A post by a facebook friend of mine notified me that it was Fasnacht Day (also called Shrove Tuesday, Fat Tuesday, Carnival or Marti Gras.) Unfortunately, I am some 14 time-zones ahead of that friend, so I was already in Ash Wednesday. Ever the rules lawyer, I bought a box of donuts Ash Wednesday morning on the grounds that it was still Fasnacht Day in my home town. In case you were meaning to give something up for Lent but haven’t gotten around to it, I have another loophole ready for you; according to the Orthodox Christians, Great Lent doesn’t start until Clean Monday! That’s right, you can be as intemperate and gluttonous as you want this weekend, just settle down in time for Vespers on Sunday evening.
If you don’t observe Lent (because you are a Mennonite or Atheist or Sihk) that is no reason that you should not take this opportunity to reflect a bit on the subject of temperance. We could all use a bit of temperance now and then. But not too much, that would be intemperate. Maybe. I am not even totally sure what temperance is.
In the Socratic dialogue Charmides, Critias proposes a definition of temperance as “self-knowledge.” Socrates proceeds to thoroughly tear Critias apart, but only after slyly replacing “temperance” with “wisdom” and getting Critias to shift from “self-knowledge” to “the science which has itself as its object.” And then at the end, there is a very awkward back and forth between Socrates and Charmides that makes it really look like they are about to have sex. But ignoring all of these shenanigans, let’s consider on our own what it would mean for temperance to be self-knowledge.
Temperance has, on occasion been used to mean something like total avoidance. The so-called “temperance movement” was organized for the total ban of alcohol. Various religious groups have used the word temperance in conjunction with sexual abstinence. However, temperance is more commonly understood as moderation. This understanding is very much in line with the idea that temperance is self-knowledge.
Take, for example, drinking beer. It will be generally agreed that moderation is the best course with regard to this action. (We take for granted here that totally abstaining from beer is no virtue and drinking to excess is a vice.) Still, it takes a deal of self-knowledge to stay in control of the situation, especially as the more beer one drinks, the less important moderation seems.
The same is true of almost everything. Many great minds have recommended “moderation in all things,” but think of how much self-knowledge is required to know what a “moderate amount” is. So this is temperance: know thyself! And here is where the concept becomes difficult.
When you “know” that you shouldn’t eat that last donut, but you can’t help yourself, you don’t really know it. If you really had full knowledge of yourself and your situation (something that seems impossible,) you would never knowingly act in a way that is to your own detriment. I can feel you objecting through the internet. Seriously though, it is only a lack of knowledge that makes you act in ways that hurt yourself. People act this way all the time, but if they really honestly new better, they wouldn’t. Even if you say to yourself every single day “I know I should go to the gym” but you never actually get there, it isn’t because you are lazy. (Well, not only because you are lazy.) It is because you don’t really know that working out will improve your life any more than lying around in your pajamas watching an entire season of whatever television shows you watch entire seasons of. In fact, it is possible that you are wrong for feeling guilty about not going to the gym; maybe what you are doing instead really is better for you and you are more self-aware than you think.
In the end, the more self-knowledge you have will lead to choices that are more advantageous. And in general, these decisions will tend to be moderate since extremes are rarely the best choices. The better you know yourself the more moderate you will be. And, in the end, the healthier and happier you will be. Once you know yourself, being moderate is much less of an effort, it is only doing what you know is in your best interest.
PS. Only eating a box of donuts all day Wednesday was NOT the action of a temperate man. Hopefully I learned something about myself and will be more temperate in the future.
Beer of the Week: KEO Premium – KEO is the perfect beer to celebrate the arrival of Great Lent because KEO’s majority owner is the Orthodox Church of Cyprus. This is an exceptionally pale and clear beer. Slight malt and just a hint of noble hops on the nose. Good white head. There is something oddly familiar about the taste of this beer but what is familiar is unclear and not good. The finish is light but distinct and slightly sweet, with very soft notes of lemon and vanilla.
Reading of the week: Charmides by Plato – Here, Critias does what I wish more Socratic interlocutors would do; he admits that Socrates has somehow trapped him and simply says that if any of the things that he assented to lead to a contradiction, he is willing to “withdraw them.” But he still asserts that it is not clear whether Socrates or he is “more right.”
Question of the week: How close can one get to perfect self-knowledge? What about perfectly right self-opinion?