Temperance, alas, is a virtue with a bad reputation. It calls to mind photographs of the flint-jawed Carry Nation, crusading against alcohol, until finally her cause carried the day and Prohibition, speakeasies, bootlegging, and organized crime swept the land.
I’m not being quite fair to that old temperance movement. Drunkenness was a scourge for a family in poverty, and Prohibition did in fact crack the backbone of a subculture of alcoholism, as actuarial tables during those years will show. Still, it brought to the fore that streak of joylessness in the American soul that values sobriety not because it makes a man wise but because it ensures that he will show up at the factory on time and not get his hand caught in the turbine. For such a soul, it is not wine that gladdens the heart but oil that slicks the gears. And now, now that we are haunted by the ghastly composite of Carry Nation and Clara Bow, it is sexual license (with appropriate padding and poison) that loosens the zipper and makes for tame subjects of the vast machinery of the state.
But true temperance brings strength, and only a strong heart and soul – not to mention a strong body – can stand the strain of joy. The word itself suggests good order and strength. It is built from the Latin tempus, “time.” Something temperate is, in the first instance, something done in due time, in season; think of a band of mariners swinging the jib just at the right moment to catch the shifting wind. It is also something done in an appropriate mode or fashion, given the circumstances: the inner meaning of the old word “modest.” A man in good “temper” is one who is equal to the situation, composed, in control of his faculties, just as tempered steel is strong, as it must be, or tempered silver is malleable into thin sheets, for its very different uses. To lose one’s temper, then, is literally to lose that capacity to act in a timely or well-governed or effectual way.
The old poets understood the principle. Take Edmund Spenser, and his knight of temperance, Guyon, in The Faerie Queene. Guyon’s task is to defeat the enchantress Acrasia, who dwells in a place that Spenser sardonically calls The Bower of Bliss. Now, Acrasia’s name suggests “a-cracy,” literally lack of any government or self-control. Her Bower of Bliss is, fittingly, populated by “lewd ladies and lascivious boys,” including a couple of naked girls giggling and dunking each other in a pond – “their names are obviously Cissie and Flossie,” says C. S. Lewis. The porter of the place sits at his porch and smiles, offering “guileful semblants,” enticing passersby with deceptive phantoms, delusive specters that promise joy and deliver nothing. His very dress suggests not masculine power, but effeminacy and weakness:
His looser garment to the ground did fall,
And flew about his heels in wanton wise,
Not fit for speedy pace, or manly exercise.
He is the unmanly counterpart to Excess, a woman
Clad in fair weeds, but foul disordered,
And garments loose, that seemed unmeet for womanhood.
And when we finally meet Acrasia herself, she is half-naked, hanging over a young lad who is not only disarmed: his very shield has been scrubbed bare. The boy is in a dead sleep, physically and morally:
In lewd loves, and wasteful luxury,
His days, his goods, his body he did spend.
Have we ourselves ever seen the like, let us say in a dormitory, or a bar? Lewis’ verdict is devastating:
“The Bower of Bliss is not a picture of lawless, that is, unwedded, love as opposed to lawful love. It is a picture, one of the most powerful ever painted, of the whole sexual nature in disease. There is not a kiss or an embrace in the island: only male prurience and female provocation.”
Not a kiss, nor an embrace in the land of intemperance. It follows that temperance is in harmony with both physical and moral power, and with the strength of true love. Spenser, the wise Christian poet and philosopher of love, sees that too. So he describes the action of the sailor bringing Guyon to the Bower of Bliss, having to steer a straight path between the Quicksand of Unthriftihood and the Whirlpool of Decay:
But the heedful Boatman strongly forth did stretch
His brawny arms, and all his body strain,
That the utmost sandy breach they shortly fetch,
Whiles the dread danger does behind remain.
And the House of Alma, his emblem of temperance in action, is filled with young men and women actively pursuing their love, and what god should be present to bestir them if not Eros himself?
And in the midst thereof upon the floor
A lovely bevy of fair ladies sat,
Courted of many a jolly paramour,
The which them did in modest wise amate [glance downward],
And each one sought his lady to aggrate [delight]:
And eke amongst them little Cupid played
His wanton sports, being returned late
From his fierce wars, and having from him laid
His cruel bow, wherewith he thousands hath dismayed.
The scene fairly bustles: some of the lovers are singing, some are laughing for joy, some are playing with straws, some are sitting at ease, and some indeed are in the throes of a kind of comical agony, frowning or fawning or blushing.
Temperance, as Spenser shows us, is the virtue that respects the nourishment and care of the human body and then, by extension, of the body politic, so that instead of dissipating our faculties we strengthen them, and spend ourselves on what brings us true profit, rather than to “slug in sloth of sensual delight,” a pleasure that disappoints, and that is far from love. This same poet will, in the hymn that celebrates his own wedding day, issue the following summons for jollity:
Make feast therefore now all this livelong day,
This day forever to me holy is:
Pour out the wine without restraint or stay,
Pour not by cups, but by the bellyful,
Pour out to all that will,
And sprinkle all the posts and walls with wine
That they may sweat, and drunken be withal.
And that comes right after he has thus memorialized the sobriety, the sweet temper, of his beloved bride, at the moment their wedding is consecrated:
But her [solemn] eyes still fastened on the ground
Are governed with goodly modesty,
That suffers not one look to glance awry,
Which may let in a little thought unsound.
Why blush ye, love, to give to me your hand,
The pledge of all our band?
Sing ye sweet Angels, Alleluia sing,
That all the woods may answer, and your echo ring.
That momentary blush – how much does it reveal! It shows both the self-governance of the bride, her strength of soul, her “temper,” if you will; and also, and not coincidentally, her passionate love for her bridegroom.
Spenser was but following the lead of sacred scripture, which so often associates vanity and heedlessness with the image of the drunkard: “But they have erred through wine, and through strong drink are out of the way; the priest and the prophet have erred through strong drink . . . They err in vision, they stumble in judgment. For all tables are full of vomit and filthiness” (Is. 28:7-8). Meanwhile, the severe temperance of Daniel and his three friends is rewarded with spiritual gifts. They begged their Babylonian overlords to spare them from eating the defiling meat the king ate, and from drinking his wine. Their meal of pulse and water left them healthier in the flesh than the king’s servants were, and fairer of countenance. Then “God gave them knowledge and skill in all learning and wisdom: and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams” (Dan. 1:17). The Baptist ate locusts and wild honey, and Jesus Himself fasted for forty days in the desert. But as for the wicked beast that rules the earth, the cry against her comes forth from heaven: “Babylon is fallen, is fallen, that great city, because she made all nations drink of the wine of her fornication” (Rev. 14:8).
There is wine, and there is wine. We are temperate, not so that we may drink a little bit of wine and grow a little tipsy, but so that we may drink the true wine and grow inebriated. Hence Jesus at Cana turned the water into wine, and good rich wine, as the steward noted, not thin ordinary stuff. For when it comes to joy, the soul in good temper knows no bounds: “I am come into my garden, my sister, my spouse: I have gathered my myrrh with my spice; I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey; I have drunk my wine with my milk: eat, O friends; drink, yea, drink abundantly, O beloved” (Sg. 5:1).