The Four Stoic Virtues - Temperance

Posted by Molly Frazier on

(If you haven’t read our blog post that gives an overview of the cardinal virtues of Stoicism, we recommend reading through that first.)

Introduction & Definition

We’ve derived a great deal of motivation and creativity from Stoic philosophy here at Maritime Supply Co. Although philosophers such as Seneca, Epictetus, and Marcus Aurelius lived hundreds of years ago, their teachings are still applicable in modern times. This is the fourth part of our series focusing on each of the four Stoic virtues. For the final installation, we’ll be taking a close look at the virtue of temperance.  

Temperance (noun): the quality of moderation or self-restraint

  • Habitual moderation in the indulgence of the appetites or passions

“Be tolerant with others and strict with yourself.” ~Marcus Aurelius, Meditations

“Temperance” is a rather old-fashioned word, but a familiar equivalent is “moderation.” In the past, “temperance” was used interchangeably with “abstinence.” Perhaps the most famous use of the term was during the Temperance Movement that preceded the American Prohibition era of the 1920s. However, we don’t believe in equating temperance with exclusion or complete rejection. It is important to manage any excess and desires in our lives, just as it is important to experience joy and pleasure.

External Moderation

It is within human nature to seek out things that make us feel good and that bring ease into our lives. Unfortunately it can be easy to fall into the trap of excess in the form of substances, material goods, or leisure. Many of us are familiar with the lasting effects of indulging too much in food, alcohol, lavish shopping sprees, or idleness. One of the most difficult things about immoderation is that it feeds on itself, perpetuating a negative cycle in our lives. The more we opt out of tough work or choose instant gratification, the harder it is for us to break those habits and choose a higher road.

Temperance and labor are the two best physicians of man; labor sharpens the appetite, and temperance prevents from indulging to excess. ~Jean Jacques Rousseau

As the Stoics define it, living with virtue means curbing our desires for the sake of our future self and those around us. That can look like going to the gym instead of going to the bar after work in order to improve your health and mindset. Or it could be refusing a few small fun purchases in favor of saving up for a better vehicle or your own house. 

We can glean a lot of fulfillment from hard work that is well done and that can help us better enjoy the fruits of our labor. With that in mind, we don’t want to become bogged down in the “hustle” mentality either. Just as the old proverb goes, “all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” It is necessary to take time to rest and enjoy life so that all parts are improved by the contrasts.


Internal Balance

Temperance isn’t solely applicable to work/life balance though - it is important to apply the Stoics’ wisdom to our internal systems as well. Regulating our emotions, especially during difficult situations, is an excellent way to practice temperance within ourselves. 

For example, let’s imagine a scenario where a coworker dismisses your idea for a project. It could be easy to lose your temper at your coworker for ignoring your contribution, or to fume for a long time about it. Or maybe you intentionally quit caring about the project and stop contributing altogether. Each of those responses are at either end of the spectrum of emotion (passionate vs. apathetic) and neither one is an example of virtuous behavior.

Lost wealth may be replaced by industry, lost knowledge by study, lost health by temperance or medicine, but lost time is gone forever. ~Samuel Smiles

Just as Samuel Smiles points out, we only have a short time on this earth and our goal is to make the most of it. It would be sad to spend so much time being too angry or too apathetic to relate to those around us, only to realize at the end of life that we missed out on so much. A wise man is one who strives for balance and moderation in all things, and we should all do our best to have our life tempered with both pleasure and labor.

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