The Virtue of Temperance

Most Dartmouth students bridle at the mention of the word “temperance.” For some, it recalls the tyranny of the Prohibition era and the antiquated morality of the Puritans. For most, it evokes a self-righteous (or self-conscious?) anger at the intimation that they engage in “high-risk drinking behaviors.” Students are tired of incompetent administrators and hypocritical pseudo-academics preaching at them and accusing them of depravity.

This is unfortunate, because temperance means more than just pandering to suffragettes. In the most basic sense, temperance is the virtue of self-restraint and moderation. In the early nineteenth century, various temperance movements emerged, calling for moderation in the consumption of alcoholic beverages. Soon afterwards, a subset of “teetotalers” took to complete abstinence from alcohol. This subset grew, Prohibition passed into law, and temperance as a virtue became tainted.

True temperance is the (not so) novel idea that there is simultaneously a place for all things and a need for moderation in all things, which the Hebrews captured in the verse, “For everything there is a season.”

Today’s increasingly complex society has managed to confuse this simple concept. Advances in science now indicate that many of the things that bring us pleasure are “natural.” It is quite “natural” to want to consume sugar and fat, just as it is perfectly natural to want to reproduce with anything that shows signs of life. There is an abundance of evolutionary, biological, and psychological explanations for all of our desires to engage in excess. Those who attack so-called “immoral” behaviors as “unnatural” are often objectively wrong.

The issue with this natural-versus-unnatural paradigm is that most humans do not live as nomadic hunter-gatherers. In most cases, we do not expend enough calories to justify our gluttony. We no longer need to have dozens of children to ensure just a few survive. One of the purposes that religion, government, and morality serve is to rein in extraneous yet natural behaviors. If everyone did exactly as their natural desires dictated, our complex society would cease to exist.

The flip side of this is that complete abstinence is virtually impossible. While society might be more productive and safer if no one consumed alcohol, natural desire is too powerful to wipe out. Prohibition and other such movements have taught us that temperance is far better than abstinence at maintain societal order.

Abstinence has never succeeded at Dartmouth. Reverend Wheelock’s Puritan rules only drove drinking off campus into the taverns and eventually resulted in the creation of fraternities. Prohibition itself turned Dartmouth into the “Cuba of the North,” and President Hanlon’s crackdown on the Greek System has only driven vice underground. One can only imagine the hedonistic hell that Dartmouth would become if students permitted themselves to give in to their base desires.

Dartmouth students can discover the virtue of temperance by asking themselves why they engage in each form of excess. While addiction to alcohol, drugs, and sex are serious problems on this campus, a culture of permissiveness towards indulgence in these behaviors is the larger issue. If students brought the same critical thinking skills they use every day in the classroom into their personal lives, they might discover that they engage in excess not because it brings them actual fulfillment, but because it is the culturally normative behavior. For example, being drunk is more often a means to an end than an end in and of itself. Relaxation, loosening of inhibitions, fraternizing with friends, and intimate relationships are all perfectly attainable without alcohol but often easier to achieve in our culture with its assistance.

When a student understands why he engages in excess, he asserts control over his natural impulses. He gains the ability to moderate his behavior based on a realistic conception of the positive and negative outcomes of his choices. If he desires to lose his social inhibitions on a given night, he may decide to become intoxicated. If he simply wants to bond with his friends, he might decide to forego drinking.

The same logic that applies to excess alcohol, drugs, and sex also applies to other social behaviors. Activism, regardless of the cause, is a rewarding behavior. It feels good to be passionate about something, and it feels even better to cause tangible ripples through one’s own actions. The addictive nature of activism is so powerful that it often causes individuals to lose sight of their real aims and become caught up in the psychological rewards of provoking a reaction. This form of activism is no different than binge drinking in fraternities. People engage in it because it is stimulates reward mechanisms and provides a sense of community. Just as with drinking, activists should stop and evaluate what their true goals are and how best to achieve them.

William F. Buckley, Jr. once said, “A Conservative is a fellow who is standing athwart history yelling ‘Stop!’” At the risk of over-analyzing these oft-quoted words, it is important to ask what, exactly, the conservative is yelling “Stop!” at. Some might say that he is pleading with society to cease its slide into “progressive” morality, but this is simplistic. Perhaps the conservative is yelling “Stop!” not because the world is headed towards new evils, but because it still struggles with the old. The conservative is yelling “Stop!” because he sees the pain of those caught up in the conflict between nature and modernity, and he knows the solution: objective evaluation and temperance in all things.

Sandor Farkas reflects on temperance.

Sandor Farkas reflects on temperance.