Spiritual Tools - Principle: Temperance

Temperance is moderation in the things that are good and total abstinence from the things that are foul.

Frances E. Willard, (1839–1898), an American educator, temperance reformer, and women's suffragist.

Abstinence is easier than temperance.

Seneca (Roman philosopher, mid-1st century AD)

Complete abstinence is easier than perfect moderation.

Saint Augustine, (354–430AD), philosopher and theologian

A pickle can never go back to being a cucumber.

Temperance is a powerful principle ironically tainted by a history of excesses. Practiced at the individual level it enhances health, wealth and wisdom. It is attractive when practiced. But when preached or legislated at the public level, as it was in the decades leading up to Prohibition in the U.S., it can lead to excesses rather than moderation.

This topic was originally titled abstinence but I realized abstinence is a subset of temperance. Some excesses cannot be addressed by abstinence. I must eat to survive. I cannot abstain from eating. But excess eating leads to obesity, lack of mobility, heart disease, a reduced quality of life and, possibly, an early death. In some actions moderation is attainable but abstinence is not.

Abstinence may apply where there are pleasures of the body that are not necessary for survival. Some I can experience in moderation without harm to myself or others. These can be part of a successful life of temperance.

Sex, without manipulation or secret agendas, mutually desired, with the goal of procreation or bonding, is one of the greatest gifts of life's journey. Similarly, alcohol, in moderation, can lower the inhibitions, lighten the masks we wear, assist in a deeper sharing and reduce harmful stress.

But, the warnings of Seneca and St. Augustine often apply most directly to sexual behavior and mood altering substances. When the line between temperance and excess is crossed in these areas, many find it difficult or impossible to go back. When the line is crossed from recreation and fun to serious obsession, abstinence becomes the only option.

When pursued as an end in itself, sexual acts often lead to deep, lasting harms to the participants and unexpected and often unwanted children who carry these burdens on to the next generation. The sex drive can warp the mind into justifying behaviors the inner self finds unacceptable. Such a life can hardly be spiritual. It never leads to a deep inner peace and serenity.

Sex becomes an obsession rather than a gift.

About one in ten Americans currently has an alcohol problem. Three out of ten adults report that drinking has been a cause of trouble in their family. Alcoholism generally develops slowly over a person’s lifetime. Alcoholism is not caused by psychological problems; it is a primary disease. It can begin at any age, and it often occurs in individuals who have little psychosocial pathology (Vaillant, 2003).

An old proverb attributed interestingly to the Japanese, Chinese, Native Americans and even the Irish states, “The man takes a drink, the drink takes a drink, the drink takes the man.” Some have never been able to control and enjoy drinking. Some drank in moderation with occasional binges for decades only to cross the line in later life. After crossing the line they can never drink in moderation again. They drink for effect but the illness progresses as it takes more and more to create a less than satisfactory effect. Physical addiction follows and they can never safely drink again.

In the end, nothing outside of me can make me happy or give me joy. It is an inside job. More always reaches a point where it becomes harmful. Being enough rather than having and maintaining enough is sustainable and spiritual.

I have found great freedom in realizing that the universe is benevolent and giving; perfect in its design; I have all that I require. I most often have enough but I always am enough.



  1. Temperance is the practice of moderation. It was one of the four "cardinal" virtues held to be vital to society in Hellenic culture. It is one of the Four Cardinal Virtues considered central to Christian behaviour by the Catholic Church and is an important tenet of the moral codes of other world religions—for example, it is one of the Five Precepts of Buddhism.
  2. Temperance: The condition or quality of exercising moderation or self-restraint. - The American Heritage Dictionary (Second College Edition)
  3. Abstinence is a voluntary restraint from indulging a desire or appetite for certain bodily activities that are widely experienced as giving pleasure. Most frequently, the term refers to abstention from sexual intercourse, alcohol or food. The practice can arise from religious prohibitions or practical considerations.


Do you have an example you would like to add?



  1. Four Cardinal Virtues of the Catholic Church - Wikipedia
  2. Five Precepts of Buddhism - Wikipedia