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Temperance is the Most Important Virtue

Daily Stoic Emails

Yesterday we discussed the Four Virtues, and talked about the primacy of courage. Of course, life is not so simple as to say that courage is all the counts. While everyone would admit that courage is essential, we are also all well aware of people whose bravery turns to recklessness and becomes a fault when they begin to endanger themselves and others. 

This is where Aristotle comes in. Aristotle actually used courage as the main example in his famous metaphor of a “Golden Mean.” On one end of the spectrum, he said, there was cowardice—that’s a deficiency of courage. On the other, there was recklessness—too much courage. What was called for, what we required then, was a golden mean. The right amount.

That’s what Temperance or moderation is about: Doing nothing in excess. Doing the right thing in the right amount in the right way. 

In Marguerite Yourcenar’s Memoirs of Hadrian, the emperor Hadrian writes to Marcus Aurelius that “overeating is a Roman vice.” He explains that far too many of his fellow citizens “poison themselves with spice” and drown their plates in rich sauces. The result? They overwhelm their palates—and themselves. By succumbing to excess, they lose the ability to appreciate things and throw themselves off keel.

To Hadrian, simple pleasures were better. He tells Marcus that “moderation has always been my delight.” And not just when it comes to dinner. Fitness, being in good fighting form to face the challenges of each day, was critical, yet working out to the point of fanaticism was a step too far. That means refraining from both indolence and overexertion, cutting the middle course between the two poles to find that Golden Mean where one is neither over nor underprepared, but simply ready.

So today and every day, remember the Stoic admonition to find the middle ground. Do not adhere to one extreme or the other; make temperance your goal in every part of your life, and your future self will thank you for it.

P.S. This was originally sent on March 4, 2020. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism.