Friday, July 24, 2009

OFFSPRING: Temperance


Temperance is, unfortunately, one of those words that has changed its meaning. It now usually means teetotalism. But in the days when the second Cardinal virtue was christened 'Temperance,' it meant nothing of the sort. Temperance referred not specially to drink, but to all pleasures; and it meant not abstaining, but going the right length and no further. It is a mistake to think that Christians ought all to be teetotallers; Mohammedanism, not Christianity, is the teetotal religion. Of course it may be the duty of a particular Christian, or of any Christian, at a particular time, to abstain from strong drink, either because he is the sort of man who cannot drink at all without drinking too much, or because he is with people who are inclined to drunkenness and must not encourage them by drinking himself. But the whole point is that he is abstaining, for a good reason, from something which he does not condemn and which he likes to see other people enjoying. One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting every one else to give it up. That is not the Christian way. An individual Christian may see fit to give up all sorts of things for special reasons--marriage, or meat, or beer, or the cinema; but the moment he starts saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who do use them, he has taken the wrong turning. (C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 1943)


Temperance is the lost virtue of our day. We are the intemperate people, with intemperate habits, and who specialize in the elimination of anything that comes close to abstinence from our vocabulary. Lewis however, may just have put his finger on the reason that this is so. It may be that our society has simply knee jerked to a Mohammedanism that has been made to pass for Christianity. Consider this, if you were the devil, how would you do battle with temperance? Probably by taking things that are not evil of themselves: marriage, or meat, or beer, or the cinema, and call them bad, and to be eliminated by our practice of temperance. Temperance however is not that at all, in fact, temperance is an exercise that makes a person the master over their passions rather than the slave of their passions. This exercise has always been part of the Christian life, and is in fact is the primary reason for fasting.

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