“Do not bid me
Dismiss my soldiers, or capitulate
Again with Rome’s mechanics: tell me not
Wherein I seem unnatural: desire not
To ally my rages and revenges with
Your colder reasons.”
–Shakespeare’s Coriolanus Act 5, Scene 3
The tragedy of Coriolanus portrays a celebrated Roman general who is thwarted in his political ambitions by his own arrogance. When his intemperate denunciations of republican institutions result in exile, he decides to betray his homeland and his family. Returning at the head of an enemy army bent on the destruction of Rome, the one-time saviour of the city becomes its potential destroyer. How easily leadership is corrupted.
Of the four Cardinal Virtues, on which swing all the positive attitudes found in emotional intelligence inventories, temperance is, like prudence, very poorly understood today. For most people, it simply means teetotalism, sobriety, or abstinence, though some may see it as moderation in the indulgence of appetites and emotions, a vague form of self-control. Self-control itself is something of a curiosity in our sybaritic consumer society, given our propensity for over-indulgence in food, drink, sex, drugs, the passive consumption of media, and so on, as well as our lack of inhibition in expressing emotions. Moderation in consumption and emotional restraint are equated with repression, and we either ignore or disdain the importance attached to the discipline of self-control by sages of all cultures.
“If he makes himself as good as he tells others to be, then he in truth can teach others. Difficult indeed is self-control.
And Thucydides said,
“Self-control is the chief element in self-respect, and self-respect is the chief element in courage.”
And Benjamin Franklin echoed the others:
“Educate your children to self-control, to the habit of holding passion and prejudice and evil tendencies subject to an upright and reasoning will, and you will have done much to abolish misery from their future and crimes from society.”
No wonder Robert E Lee, the greatest 19th century general after Napoleon, could say,
“I cannot trust a man to control others who cannot control himself.”
Self-control is vital to leadership, but it is not the same thing as self-leadership. And an austere self-control falls far short of the virtue of temperance, which is where leadership begins. The ancient Greek word sophrosyne and its Latin counterpart temperantia carried the broad meaning of “directing reason”, that is, applying rational thinking to every aspect of one’s life. So until its deeper meaning was sucked out of it in modern times, the virtue of temperance was understood as the rational cultivation of every part of a person, body, and soul, into a unified and properly functioning whole. It is the fulfillment of potential, enabling the person to be the best he or she can be. Temperance is cultivating personal integrity.
So temperance is the principle of inner equilibrium that is manifested as serenity in the face of the most challenging circumstances.
The concept comes from ancient philosophy. Pythagoras took the idea of Anaximander that all things in the cosmos arise from an indeterminate primary element, and added to it the idea of the Limit, that which gives form to the unlimited. He saw this exemplified in music and health, where the Limit provides the tempering that produces the desired harmony. It is also seen in the process of tempering steel, which limits the hardness in order to increase ductility and toughness. And tempering is the process a person must apply to emotions, appetites, and affections, so as to ensure the inner harmony essential to mental and physical well-being. So temperance is the principle of inner equilibrium that is manifested as serenity in the face of the most challenging circumstances. The philosopher, Josef Pieper, saw it as “selfless self-preservation” because intemperance inevitably results in self-destruction through the degradation of the faculties essential for self-fulfillment.
Our very powers of self-determination are perversely susceptible to becoming agents of our destruction.
It is part of the human conundrum that normal and necessary urges like anger, desire, and fear if allowed to overflow their proper limits, can destroy a person. To feel angry when confronted by workplace bullying, dishonest politics, or corporate corruption, is a perfectly normal response to injustice, but to let trivia provoke the same reaction is to irrationally unsettle one’s emotional balance. Moreover, allowing anger to simmer long after the incident that provoked it only fuels unhealthy attitudes like resentment, contempt, and hatred, that will drag one further down the path of self-destruction. This is the mysterious inner contradiction whereby a person disrupts his or her own proper flourishing. Our very powers of self-determination are perversely susceptible to becoming agents of our destruction. G K Chesterton expressed the paradox perfectly when he noted that the one thing that all human beings agree on is that we are not what we are meant to be. Temperance is the quality we all need to resolve that paradox.
However, people today find this hard, not just because of an inadequate understanding of temperance, but also because of a confused notion of human nature. Though human beings are animals, we are rational animals by virtue of intellect and free will, and contrary to popular but philosophically unsound materialist assumptions, there is a distinct qualitative divide between humanity and the animal world. A lion can only ever be a lion, but a human person must choose whether he or she will be educated or ignorant, courageous or cowardly, just or unjust, temperate or profligate.
Each of us is a single person, with every part dependent on every other part. Your brain does not make decisions; you do, even though you could not make decisions without it.
Moreover, though few people today read Descartes his influence still influences the western mind, even in its avowedly post-religious frame. People tend to think of themselves in terms of body and mind, or increasingly, body and brain, or even right and left brain, making the source of the self-elusive indeed. And so the person becomes a battleground of contending forces, and we talk of our emotions overpowering our reason, or our desires hijacking our will, without realizing that we are speaking in metaphors. Each of us is a single person, with every part dependent on every other part. Your brain does not make decisions; you do, even though you could not make decisions without it. It is the whole person, a total unity that makes decisions in response to external stimuli and internal processes, emotional, affective, and intellectual. It is the indivisible self that is hardworking or lazy, drunken or sober, selfish or unselfish, and virtues like temperance are qualities of the whole person that promote the flourishing of a single reality.
The contemporary quest for the “authentic self” is confused indeed. Several generations have now been encouraged to “follow their feelings”, and values clarification in schools has contributed significantly to the social dysfunction that disfigures society today. The timeless philosophical question of the one and the many have been badly skewed in favour of the individual to the manifest detriment of the community, a development not unrelated to the expansion of government power.
The disposition and ability to lead depend in the first place on who you are, and it is through temperance that you become the person you have the potential to be. Rational orientation enables you to know the proper limits in managing your emotional and affective urges, ensuring that your attitudes and behaviour promote your own flourishing and that of the community. Obviously, the earlier one is mentored into this rationally oriented frame of mind, the better.
The paradox of “selfless self-love” is explained by the fact that temperance only becomes meaningful in the context of relationships and community, and it is here that we recognize it as the essence of the leadership ideal. Self-fulfillment is only possible through healthy relationships, for it is in one’s attitude to others that the fully-integrated self is either formed or deformed. Leadership that does not serve the needs of others ceases to be leadership. The distinguishing mark of humanity is to live in accord with reason, using the power of rational thought to discover the truth about ourselves, others, and the world around us. What else could a proper quest for the authentic self-be than this?
The practical value of this understanding of temperance as the starting point for leadership can be seen in stark relief against the background of the intemperance rife in western society. Intemperance erodes the virtue of practical wisdom, and the ability to think clearly under pressure. It constricts a person’s capacity to comprehend objective reality. Moreover, intemperance is the expression of hubris and selfishness, letting self-gratification become obsessive. The damage done to cognitive processes and also the ability to make rationally informed free decisions is now confirmed by neuroscience.
Is it any wonder we have a leadership crisis that bedevils every level of society? It is time for leaders to confront these realities, and the starting point can only be the restoration of temperance in their own lives.