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What is Stoic Temperance?

This short explainer will provide you with a straightforward understanding of what the Stoic virtue of Temperance is and how you can apply it in your life.

Definition Of Stoic Temperance

Stoic Temperance comes from the Greek term “sophrosyne” (σωφροσύνη). The definition of the virtue is thought to precede the Stoics and can be found in the teachings of Plato.

Plato’s definition of the virtue of Temperance is as follows:

Moderation of the soul concerning the desires and pleasures that normally occur in it; harmony and good discipline in the soul in respect of normal pleasures and pains; concord of the soul in respect of ruling and being ruled; normal personal independence; good discipline in the soul; rational agreement within the soul about what is admirable and contemptible; the state by which its possessor chooses and is cautious about what he should.

These definitions are perhaps somewhat abstract and antiquated, but their practicality can be clarified by Temperance’s subdivisions of good discipline, seemliness, modesty, and self-control.

In his book The Quest for Character, the modern Stoic author Massimo Pigliucci provides the following succinct definition of his own which gives further clarity:

Strength that protects against excess; manifestations comprise forgiveness, humility, prudence, and self-control.

What the Stoics Said

Temperance was important to the Stoics as a means of guarding against the dangers of excess in all areas of life.

By indulging in excess, they believed, we never achieve fulfillment— we learn only to crave even more.

As Seneca wrote, we need to examine the validity of our desires:

We are attracted by such things as riches, pleasures, beauty, ambition, and other such coaxing and pleasing objects; we are repelled by toil, death, pain, disgrace, or lives of greater frugality. We ought therefore to train ourselves so that we may avoid a fear of the one or a desire for the other. Let us fight in the opposite fashion: let us retreat from the objects that allure, and rouse ourselves to meet the objects that attack.

Letters 123.13

Elsewhere, Seneca is explicit on the detrimental impact of doing or consuming anything too much:

Demonstrate that what men call pleasures are punishments as soon as they have exceeded due bounds.

Letters 83.27

The Stoic teacher Epictetus offered guidance on setting our limits, suggesting that how much we possess should be determined by our limited bodily needs:

Everyone’s body is the measure of his property, just as a foot is the measure of a shoe. If you abide by this rule, you’ll preserve due measure, but if you transgress it, you’re bound to end up walking off a cliff, so to speak. It’s the same as with a shoe: if you go beyond the requirements of the foot, you get a gilded shoe, and then one dyed purple, and then an embroidered one. Once you go beyond the measure, there’s no end to it.

Enchiridion 39

Epictetus’s own teacher, Musonius Rufus held a similar view in relation to food, that there’s no need to go beyond what we require to be healthy and strong:

To sum up the question of food, I maintain that its purpose should be to produce health and strength, that one should for that purpose eat only that which requires no great outlay, and finally that at table one should have regard for a fitting decorum and moderation, and most of all should be superior to the common vices of filth and greedy haste.

Lecture XVIIIB (On Food)

How Can I Practice Stoic Temperance?

At face value, Temperance is perhaps the least appealing of the four Stoic virtues.

While the positive short and long-term impacts of Wisdom, Justice, and Courage can readily be imagined, it isn’t always obvious what good can come from practicing moderation.

Moderating one’s desires and impulses, however, especially when it comes to the pursuit of pleasure is considered essential in leading a virtuous life, as it allows the aspiring Stoic to act in accordance with reason and avoid the pitfalls of excess and indulgence.

When we are able to resist the temptation to indulge in excess, we demonstrate our ability to prioritize our long-term goals over short-term pleasures.

For example, a person who is able to resist the temptation to eat junk food and maintain a healthy diet is demonstrating self-control and discipline. This in turn helps that person reduce the likelihood of negative consequences.

When we give in to our desires, we may feel fleeting pleasure but later experience things like physical discomfort, emotional distress, and financial strain. For instance, someone who indulges in excessive eating or drinking may end up with health problems or financial difficulties as a result.

Temperance also helps us maintain balance and harmony in our lives. When we are able to regulate our impulses, we are less likely to become consumed by any one thing or activity. For example, someone who is able to moderate their use of social media is less likely to become addicted to it and more likely to maintain healthy relationships and activities outside of their online presence.

Additionally, when we constantly indulge in excess, we can become desensitized to the pleasures and privileges that we have. However, by moderating our indulgences, we are more likely to appreciate the things we have and take pleasure in simple things.

It’s also interesting to note how temperance encapsulates the other virtues.

Temperance is Courage because it’s brave to go against common convention and do what is right for yourself and others.

Temperance is Justice because it informs how much time and effort we dedicate to the good treatment of other people.

Temperance is Wisdom because it rejects excess and allows us to be more mindful and present in our lives.

When we are constantly chasing pleasure, we can become distracted and disconnected from the present moment.

However, by practicing Temperance, we are able to focus on the here and now and cultivate a deeper sense of contentment and fulfillment in our lives, which is exactly what the Stoics intended.