31 December 2011


A man’s character is formed by his habits, and his habits are formed by repeated actions. Human actions, though, proceed from the movement of the will, which is elicited by a judgment on the part of the intellect.

What is the intellect? What is the will? Both are powers of the human soul: the intellect is that power by which we know the essences of things, by which we apprehend reality and make judgments concerning things. The will is the appetitive power which follows upon the work of the intellect and orders the activities of the human person. An appetite is a power by which a creature moves itself to act through the apprehension of some good. If the appetite is purely sensible, then the mere sight or smell of the good in question will impel the creature to act. However, human desires are not purely sensible, but are moderated by a rational appetite: the will. The will is that power by which a person moves himself to act through the intellectual judgment of goodness in some potential state of things. Note, though, that the object of the will’s desire originates in the judgment of the intellect, so that a disordered intellect will lead the will astray, and a disordered will will tend to direct a person down progressively worse courses of action, leading to the development of bad habits and the destruction of character. These are the dangers of vice: the man who sins not only commits some injustice, but also damages his ability to return to the true path.

Now, taste is the quality of a man’s character which by which he is disposed to desire some things and reject others. In common usage we think of “taste” with respect to one’s preference for certain particular sensible delights over others. Perhaps I like bluegrass music, while my friend likes jazz or opera. Taste, however, is nothing more or less than the disposition of one’s will toward the good. The “tempering of taste” is a question in particular of the moderation of our appetites. Temperance is the virtue — widely neglected in all ages, but especially in our own — by which a man is able to see not only what is genuinely good in the things available to him, but desires to attain them in the right measure.

We often think of temperance with respect to the three chief sensible delights: food, drink and sex. Temperance is the disposition to enjoy each of these in its proper place, as determined by the divinely established order of nature and the judgments of a rightly formed reason. Properly speaking, though, temperance — and hence the tempering of taste — is much broader than the basic, necessary, regulation of our enjoyment of these three goods. It includes also the enjoyment of art and entertainment, the individual sense of humor, and the general pleasure or displeasure we find in virtuous activity and the proper ordering of things around us: our own lives, our possessions and pursuits, and our communities.

The neglect of temperance is a grave obstacle to the positive development of character. Without temperance the individual is caught up by every passing fancy and will be prone to overvalue lesser goods at the expense of his own fulfillment. But most visibly, the lack of temperance tends to prevent us from working out any long-term plans: the discipline and self-sacrificial attitude necessary to do great things cannot be present in an intemperate soul, leaving instead a trail of half-hearted attempts and ephemeral bursts of energy.