Temperance and the filthy

Temperance is the virtue dealing with intoxicants, food, sex, etc. What all these things have in common is not obvious – they’re all pleasant but not all pleasures fall under temperance; Aristotle will argue they are all pleasures of touch but it’s not obvious how intoxication or eating is essentially tactile; all are addictive, but so is gambling.

One uncontroversial commonality is that all three, when they go wrong, give a peculiar sort of shame. Shame is preceded by giving into passion, but we have irascible and concupiscible passions. We lose control over the first with excessive anger or getting swept up in the fury of crowds or political movements, but this is not the sort of shame that temperance tries to avoid, but the shame that is dirty or defiling. No amount of anger makes one “dirty” (as can happen with sex) or “trashed” (as can happen with intoxicants) nor does anger give one the embarrassed shame that makes one want to hide how much junk food they just ate.

So taken, temperance deals with things that go bad by making us filthy. So why is it appropriate for the same word  to bridge from an overturned dumpster or a six-year-old’s room to watching pornography or drinking half a bottle of cheap vodka? Why call them all dirty or trashed?

The dirty or trashed is filled with the discarded; it’s an abundant display of items for which no one has care. But this can only describe a state of moral evil if we see ourselves as a place deserving to be replete with careAgain, dirty (and clean) describes not just how something is but how it looks, and to look some way is to somehow be seen.

So the dirty and trashed is a way of experiencing ourselves as looked at while filled with the discarded or uncared for, while “purity” or cleanliness is a way of being looked upon as worthy to be lived in. Maybe this sense of being seen is what charge intoxication or sex with a sense of the sacred. Why call something filthy unless it repulses one who looks on us with an eye to be at home within us?

There are lots of ways in which sex and/or alcohol are sacred: the tantric, the matrimonial, Bacchic, Dionysian, eucharistic, etc. and so there is still a lot of moral thought left after we tie the things of temperance to the sacred. For all that, getting this far is a critique of the idea that temperance could be entirely secularized. Secular temperance in fact replaces temperance with a concern for it merely periphery and intersectional parts, like the places where it intersects with justice (sexual consent) or where it affects our health (addiction, obesity, STD’s).

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