Tuesday, November 04, 2014

On the Virtue of Temperance, Part I

Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 11:

Elinor could not be surprised at their attachment. She only wished that it were less openly shewn; and once or twice did venture to suggest the propriety of some self-command to Marianne. But Marianne abhorred all concealment where no real disgrace could attend unreserve; and to aim at the restraint of sentiments which were not in themselves illaudable, appeared to her not merely an unnecessary effort, but a disgraceful subjection of reason to common-place and mistaken notions. Willoughby thought the same; and their behaviour at all times, was an illustration of their opinions.

Jeremy Bentham, in the third volume of his work, Not Paul but Jesus, portrays the history of ethics as dominated (unfortunately, in his view) by what he calls asceticism:

By asceticism I understand any system or article of doctrine in and by which endeavours are used to engage men to forego pleasure in any shape for any other cause than the procurement of still greater pleasure in the same or some other shape, or the avoidance of pain to an amount more than equivalent: or to subject themselves [to] pain for any other cause than the avoidance of still greater pain, or the procurement of pleasure to an amount more than equivalent. (1.1.1)

To this idea, that one should sometimes restrain oneself in matters of pleasure even when doing so does not result in greater pleasure overall or in the long run, Bentham opposes utilitarianism; he regards 'asceticism' as very morally wrong.

While Bentham's way of putting it is tendentious -- as Bentham's ways of putting things often are -- it is nonetheless true that he has hit on a genuine opposition. What Bentham calls 'asceticism' is just, in fact, what older authors call temperance, and almost all of Bentham's discussion of the opposition is an attack on the virtue of temperance. The basic principle governing temperance as traditionally understood is that we are to restrain ourselves in matters of pleasure in light of needs of life that are higher than pleasure, and that we should train our preferences in light of those same needs. These needs are needs for things like living, being healthy, contributing to the good of the human race as a free and responsible member of it, sustaining the human race through proper care for children, reasoning and inquiry after truth, loving God, and probably a great many others, none of which are understood in ways reducible to pleasure.

Thomas Aquinas insists on this point explicitly in ST 2-2.141.6. In his reply to the second objection, he notes that temperance is concerned with necessitas humanae vitae in two ways: it is concerned both with what is necessary for life itself and what is necessary to live life fittingly (convenienter). When we are dealing specifically with touch-related pleasures (which is the focus of the special virtue of temperance as opposed to temperance in a broad sense), the primary (but not only) concerns are health and good condition.

Thus we find two opposed attitudes, with Bentham in one camp and champions of temperance like Austen and Aquinas in the other. It is temperance that considers it sometimes important "to aim at the restraint of sentiments which are not in themselves illaudable" and that involves "the propriety of some self-command" even in matters in which "no real disgrace could attend unreserve", to use Austen's phrases. One way to read Sense and Sensibility, in fact, is as an exploration of the virtue of temperance. But the idea that one should sometimes restrain oneself even from things that are in themselves fine seems to be a very alien view to many people today; there are, on this point, at least, many Benthamites.


  1. Greta3:02 AM

    This is such an interesting topic; I will refrain from more specific comment until I see where the future posts go-and wonder in advance if the subject will be tied to the golden mean. I agree that the principles of temperance are ((sadly)) foreign to contemporary culture.

  2. MrsDarwin3:19 PM

    Trying to imagine Bentham engaging in Caligulaic orgies and then writing tendentiously about pleasure.

    Marianne is such a frustrating character sometimes because she seems to believe that the more strongly she feels something, the more right it is. That there are external standards of behavior, such as not making a big scene at a party or not spending a day in an empty house with a man you're not engaged to (the first perhaps a truth more timeless than the second) doesn't really impinge on her unless she feels that other people (Mrs. Jenkins, say) are violating those standards in a way that annoys her. Elinor can be a bit too repressed, but it's far more compelling to watch her internal struggle than Marianne's because Elinor's standards are not centered in herself.

  3. branemrys5:16 PM

    I try to avoid imagining Bentham engaging in Caligulaic orgies!

    I think this apparent tension between sincerity (at which Marianne excels, and with which Elinor has some difficulty) and propriety (the reverse) is a big part of the book, and both characters need to resolve it. But it is also fairly clear that it isn't a symmetrical tension -- as you say, Elinor's standards include other people in a way Marianne's do not -- so that Elinor has to move less to hit the target.

  4. branemrys5:17 PM

    The golden mean will almost certainly come up, but as part of a larger topic.


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