Alcoholism is a disease of more. We simply never had enough of what we wanted. Not of booze and not of anything else. Excess was our defining characteristic. We couldn’t countenance any limits, boundaries, or restraints. If there was a line, we had to cross it. If there was a rule, we had to break it. “Self-will run riot,” says the Big Book (p. 62); “instinct run wild” and “on rampage,” adds the 12&12 (p. 44). We were rebels by nature, courting disorder in much of what we did.
No wonder our lives became unmanageable. Driven to excess and disorder, we lost control over the bottle. We became powerless over alcohol. That made us even more powerless over ourselves. We “couldn’t control our emotional natures" (Big Book, p. 52), our wants and desires, our appetites and passions. Indeed, we often got high so we could heighten them more.
Once we stop drinking, our lives regain a semblance of normalcy. The natural restraints which booze had loosened return to some working order. We gain relief from the worst of our excesses—the kind that would destroy our relationship with a loved one, for instance, or get us summarily fired from a job, or land us in the street, a hospital, or a prison.
But while the alcohol is out of our system, the ism isn’t. We are still selfish and self-centered to the core. That is the nature of the beast in us. Self-serving attitudes continue to dominate our lives, if now in ways that are less dramatic but for that very reason more difficult to detect.
Detecting excess and disorder in our drinking past is the job of Step 4. According to the 12&12, much of that Step is geared to finding out where our instincts, drives, and natural desires went out of control and came to “exceed their proper functions.” For it is when these get “out of joint” that they turn into “physical and mental liabilities,” causing “practically all the trouble there is" (p. 42).
Detecting ongoing excess and disorder in recovery is the job of Step 10. The Big Book urges us to “continue to watch for selfishness, dishonesty, resentment, and fear” (p. 84), all symptoms of desires which often get out of whack in us. The 12&12 stresses the need to develop “self-restrain” and exercise “self-control” in all areas of our lives, a principle most of us will associate with the expression “restraint of pen and tongue" (p. 91).
This is the principle traditionally known as temperance, and sometimes as moderation. Of course, what we need to temper or moderate is not exactly our pen or our tongue, but the passions and emotions which cause us to misuse them in “quick-tempered criticism and furious, power-driven argument,” as we also read in Step 10 (p. 91).
Moderating such emotions, especially those which can be strongly felt physically, such as anger, fear, and grief, is one of the tasks of the virtue of temperance. So is moderating bodily cravings, urgings or appetites involving food, drink, and sex, its classical role in the virtue tradition. More broadly, temperance moderates our desires, longings, and passions for natural goods in general, such as those highlighted in the 12&12 quote below: emotional security, power, wealth, personal prestige, romance, and family satisfactions.
All of these things are good, and all of them can be pursued well, reasonably, following “good orderly direction,” as we say in the rooms. When we do, we enjoy them and we flourish. They only become harmful when we want them too much, and we want them too much when they become too important to us, when we attach an inordinate value to them. When we do that, we become dependent on them. We don’t just want them, we demand them. We've got to have them to feel good and be happy. They drive us the way the bottle drove us. In the process, we sacrifice things of greater value to our real happiness and wellbeing.
Temperance is an ordering virtue. As we write in PTP, It is the virtue that orders our desires and passions, restrains our instinctual drives, and moderates our enjoyment of pleasures so that we may avoid the excess that can distort and turn them to ill. “For we can neither think nor act to good purpose until the habit of self-restraint has become automatic,” as the 12&12 reminds us (p. 91).
Turning it into a habit so that it becomes automatic is what makes temperance a virtue. This is defining of the concept of virtue: a trait that is so rooted in our character that it has become second nature to us, enabling us to see, to feel, and to act in the ways typical of that trait habitually and automatically, almost effortlessly, and with pleasure.
That obviously requires a lot of practice over a long period of time: the kind of practice that enables a person to gain mastery over anything, whether using a tool, learning another language, or playing a sport or a musical instrument—except a lot more and a lot longer. That is why the virtue comes up in Step 10, where we continue to take personal inventory, a practice that goes on for the rest of our lives.
Becoming temperate involves a process that goes through four stages. Let us take sex (which the Big Book says is a God-given good, p. 69), and its use in an extra-marital affair (which in the same page it suggests is selfish). At the first stage (intemperance, out of control), we see such an affair as a good thing, we desire it, and we act on it. At the second stage (incontinence, no control), we see the affair as bad, but we still desire it and we act on it. At the third stage (continence, self-control), we see the affair as bad, we still desire it, but we don’t act on it. At the fourth stage (temperance), we see the affair as bad, we don’t desire it, and thus we don’t have it.
As this illustration shows, self-control is a stage in the development of temperance (involving willpower). It is not the virtue itself. As we come to AA and go through a spiritual awakening, our outlook changes and we begin to develop a right concern for the good in many areas of our lives. We know what really matters. We just can’t live up to it consistently. We are not in stage one anymore, but neither do we go straight to stage four. Instead, we fluctuate between stages two and three, sometimes doing the wrong we desire to do and sometimes resisting the desire and not doing it. Or to put it positively, doing the right thing sometimes, and sometimes not.
As the illustration also shows, temperance is not only about moderation. It is not just about avoiding excess but about restoring order. The goal is not to have occasional as opposed to frequent affairs. The goal is not to have any because we deem it wrong and we no longer want it. The idea of temperance then, is not that we feel like doing X but control ourselves and refrain from doing it; the idea is that we don’t feel like doing it, period. We no longer have the desire. It is gone, just like our desire to drink is gone. In the case of the defects which involve temperance (as with all other defects), this is the work of willingness and surrender in Steps 6 and 7.
As with sex, so with other areas of our lives where excess and disorder is a problem. For some of us it is food and drink—not just how much but what we eat and drink. For some of us it is work. We work ourselves to death chasing after emotional and financial security, approval, prestige, achievement, and self-fulfillment, all the while sacrificing our health and neglecting our family and other important areas of our lives, including our recovery.
As we have seen, then, the terms “self-control” and “moderation” do not accurately reflect the meaning of temperance understood as a virtue. At the same time, the latter term doesn’t resonate with the modern ear. If anything, it might have a negative association with the Temperance Movement and Prohibition, about which we read with reference to the Washingtonians (a predecessor of AA) in Tradition 10 in the 12&12 (p. 178). This probably accounts for AA avoiding the term.
In this connection, we need to underscore the fact that the virtue, by whatever name we call it, is of absolutely no use in helping us to stop drinking. No virtue is. Ours is a threefold disease whose solution is a spiritual awakening. We can neither moderate nor control our drinking. That’s what makes us alcoholics as AA understands the term. What the virtue can do—what all the virtues can do—is to help us grow along spiritual lines so that we can stay stopped and make steady progress toward a full recovery and a meaningful sobriety.
We are sober by the grace of God and we grow by the grace of God as we practice the spiritual principles in the Steps—virtues and disciplines. Otherwise, we remain dry drunks at best, still at the mercy of our instincts and drives, our impulses, compulsions, and obsessions. Temperance helps us to temper them. It integrates right outlook, right concern, and right desire into right action.