Of the four classical virtues—courage, justice, prudence, and temperance—the last is arguably the most demanding. Bravely standing by friends, treating others as we wish to be treated, seeking wisdom and the right path: these can be tough, yes, but some find temperance the most daunting virtue of all.
Usually we associate a lack of temperance with drug abuse, alcoholism, and smoking: the addict who shoves a needle into his arm, the neighbor who downs a fifth of vodka every evening, the cousin who fires up his cigarette with a rueful “Yeah, yeah, I know it’s a bad habit.” We tend to forget that other intemperate excesses—gluttony, lust, an immoderate balance between leisure and work, an obsession with video games or social media— are damaging as well.
To break a bad habit can be difficult, yet every day some people waken and find the willpower to pledge allegiance to temperance. The electrician who eats his daily lunch at a fast-food restaurant looks in the mirror and decides to switch to a more wholesome diet. The loan officer who sits all day at a computer comes home one evening, decides it’s time she shaped up, and puts on a pair of walking shoes. The student who wastes his study hours texting and looking at social media silences his phone, puts it in the next room, and opens his physics book.
To break our addictions—for that is what they are—is one of the toughest battles human beings face, because we ourselves are the enemy. Worst-case scenario: we are self-made slaves, fettered to our instincts and bad habits.
When we make willpower the master of desire, we unlock our shackles and gain our freedom.