Temperance, one of the four cardinal virtues in Stoic philosophy, is also described as self-discipline, self-control, and moderation.

In the Stoic framework, temperance is not just about our ability to show self-restraint in our approach to pleasure or the avoidance of pain; it also includes a broader spectrum of self-regulation in thoughts, actions, and desires.

It’s about achieving a balanced state of mind, displaying moral virtue, and exercising our freedom of choice in such a way as to choose the right path, not just the easiest or more pleasurable one.

The Four Cardinal Virtues

The Stoics believed in virtue ethics, that virtue is the only good, and that the path to a good life can be found when we align ourselves with nature, act with reason, and display virtues in our everyday behaviours and thoughts.

These virtues are:

  1. Wisdom

  2. Courage

  3. Justice

  4. Temperance

When we develop our ability to reflect these virtues, we step closer to a life of happiness, resilience, and flourishing—a state the Stoics called eudaimonia.

Today we’re going to focus on the cardinal virtue of temperance, why it’s important, and how we can develop it for ourselves. You can follow the links in the list above to learn about the other virtues.


Why is temperance important?

Temperance is our ability to overcome desire.

When we develop temperance, we also develop the power to reject our impulses, choose long-term good over short-term pleasure, reject paths that could lead to addiction, and generally do what we know we should do rather than letting our desires take control over our decision-making.

The person who can act with reason and wisdom will be far more likely to avoid suffering than the person who is under the control of their passions and inordinate desire.

We all probably know when we’ve had too much of something. The feeling is built into the human species.

This can be anything from bodily pleasures, sexual pleasure, food, video games, drink, or too much time on our phones.

We know what pulls at our desire, we know what we have a weakness for, and we know how we feel when we give into those passions and desires.

We also know how it feels to practice self-control.

Human existence and human life are a delicate balance of pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding. If we sway too far towards pleasures, we risk destroying our well being. If we sway too far towards ascetism, we lose out on a lot of what the world has to offer.

Aristotle suggested a balance. Not a total lack of pleasure, but to allow sensible pleasure and reject excess.

In the Memoirs of Hadrian, Emperor Hadrian explains to a young Marcus Aurelius that “overeating is a Roman vice.”

It’s clear that Hadrian thought moderation to be a virtue, an essential part of a good life, and that the Romans of the time “poison themselves with spice”, indulging too much in the food they eat and dinks they enjoy.

In doing so, the Romans, like any intemperate person, rob themselves of the taste of good food and drink because they have become so accustomed to having it all the time and now take it for granted.

Hadrian tells Aurelius, “moderation has always been my delight.”

I think we can learn something from the old Emperor here as well.

How to practice the virtue of temperance?

Self Awareness

The first step in practicing temperance and self-control is self-awareness.

This involves paying close attention to your behaviors and identifying areas where you tend to exhibit excess or deficiency. This often requires some honesty on our part to accept the truth of our nature.

For instance, you might notice a tendency to overindulge in certain pleasures or react too emotionally in specific situations. By becoming more aware of these patterns, you can begin to understand where moderation is needed.

For me, the best way to find these patterns is through meditation, but you can also use journaling, for example, to explore yourself.

It could even be more targeted mindfulness. For example looking at sense pleasures, while we’re eating, when we feel passion, or when we find ourselves desiring sex.

How we respond to all of this will let us know more about ourselves and how we can better apply the virtue.


Once you have a sense of these areas and are on the course to change, the next step is to set intentional goals for moderation.

This doesn’t necessarily mean imposing strict limits or denying yourself pleasures, but finding a balanced approach that aligns with your overall well-being.

For example, if you find that you are spending too much time on your phone or your computer, rather than completely cutting off usage, you might set specific times for usage that allow for both connectivity and disconnection.

Consistency is key

For the most part, implementing these changes requires conscious effort and practice.

It’s helpful to remind yourself of the benefits of a temperate lifestyle, such as improved mental health, harmony, better physical health, and stronger relationships.

When you face challenges or slip-ups, rather than being harsh on yourself, use these as opportunities to learn more about your tendencies and triggers.

This helps refine our approach to practicing temperance. You’re a human being and not a robot, so be compassionate with yourself. These things are rarely easy.

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Stoic Quotes on Temperance

“True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient, for he that is so, wants nothing. The greatest blessings of mankind are within us and within our reach. A wise man is content with his lot, whatever it may be, without wishing for what he has not.” – Seneca

“‘If you seek tranquillity, do less.’ Or (more accurately) do what’s essential—what the logos of a social being requires, and in the requisite way. Which brings a double satisfaction: to do less, better. Because most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquillity. Ask yourself at every moment, ‘Is this necessary?’” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.24

“Curb your desire — don’t set your heart on so many things and you will get what you need.” – Epictetus

“It is not that we have a brief length of time to live, but that we squander a great deal of that time.” – Seneca

FAQ on Temperance

Q: What exactly is temperance?

A: Temperance is a virtue that involves practicing self-control, moderation, and balance in one’s life. It’s about regulating one’s desires and impulses to maintain a harmonious and ethical lifestyle. In philosophy, particularly Stoicism, it’s considered a key component of living a virtuous and fulfilling life.

Q: Why is temperance important?

A: Temperance is an important cardinal virtue because it helps maintain a healthy balance in life. It reduces the likelihood of extreme behaviors that can lead to personal and social harm. Practicing temperance can lead to better mental and physical health, improved relationships, and a more stable and satisfying life.

Q: How does temperance affect mental health?

A: Self control positively affects mental health by promoting emotional balance, reducing stress and anxiety, increasing resilience, and improving self-esteem and decision-making abilities. It helps in managing impulses and maintaining a calm and rational perspective, which are crucial for mental well-being.

Q: Can temperance help with addiction?

A: Yes, temperance can be a valuable tool in managing and overcoming addictions. By fostering self-control and moderation, it helps individuals resist urges and develop healthier coping mechanisms. However, it’s important to note that addiction is a complex issue that may also require professional treatment and support.

Q: Is temperance just about abstaining from alcohol or other substances?

A: While self control often involves moderation in the consumption of substances like alcohol, it’s a broader concept that applies to all aspects of life. It includes emotional regulation, balanced living, and ethical decision-making, extending far beyond just substance use.

Q: How can I practice temperance in my daily life?

A: You can practice temperance by setting limits for yourself in various aspects of life, such as work, leisure, consumption, and emotional responses. Mindfulness practices, reflection, and setting personal goals for moderation can help in developing this virtue.

Q: Does temperance mean avoiding pleasure?

A: Not necessarily. Temperance is about enjoying pleasures in moderation and not letting them dominate your life or decision-making. It’s a balance between enjoyment and restraint, ensuring that pleasures are healthy and don’t lead to negative consequences.

Q: Is temperance a religious concept?

A: While temperance is emphasized in many religious teachings, it’s also a secular virtue valued in philosophy and psychology. It’s a universal concept that transcends specific religious or cultural contexts.

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