There is something infuriating about Temperance.
A blank-faced angel pours water from one chalice into another, white-robed, with one foot on land and one in water. No passion lights his face or his golden hair. When I was a teen reading tarot, I wanted to shake my fist and rage whenever he appeared: Temperance? Moderation? The Middle Path? Bah, what kind of insight is this?
Moderation is a virtue seldom treasured by the young. And rightfully so: the young are stretching their fingers and toes toward their limits, pissing on the boundaries of the territories they claim. Moderation walks hand in hand with wisdom and experience, the virtue of a farmer who knows that drought and drowning can come any time, the harvester that saves seeds and preserves stores for the times to come.
ADF defines moderation as “cultivating one’s appetites so that one is neither a slave to them nor driven to ill health (mental or physical) through excess or deficiency.” I’m not sure I go with the metaphor of cultivating one’s appetites; they are not vines to be trained, no matter the discipline of the mind. Appetites, and the emotions that drive them, simply are what they are. What you’re cultivating, then, is the response to appetite, whim, desire, want.
Granted, we have biological limitations that need to be taken into account. Most people will overeat if given the opportunity because biology hardwires us to — in preparation for the winter, or other future scarcity. Our appetites were born of a different sort of world and society, one in which resources were unreliable and life often short. Similarly, those who are trying to mandate abstinence for all those outside the bonds of wedlock meet the roadblock of human libido. The prohibition might work in a culture where people regularly married at 14 — right in the thrust of puberty with its hormones — but not in a culture where people marry only after they have established themselves in home, education and career, these days the late 20s or 30s. Biology had a vested interest in starting the reproductive round early, since most offspring would die and most parents wouldn’t live to a ripe old age. For better or worse, our culture no longer matches our biology, although the appetites remain.
Moderation comes from a Latin root meaning to restrain or control, while temperance is self-control, the Latin temperantia. You temper metal — making it stronger and more useful — by exposing it to blazing heat and then cold water. And so the temperate personality is one that finds a mellow middle after previously being exposed to extremes, probably in one’s youth.
The middle path isn’t the shaded boulevard of the hedonist, the person who gives into her every desire, or the thorny road of the barefoot ascetic. Oftentimes, seeking temperance, a spiritual seeker can go too far in the other direction, mortifying the flesh through fasting, deprivation, diets and denials. In a sense, this is easier to do than find the middle road; it’s easier to always say no rather than learn what to allow. It’s choosing to follow rules rather than determining the boundaries for one’s self. Think of the would-be ascetics who fasted in the desert and then died in a too-hot sweat lodge under the guidance of a New Age guru, ignoring their bodies the entire way.
The body has wisdom of its own, and it asks that the mind lead it on the middle road.
Moderation has other virtues as well. It shies from extremes, calling for us to see beyond the black and white terms of opposing armies. It finds truth somewhere in the middle. And this, alas, is sorely lost from our culture today, a society in which the extreme — from the Latin for “furthest outward” — is seen as pure and the center as wishy-washy and flip-flopping. There’s a drive to go further and further into the fringe to attract notice and acclaim — not to conquer and bring the fringe’s wealth to the center/hearth, but to draw culture further away from the norm and the placid Angel of balance with his cups.
Moderation calls for us to drop the language of war and the objectification of other human beings. As you are, so am I, and vice versa. It calls for us to know ourselves and our boundaries, to take responsibility for defending them and to balance that with testing our limits, reaching out to become our best selves.
There’s nothing in Aedh Rua’s list of coir that really captures the meaning of temperance. After all, the ancient Celts loved their extremes: the fierce Cu Chulainn battling enemies single-handed, the Dagda swilling a lake full of porridge, the king throwing lavish feasts for his people, the warrior’s boast. The extremes were perhaps tempered by cneastacht, the inner sense of right relationship with the cosmos and society, and misneach, or right measure — keeping things in perspective,. Rua offers another virtue:macanta, the quality of a son, which means being gentle, kind and willing to learn from anyone in one’s path, no matter their station.
Self-control is a part of every virtue; it leads us to temper our passions, rages and annoyances so as to contribute to the social and cosmic order. It’s not self-abuse, which is simply another extreme. There’s nothing flashy or commercial about moderation; it keeps us from overspending, overdoing and feeling bad about ourselves, all traditional drivers of the market. Which is likely why we hear nothing about it, except when the ungenerous of heart propose that the Other — the poor, the undesirable — practice it even when the complainers themselves do not.