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.”).