sought out. There is something mercenary in becoming a knight-errant who searches for damsels to save. This is the path of one who seeks meaning too directly without realizing that meaning is like the bloom of youth or the spark in your eye—something inseparable from the good things of the world. Rather cultivate virtue, seek truth, and serve others; then adventure will find you out in its own time, just as it did Bilbo in his little hobbit-hole. And when it finds you, its rich raiment and fine heft will suit your grace and nobility well.
In the first part, I express something of the Romantic attitudes that led me to value temperance, but I would like to move now beyond this particular how to the more general why. Why be temperate? I pursue the question now more philosophically because I suspect that many people prefer this sort of inquiry over the rhetorical persuasions of poetry and literature when deciding questions integral to their way of life. I share some sympathy for either camp because on the one hand it was literature and beauty that convinced me of temperance’s value, but on the other I see how they also led me astray at times. Our perception and understanding of beauty are fallible guides in a fallen world—which is not to say our powers of reason are always correct either. Guided by beauty and reason, we may not always judge aright, but by our nature alone we have no other guides.
“Temperance” has undergone the fate of so many ethical terms over the course of the last couple centuries, descending from its height as one of the cardinal virtues of antiquity to its modern association with teetotaling Prohibitionists. Plato defined “temperance” as a harmony within a person’s soul, wherein his bodily appetites and desires for eating, drinking, and sex are submitted to the rule of his reason. In the classical imagination, temperance was a virtue that made us distinct from other animals. At the same time, it was a virtue that related directly to our bodily nature. The point of temperance was to temper one’s emotions and instincts rather than to remove them; the ancients taught that through habituation we could weaken our urges and redirect them towards nobler objects. In the classical and medieval picture, the forming of good habits was an integral part of a person’s moral development.
This classical view of temperance should make its value more obvious and relatively uncontroversial. One can see why a person’s making decisions on the basis of dopamine and other hormones is not conducive to a fully rational and moral life. But now I will broach a more controversial issue. This classical picture of temperance as I’ve described it so far does not entirely align with the sketch of the temperate life that I paint in the first section, because in that section temperance seemed to mean much more. There it not only meant drinking temperately but also not drinking to become drunk. So far under the classical view of temperance, it appears that so long as one’s reason concluded that drunkenness (or at least occasional drunkenness) was not intemperate (and in fact might even be conducive to one’s flourishing), then one could intentionally become drunk while remaining temperate.
This conclusion sounds rather strange to us, and it would have sounded strange to many ancient thinkers too. To render it invalid, classical authors like Plato added to their theory the doctrine of the unity of the virtues. Under this doctrine, one had to possess all four cardinal virtues in order to possess any of them. This doctrine contradicts our habit of remarking on the courage of men as they conduct injustices. For example, Caesar is thought to be courageous for his crossing of the Rubicon, but this bit of lawbreaking was unjust. This would seem to provide a counterexample to the unity of the virtues, but the notion of analogy may be helpful here. Caesar was not courageous in the same sense as is a virtuous person, because true courage leads to one’s fulfillment as a good human and not simply to one’s more efficient performance of evil. Instead, Caesar is courageous only in an analogous sense, just as we say that rescue dogs are courageous. Under the unity of the virtues, it becomes clear why someone who thinks regular drunkenness is conducive to his happiness cannot be temperate. Since he lacks wisdom and does not understand the nature and consequence of his actions, any form of temperance he possesses can only be analogous to true human temperance.
Finally, now that we know what the virtue is, why be temperate? There are intrinsic and extrinsic benefits to the temperate life. The intrinsic benefits are the joys that come from temperate activity itself; unlike the extrinsic benefits of health and a good reputation, the intrinsic benefits of temperance can never be taken away from the temperate person. The extrinsic benefits of temperance are not what they used to be; it is now possible to be marginalized from some prominent social circles for refusing to drink immoderately and for avoiding the hook-up culture. Still, in many social circles and friend groups, temperance is admired and respected. Also, the health benefits of temperate living are now widely acknowledged. The temperate person is not only free from a whole list of diseases but does not even have to worry about contracting one of them.
Yet the reason people should become temperate is not for these extrinsic benefits, which are merely fitting ornaments to the beautiful soul. The intrinsic benefits of temperance are manifest. Whatever one’s aims in life, temperance is a necessary quality. A person who constantly lusts after people other than his spouse cannot successfully raise a family. Similarly, a businessman who often watches pornography cannot focus on his work. Lustful fantasies will steal his imagination away from creative innovations. A student who drinks too much will find schoolwork increasingly difficult to manage. A person who pursues hook-ups every week will ditch his drunk friend who needs help.
These particular examples highlight the many ways that a failure of temperance distracts us from doing what we should. And even if one finds them over-the-top, temperance is a virtue by degrees. The more one’s emotions, passions, and urges influence one to do the right thing rather than the wrong the better. Vice slips in by degrees also. Giving in once to sexual temptation can make the dopamine high the next time even higher, so that one gets caught in a cycle. A little bit of intemperance can become nearly uncontrollable without a vigilant effort to restrain and extirpate it. The completely intemperate life is almost inhuman and borders on brutishness as one’s reason begins to submit wholly to one’s appetites and instincts. Perhaps we think ourselves unlikely to descend to such vice, but even a modicum of immoderation is too much.