The Virtue of Temperance

Marty M.,

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.

[Image: Marty M., first woman to gain long-term sobriety in AA and author of "Women Suffer Too," in Personal Stories section of Big Book. For audio of her story and Q&A about it, please click on links. For a biography, see Mrs. Marty Mann: The First Lady of Alcoholics Anonymous.] 

Big Book
"The alcoholic is an extreme example of self-will run riot." – Big Book  

12&12"Our desires for emotional security and wealth, for personal prestige and power, for romance and for family satisfactions—all these have to be tempered and redirected." – 12&12 

Life Recovery Bible"He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit, than he who captures a city." – Proverbs 16:32
"Like a city whose walls are broken down is a man who lacks self-control." – Proverbs 25:28

"One who knows that enough is enough will always have enough." – Lao Tzu   

"To go beyond is as wrong as to fall short." – Confucius   

"Self-control is the chief element in self-respect." – Thucydides   

"For a man to conquer himself is the first and noblest of all victories." – Plato

"Temperance is a mean with regards to pleasure." – Aristotle   

"Everything in excess is opposed to nature." – Hippocrates    

"Everything that exceeds the bounds of moderation has an unstable foundation." – Seneca   

"If one oversteps the bounds of moderation, the greatest pleasures cease to please." – Epictetus  

Cicero "The appetites must be made subject to the control of reason, and not be allowed to run ahead of it or to lag behind. Then will strength and character and self-control shine through in all their brilliance." – Cicero   

"There is a mean in all things, and, moreover, certain limits on either side of which right cannot be found." – Horace   

"Keep a mid-course between two extremes." – Ovid  

"In everything the middle course is best: all things in excess bring trouble to men." – Plautus   

"Excess in nothing—this I regard as a principle of the highest value in life." – Terence

Martin Luther
"You can’t stop birds from flying over your head, but you can stop them from building a nest in your hair." – Martin Luther   

William Shakespeare
"They are sick that surfeit with too much, as they that starve with nothing." – William Shakespeare    

"Out of moderation a pure happiness springs." – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe   

Alexander Pope
He knows to live who keeps the middle state, and neither leans on this side nor on that." – Alexander Pope  

Edmund Burke
"It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters." – Edmund Burke

Hosea Ballou
"Moderation is the key to lasting enjoyment." – Hosea Ballou   

Thomas Fuller
"Serving one’s own passions is the greatest slavery." – Thomas Fuller   

Marquise de Lambert
"The most necessary disposition to relish pleasures is to know how to be without them." – Marquise de Lambert  

"A wise man is superior to any insults which can be put upon him, and the best reply to unseemly behavior is patience and moderation." – Molière   

Alexander Hamilton
"When the sword is once drawn, the passions of men observe no bounds of moderation." – Alexander Hamilton   

Michel de Montaigne
"Not being able to govern events, I govern myself." – Michel de Montaigne  

Alain (Émile-Auguste Chartier)
"Temperance is the virtue that overcomes all types of intoxications." – Alain (Émile-Auguste Chartier)  

Mahatma Gandhi
"Distinguish between real needs and artificial wants, and control the latter." – Mahatma Gandhi   

Abraham J. Heschel
"Self-respect is the root of discipline: The sense of dignity grows with the ability to say no to oneself." – Abraham Joshua Heschel   

Remez Sasson
"You don't control negative habits with force. You do so by developing new, good habits." – Remez Sasson   

Finnish proverb
"Happiness is a place between too little and too much." – Finnish proverb

C. S. Lewis"Surrender to all our desires obviously leads to impotence, disease, jealousies, lies, concealment, and everything that is the reverse of health . . . For any happiness, even in this world, quite a lot of restraint is going to be necessary." – C. S. Lewis

Elie Wiesel
"Ultimately, the only power to which man should aspire is that which he exercises over himself." – Elie Wiesel  

Stephen R. Covey"You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage to say 'no' to other things. And the way to do that is by having a bigger 'yes’' burning inside." – Stephen Covey   

André Comte-Sponville
"Temperance is that moderation which allows us to be masters of our pleasure instead of becoming its slaves." – André Comte-Sponville    

Becky Pippert"If you set your heart on power, you’re controlled by power; if you set your heart on human approval, you’re controlled by the people you want to please; if you set your heart on family you’re controlled by your family." – Becky Pippert   

Peter Kreeft"Without temperance we do not rise above the level of animals, who live by their instincts, desires, and fears, especially the instinct to seek pleasure and flee pain." – Peter J. Kreeft   

Tim Keller"Self-control is the ability to recognize and choose the important over the urgent thing at any given moment because within yourself your desires are properly ordered: the most important thing we desire the most, and the less important thing we desire less." – Tim Keller   

Abraham Cho
"Self-control is the ability to rule over our impulses in pursuit of a greater good." – Abraham Cho   

James S. Spiegel
"All of us have a beast within us to tame." – James S. Spiegel   

Jason Baehr"Temperance has to do not only with right action with respect to sensible goods, but also with right desire for sensible goods; in entails a proportionate or rightly measured reaction to such goods, both in terms of desire and act." – Jason Baehr  

William C. Mattison"Temperance . . . is the virtue that inclines us to desire and enjoy pleasures well. It enables us to regulate our actions, and even our desires, concerning pleasurable activities, so that they are reasonable, or in accord with the way things really are." – William C. Mattison III   

Robert C. Roberts
"Temperance is that state of character in which the bodily appetites successfully conform to the larger concerns of the moral life." – Robert C. Roberts

Dennis Prager
"No self-esteem can equal the self-esteem that derives from self-control." – Dennis Prager  

"Discipline weighs ounces, regret weighs tons." – Anonymous  

Catechism "Temperance is the moral virtue that moderates the attraction of pleasures and provides balance in the use of created goods." – Catechism of the Catholic Church   

Temperance enables one to be moderate and disciplined in the use or enjoyment of good things." – Anonymous   

Character Strengths "Self-regulation refers to how a person exerts control over his or her own responses so as to pursue goals and live up to standards." – Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification   

Montague Brown"Self-control does not deny my animal nature by suppressing my appetites; rather, it gives proper play to all aspects of my being—reason, emotions, and appetites. If I let my appetites and emotions run wild, I invite anarchy and discord, for they are many and each demands immediate gratification." – Montague Brown   

AA slogan
"Easy does it." – AA slogan  

Daily Reflections"In the past, when things went wrong, I instinctively wanted to fight back. But during the short time I had been trying to learn the A.A. program I had learnedto step back and take a look at myself.” – AA’s Daily Reflections   

"It may take a bit of self-control to back away from conflict and confusion. But it’s a wonderful protection for my peace of mind." – One Day at a Time in Al-Anon  

PTP123"With time, the bottle becomes a power unto itself. It controls us, and pushes us even further afar. It dissolves all natural restraints and silences our conscience. It brooks no limits. All is permissible. We cross lines we never even imagined we could possibly cross." – PTP123

PTP4"Temperance disposes us to moderate our response in a variety of situations which tend to invite excess, whether of appetite (food, drink, sex), or of emotion (anger)." – PTP4  

Practice These: Temperance - Frances E. Willard
Practice These: Temperance - Democritus

For more PTP123 passages on temperance, see pp. 20, 26, 27. For PTP4 passages, see among others: as self-restraint, p. 415; as cardinal virtue, 6, 86, 264, 378, 413–415; as spiritual principle, 418–419; as corrective of excess, 143, 398, 415; as corrective of anger, 423–428; as corrective of excess in sex, 415–423; distinguished from self-control, 418–419; in stages of habituation, 413–428. For more Big Book and 12&12 passages, click on and search under moderation, self-control, self-restraint, and temperance.

Additional Resources

  1. Meditation for 08/25 in One Day at a Time in Al-Anon     
  2. Readings for 03/27–03/31 in The Business of Heaven: Daily Readings  from C. S. Lewis     
  3. “The Virtue of Temperance: Living a Passionate Moral Life,” chapter in Introducing  Moral Theology: True Happiness and the Virtues, by William C. Mattison III     
  4. “Taming the Beast Within: The Virtue of Self-Control,” chapter in How to Be Good in a World Gone Bad: Living a Life of Christian Virtue, by James S. Spiegel       
  5. "Temperance," chapter by Robert C. Roberts in Virtues & Their Vices, Kevin Tempe &  Craig A. Boyd, Editors     
  6. Becket, with Richard Burton (as Thomas à Beckett) and Peter O’Toole (as King Henry II). Two drinking actors play two drinking characters. Henry is intemperance on steroids,  while Becket sobers up and gains in self-control as he undergoes a spiritual experience and finds a Power greater than himself.

To return to Practice These, please click on link.