Balance and Self-Mastery

In his first four Wednesday audiences, Pope St. John Paul II taught about the cardinal virtues. He was continuing what John Paul I had started before his sudden death. 

In his catechesis, John Paul II defined temperance quite simply: “A temperate man is one who is master of himself. One in whom passions do not prevail over reason, will, and even the ‘heart’. A man who can control himself!”

The Catechism says that temperance “moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods” (CCC1809). We see that the sixth and ninth commandments call us to temperance in our passions and carnal desires. We must order our relations to others as human persons and not objects to be used to satisfy the flesh (CCC 2341). The fifth commandment reminds us to avoid excess in things like drinking or speeding, which can endanger our lives and the lives of others (CCC 2290).

What it Isn’t

This self-mastery is not easy. As we’ve seen with the virtues, becoming a virtuous person is not a passive activity. It requires practice and work! One way to cultivate the virtue of temperance is through fasting and mortification. When we fast, we choose to give up something that is good (meat, sugar, alcohol, dairy products) to strength our self-mastery. Ice cream is good, but heaven is better. A glass of whiskey is good, but I do not have to have it at this moment. These good things are gifts from God, but they do not rule me. I can say no, and I choose to say no. The Catechism admits that self-mastery is “a long and exacting work” (CCC 2342). Different things will be temptations to different people, and different things might be tempting to us at different times in our lives.

Notice that the Catechism speaks of “balance” and “moderation.” Temperance does not mean a complete shunning of the enjoyment or pleasure that comes from the experiences of our senses. There is nothing wrong with our passions, our desires, pleasure, or the created things of this world. In fact, they are good. God created this world. He gave us passions, or emotions. To say these things are evil is contrary to truth.

Rather, these things must be in the proper place, at the proper time, and never rule us.

As John Paul II said, we must be master of them – not the opposite. It can be easy for us to be rules by our passions – by our desire for pleasure, by earthly goods. We probably can see this most clearly in addictions to drugs or alcohol or sex. But it’s not just found in addictions. If we’re honest, there is some pleasure, instinct, or desire that enslaves us in some way. There is something in our life that is hard to say “no” to, whether it’s binging a show on Netflix, hitting our snooze button, or snacking.

The temperate person is able to recognize the goodness in these things – whether it’s chocolate or sleeping – but be able to say no to them when needed.

In The Workplace

It can be easy to relegate sins against temperance to areas of food and sex, and miss the temptations we face in the workplace. Exercising the virtue of temperance in the office might look like not checking social media. It might mean limiting distractions from coworkers so you can finish a project. 

Are you the one that’s always late to meetings? Maybe you practice mortification by being punctual–whether that requires being more mindful of your calendar, leaving a little early for the drive across town, or not trying to “just finish one more thing.” Temperance is not just saying no to that third drink, it is also resisting the urge to linger too long in the breakroom or in an unnecessary conversation. 

This virtue requires training and practice. We aren’t going to be temperate overnight. The lure and pull of worldly desires are strong. 

Pray for an increase of the virtue of temperance, and then strive to exercise it. It is only with the grace of God and then with the repeated exercise of the virtue that we will become virtuous people.

A final note

In this series on the cardinal virtues, I have tried to show how the virtues are practically lived out in our daily lives, notably while at work. It can be easy to memorize lists of virtues or their definitions. We might be able to abstractly speak about what the virtues require. But a virtuous life is not found in the Catechism. It is found in the home, at the office, fixing clogged pipes, doing taxes, and painting houses.

St. John Paul II reminds us, “When we speak of virtues—not only these cardinal ones, but all of them, every virtue—we must always have in mind the real man, the actual man. Virtue is not something abstract, detached from life, but, on the contrary, it has deep ‘roots’ in life itself, it springs from the latter and forms it. Virtue has an impact on man’s life, on his actions and behaviour.” (John Paul II, November 22, 2022)

Photo: The Cardinal Virtues by Raphael (Fortitude, Prudence, Temperance)

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