There is wine, and there is wine. We are temperate, not so that we may drink a little bit of wine and grow a little tipsy, but so that we may drink the true wine and grow inebriated.
I'm not being quite fair to that old temperance movement. Drunkenness was a scourge for a family in poverty, and Prohibition did in fact crack the backbone of a subculture of alcoholism, as actuarial tables during those years will show. Still, it brought to the fore that streak of joylessness in the American soul that values sobriety not because it makes a man wise but because it ensures that he will show up at the factory on time and not get his hand caught in the turbine. For such a soul, it is not wine that gladdens the heart but oil that slicks the gears. And now, now that we are haunted by the ghastly composite of Carry Nation and Clara Bow, it is sexual license (with appropriate padding and poison) that loosens the zipper and makes for tame subjects of the vast machinery of the state.
But true temperance brings strength, and only a strong heart and soul — not to mention a strong body — can stand the strain of joy. The word itself suggests good order and strength. It is built from the Latin tempus, "time." Something temperate is, in the first instance, something done in due time, in season; think of a band of mariners swinging the jib just at the right moment to catch the shifting wind. It is also something done in an appropriate mode or fashion, given the circumstances: the inner meaning of the old word "modest." A man in good "temper" is one who is equal to the situation, composed, in control of his faculties, just as tempered steel is strong, as it must be, or tempered silver is malleable into thin sheets, for its very different uses. To lose one's temper, then, is literally to lose that capacity to act in a timely or well-governed or effectual way.
He is the unmanly counterpart to Excess, a woman
And when we finally meet Acrasia herself, she is half-naked, hanging over a young lad who is not only disarmed: his very shield has been scrubbed bare. The boy is in a dead sleep, physically and morally:
Have we ourselves ever seen the like, let us say in a dormitory, or a bar? Lewis' verdict is devastating:
Not a kiss, nor an embrace in the land of intemperance. It follows that temperance is in harmony with both physical and moral power, and with the strength of true love. Spenser, the wise Christian poet and philosopher of love, sees that too. So he describes the action of the sailor bringing Guyon to the Bower of Bliss, having to steer a straight path between the Quicksand of Unthriftihood and the Whirlpool of Decay:
And the House of Alma, his emblem of temperance in action, is filled with young men and women actively pursuing their love, and what god should be present to bestir them if not Eros himself?
The scene fairly bustles: some of the lovers are singing, some are laughing for joy, some are playing with straws, some are sitting at ease, and some indeed are in the throes of a kind of comical agony, frowning or fawning or blushing.
And that comes right after he has thus memorialized the sobriety, the sweet temper, of his beloved bride, at the moment their wedding is consecrated:
That momentary blush — how much does it reveal! It shows both the self-governance of the bride, her strength of soul, her "temper," if you will; and also, and not coincidentally, her passionate love for her bridegroom.
Spenser was but following the lead of sacred scripture, which so often associates vanity and heedlessness with the image of the drunkard: "But they have erred through wine, and through strong drink are out of the way; the priest and the prophet have erred through strong drink . . . They err in vision, they stumble in judgment. For all tables are full of vomit and filthiness" (Is. 28:7-8). Meanwhile, the severe temperance of Daniel and his three friends is rewarded with spiritual gifts. They begged their Babylonian overlords to spare them from eating the defiling meat the king ate, and from drinking his wine. Their meal of pulse and water left them healthier in the flesh than the king's servants were, and fairer of countenance. Then "God gave them knowledge and skill in all learning and wisdom: and Daniel had understanding in all visions and dreams" (Dan. 1:17). The Baptist ate locusts and wild honey, and Jesus Himself fasted for forty days in the desert. But as for the wicked beast that rules the earth, the cry against her comes forth from heaven: "Babylon is fallen, is fallen, that great city, because she made all nations drink of the wine of her fornication" (Rev. 14:8).
There is wine, and there is wine. We are temperate, not so that we may drink a little bit of wine and grow a little tipsy, but so that we may drink the true wine and grow inebriated. Hence Jesus at Cana turned the water into wine, and good rich wine, as the steward noted, not thin ordinary stuff. For when it comes to joy, the soul in good temper knows no bounds: "I am come into my garden, my sister, my spouse: I have gathered my myrrh with my spice; I have eaten my honeycomb with my honey; I have drunk my wine with my milk: eat, O friends; drink, yea, drink abundantly, O beloved" (Sg. 5:1).
Anthony Esolen. "Temperance: The Sixth Lively Virtue." Crisis Magazine (June 12, 2012).
Reprinted with permission of Crisis Magazine.
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