June 23, 2009
Losing Your Temperance
Some virtues get a bad name because of the ways their names are used. For instance, the mighty, cosmic force St. Thomas calls Charity, which Dante said “moves the sun and other stars,” nowadays calls to mind instead a hovercraft full of eels. By which I mean a writhing mass of irrelevant mental images: tax forms itemizing “charitable” contributions, non-profit organizations that pay their executives six-figure salaries to churn out begging letters, and the grim term we use for some people we grimly hang out with, hire, or date — a “charity case.”
Likewise, this week’s virtue, Temperance, has had its good name tarnished by the company it keeps. The American “Temperance movement,” as Chesterton pointed out, advocated nothing of the kind: In answer to the evils of alcoholism, its leaders called for total abstinence from strong drink, and finally the imprisonment of bartenders and brewers. It’s as if in pursuit of Chastity, one called for absolute celibacy, and set up for its enforcement a “Chastity Police.” (The Empress Maria Theresa did found such a bureau to crack down on adulterous Austrian nobles; after peering through plenty of keyholes, it briefly arrested Casanova, and recruited him as an informer. It went down in history as the foil in comic operas.) Our priorities are different now; outside the Islamic world, we have instead the health police, so smokers huddle outside in the rain like Victorian prostitutes, and government agencies mull over punishing parents who light up around their children.
The catastrophic futility of Prohibition turned Temperance into one of those terms we snicker at, like “good government” or “diversity.” But the need for Temperance in food, in drink, and other tactile pleasures is deadly serious — both for this life and the next. I’m reading right now a memoir by Joe Eszterhas, the screenwriter of such classics of Catholic cinema as Showgirls and Basic Instinct. In it, he recalls with mostly rue (and a little wist) the days when he would smoke his way through several Cuban fields, put a tequila distributor in the black, contribute to the Bolivian coca industry, and paw his way through a team of Vegas strippers by way of “research.” Then he came down with throat cancer. Leaving the doctor who gave him a probable diagnosis of “terminal,” he collapsed on a sidewalk curb and sobbed like a baby — a baby with smoker’s breath and yellow teeth. A powerhouse in Hollywood, Eszterhas was powerless to control the habits that were killing him. For the first time since boyhood, he found himself calling on God — like one of the “Jesus freaks” he’d always scorned. The path wasn’t straight or pretty, but Eszterhas rediscovered the Catholic Faith in which he’d been raised, and through much prayer he saved his marriage, his family, and his life. It’s a rawly honest, riveting tale of a soul crawling on its belly up the mount of Purgatory.
But you needn’t see cancerous lesions in your throat, or feel your liver trying to slip out in the bathtub, to see how important Temperance can be. Disciplined athletes, I have read, sometimes succumb to inordinate passions, which manifest themselves in the use of dangerous steroids or groupies. Even movie actresses, whose ascetical mastery of the flesh is plain to the naked eye, have been known to engage in those illicit pleasures St. Thomas describes as “sins that aren’t fattening.”
Temperance starts with the body, but reaches its tendrils into the soul. God peskily created us as amalgams of the two, and it’s hard to abuse the one without injuring the other. I remember showing a first date an early draft of my first Bad Catholic’s book where I made the (I thought) clever argument that the difference between NFP and contraception was like that dividing dieting from bulimia: At the end of the day, you end up with fewer calories, but the means used make a difference. She read it, sat for a moment, then pounded on the table. “I’ll have you know I’m a bulimic, and I don’t appreciate being compared to a contraceptor. That’s a sin!” Nice as her figure was, I called for the check.
Starved of Temperance, our soul will slacken and grow as flabby as a body overfed and underused. In an excellent Thomist discussion of this virtue, Doug McManaman explains the sharp distinction between a dull disdain for the pleasures proper to life (the vice of “insensibility”) and a virile mastery over the fleeting impulses shipped up to our frontal cortex by our coiled reptilian brain. Now, staying alive means answering basic needs of our mortal bodies: I feed my reptilian brain a rat every couple of days. But I don’t want it climbing out of the tank and rewriting my resume, or swallowing one of my pets. McManaman discusses the usefulness of fasting in freeing the will from a purely Pavlovian response to stimuli; just because that pile of fries came “free” with the turkey burger you ordered doesn’t mean you have to eat it. And I’ve found out it isn’t true that a fifth of bourbon “goes flat” once you’ve opened it, so you “might as well finish the thing.” And so on.
McManaman goes further and cites the habit of Temperance as key to the loving treatment of other people. Excessive indulgence of short-term, instant pleasures is a sure sign of overpowering self-love, which leaves little room for concern with other’s concerns. Or put another way: “Are you sure you’re gonna eat that, son?”
Since we’re all Americans now — and foreign readers know this better than anyone — it might help win the unconvinced over if I call Temperance a power: the power to master our fleeting urges and hard-earned addictions and tether them to the cart we want them to pull, in the direction our reason tells us we need to go. Let’s go further and call it horsepower; if your willpower is scattered and frittered, you’re basically driving a broken-down gas guzzler from the 1970s. Of course, divine Grace (like AAA) is always a phone call away, but really in the long run you ought to get yourself a car that actually runs, with enough horsepower to get you up the hill without a tow, and brakes that actually stop the thing short of a school bus.
And stop fiddling with the GPS while you’re driving over 70 mph, lighting a cigar, and changing the radio station while placing a bet on the phone with your bookie. Yes, soccer moms, this means you.