Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Continence and Temperance

St. Thomas on Continence and Temperance

The previous post below on continence noted the two different ways that St. Thomas uses the term. As he explains, the continent person still experiences unruly passions, “the crooked lusts that shake us.”
Thomas then goes on to consider the difference between the virtue of continence and the virtue of temperance. He asks whether continence is better than temperance. His answer is clear: No. It’s just the opposite. Temperance is better. (II-II, q. 155, a. 4).

As noted in my previous post, Thomas distinguishes two meanings of continence. Here he is speaking of its second meaning as “the resistance to strongly running wrongful lusts.” He says “…temperance is much fuller than continence, for the value of a virtue is admirable because it is charged with intelligence. Now intelligence burgeons more in the temperate than in the continent, because by temperance the sensory appetite itself is subordinated and as it were wholly possessed by mind, whereas with continence its low desires remain rebellious. To sum up, continence is to temperance as the unripe to the fully mature.” (emphasis added)

This point is very crucial in any discussion of mature purity. Thomas is explaining that the person who is continent is virtuous, but not in the fullest sense. That’s because the unruly passions still rise up in an uncontrolled way. The continent person does not yet have well-ordered passions. The person has a good will and wants to avoid sin, but has to face a fierce struggle.

The virtue of temperance is better than continence because it controls the unruly passions. It orders them according to reason (“wholly possessed by mind”). It might be compared to taming a wild animal.

Thomas is saying that the virtue of temperance enables us to reach the point of having well-regulated passions. That doesn’t mean we’ll be free of concupiscence, because we will always have concupiscence throughout our whole life on earth. But it does mean that it is possible to overcome the dominance of the sensory appetite even in this life. In other words, we can reach the point where we can control it, and it doesn’t control us. We can’t do this on our own; it requires grace. But God is always ready to give that grace to those who pray for it and strive to control their appetites.

To apply this to chastity, those continent persons who struggle through with “white-knuckle chastity” (ie., the “unripe”) are acting virtuously, but those who have grown beyond that to ease and joy in chastity are at a higher stage of virtue in practicing temperance (ie., the “fully mature.”).

11 comments:

Lauretta said...

Sister Lorraine,
Thank you so much for this great explanation. I am not familiar at all with St. Thomas' writings so this is quite helpful.

I had a question as well. Somewhere along the line I heard that St. Thomas' writings on the emotions were suppressed for quite a while in the Church and that someone, I believe a Franciscan, tried to fill in the gap. His teaching was somewhat off base, however, and led to some misunderstandings for a few centuries until St. Thomas' teaching was brought back into use. Was that true?

Sr. Lorraine said...

Hello Lauretta,
I'm glad you find the post helpful. St Thomas is so wonderfully clear!
I don't know about the history you are referring to. It is true that in the centuries after St Thomas, not all commentators explained his work in the best way. There were times when it was more popular and other times when it wasn't. So I'm sorry I don't have more information about this point you bring up.

Lauretta said...

Sister Lorraine,
I have another question. In your study of St. Thomas, did you discover any indication of whether or not Thomas thought that a person who had acquired temperance would, at times, have to resort to continence? That seems to be one of the areas of discussion on the subject. And, do you see much difference between what some of us have been saying about this issue and what St. Thomas says?

Sr. Lorraine said...

Dear Lauretta,
That's a good question. I'm not sure if Thomas addresses that specifically. If I find a reference to it I will let you know.
But I think he would say that at times it would be necessary for the temperate person to resort to continence. He recognizes that the virtues are connected and work together (I-II, q. 65, a. 1).
Thomas was also very realistic about human nature and realized that even when we make spiritual progress, at times we can go back. At other times the passions can get more violent and so the need for continence remains.

The moral life is always a work in progress. It's hard to know exactly where we stand sometimes. But in general, we can know when we are growing, and in due time things get easier.
Also, for the last part of your question, I think that a lot of the discussion that has been going on here and at the Liturgy Cosmos blog does reflect what St. Thomas says.

Lauretta said...

How would you define continence? Is it only averting the eyes or can it mean other means of sexual restraint as well?

Sr. Lorraine said...

Hi Lauretta,
The difference between continence and temperance is that the temperate person has achieved a state where the passions are so well ordered that as a rule "the powerful rebellious passions do not rear up" (St. Thomas).

For the continent person, instead, the powerful passions do rear up in a rather uncontrolled way. So the person has to control them by will power.

So continence itself is more of a state of being. In order to control the passions by will power, the continent person can use different methods, such as averting one's eyes, avoiding other occasions of sin, etc. The other means of sexual restraint are not continence itself, but the means that the continent person needs to use to control the rebellious passions.

Is that helpful?

Lauretta said...

I think I am beginning to understand. I have gotten confused at times because it often seems as though some are equating continence with averting of the eyes but it seems to me that one could be in the state of continence, that is not sinning but experiencing difficulty in maintaining this position, while still not averting the eyes but using other means of sexual restraint. I guess that I would hope people could stay at the stage of averting the eyes for as short a time as possible since it is so burdensome to the person needing to avert his eyes, especially in our culture, as well as making it so difficult for him to be all that he could be for others. If one can't look at someone, how can they work with them, help them in distress, etc.?

dcs said...

If one can't look at someone, how can they work with them, help them in distress, etc.?

I believe this is a straw man. It's like asking how a doctor can treat patients on Sunday even though we're commanded to avoid servile labor on Sunday.

Kevin said...

I'm not sure if he was a Fransiscan, but Lauretta might be referring to Catejan, who for many years was viewed as one of the top thomists, so much so that people in some cases didn't read Aquinas, but what Catejan SAID about Aquinas.

Leo XIII in one of his many reforms started a genuine renewal of the study of Aquinas, and encouraged priests and theologians to return to the actual source documents of Aquinas.

In a sense, a lot of the later developments with personalism (such as the works by Dietrich Von Hildebrand and a young JPII) which led to the ideas behind TOB could be traced to this.

I'm not a philosopher, but I am a large fan of Leo XIII and the reforms he launched within the Church. This is one of the many positive ones. :)

Dave Hahn said...

Sister, quick question. Does continence and temperance only refer to the sexual appetite or to any vice? Like anger. Can you say one can practice continence when dealing with anger but it would be better to have the virtue of temperance? Also wondering have you read Dr. Conrad Barrs books. He explains this concept as well.

Sr. Marianne Lorraine Trouve said...

Hello Dave,
In a general way, continence and temperance can refer to any vice. St Thomas says that temperance is the virtue that helps us to deal with all our desires according to reason and moderation.
However, as he always does, Thomas likes to distinguish. So while temperance can be a general virtue in moderating all our desires, when it comes to those things we are most attracted to--ie. food and sex--temperance has a special role. That makes it a special virtue to regulate those two appetites in particular.
Thomas does treat anger as a passion, and as a sin he sees it as opposed to meekness, a sub-virtue under temperance. (See the Summa, II-II, q. 158 on anger specifically.)So you could say that we practice meekness when dealing with anger. But I think the same principles would hold as regards continence and temperance. That is, continence is needed when we need to struggle more to control our anger, and we have the more perfect temperance when it comes more naturally.

I have read a number of Dr Baars' books, and I liked them very much. I think he is coming at it more from the point of view of psychology, but he bases himself on St Thomas. Did you know that his daughter Suzanne, who I think is in the San Antonio area, also practices psychology according to her father's teachings? I met her once at a conference and she is a wonderful person.
God bless you, Dave, and blessed Advent!

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