Temperance is about dealing with our appetites and desires, passions and impulses.
Most often it is mentioned in connection to alcohol, food, sex, and anger.
The iconography of Temperance, the tarot card, is rooted in philosophy and religion. I’ll discuss those roots in the following posts, starting with
The Ancient Greeks …
… who used ‘sophrosyne’ for temperance. But ‘sophrosyne’ is a complex word, which seems to have no one and true translation in English:
"the quality of wise moderation; ... prudence, moderation in desires, discretion, temperance," …
A Sound Mind
“At your late age it is bitter to be taught temperance you should already practice.”
… states Aegishus in Agamemnon, Aeschylus’ tragedy. It seems that in ancient Greece, temperance was seen as a quality every adult should possess.
Another definition of ‘sophrosyne’ supports this view: ‘sound-mindedness’ or ‘healthy-mindedness’.
So temperance is the foundation of a normal, healthy human being.
There’s just one problem: most of us are not very healthy-minded.
We overindulge in food, alcohol, sex, social media… We lash out in anger…
Then we try to fix things with strict diets, or with total abstinence from alcohol, sex or romantic relationships. Or by withdrawing from all conflicts and burying our emotions deep down inside of us.
That’s why, although the ancient Greeks consider temperance as a mandatory trait of a sound mind, they are also aware of how rare it is:
Temperance is the noblest gift of the gods,
states Euripides, another great tragic poet.
Heraclitus, a philosopher, makes a similar claim:
Sophrosyne is the greatest virtue…
He also gives one of the simplest and most beautiful statements on temperance and polarities:
It is not good for all your wishes to be fulfilled: through sickness you recognize the value of health, through evil the value of good, through hunger satisfaction, through exertion, the value of rest.
It is believed that these ideas of Heraclitus deeply impacted Plato. And Plato was the most influential figure in the Western world when it comes to the concept of temperance.
Plato discusses temperance in two of his dialogues.
In the first one, Charmides, he does not give us the definition of temperance.
But he uses other ways to show what temperance is.
An Upsetting of the Soul
Amazement and confusion reigned when he (Charmides) entered; and a troop of lovers followed him.
The above quote describes the entrance of Charmides and his admirers. Charmides is the title character of the dialogue, and a strikingly handsome young man.
But the Greek word translated here as “amazement and confusion” seems to have much stronger implications: “the loss of normal self-control on account of some shocking incident arousing violent passion …”
An “upsetting of the soul”, which ‘dislocates’ the normal sense of self.
And though the “violent passion” in question is most often fear, it can also be sexual desire, as in our example.
In practical terms, the scene comes down to this:
Charmides’ appearance arouses such strong sexual desire in people around him, that they lose their heads.
It is interesting to compare Charmides’ entrance to the judgment of the 51st hexagram of the I Ching. The hexagram is called Shock or Thunder, and we immediately see why:
…When the movement like a crash of thunder terrifies all within a hundred miles, he will be like the sincere worshiper who is not startled into dropping his ladle and cup of sacrificial spirits.
Here, “he” refers to the ‘superior man’, or a person of noble character.
he ‘jun zi’ in Chinese.
The above scene, just like the Charmides scene, depicts a shocking incident. But the difference lies in the subjects’ reactions.
Surely He Feels No Fear?
The image of Thunder, being repeated, forms Shock. The superior man, in accordance with this, is fearful and apprehensive, cultivates his virtue, and examines his faults.
So does the superior man feel fear in a shocking situation?
The one in the I Ching does.
But the ‘jun zi’ “remains confident and self-possessed—so much so that he can calmly perform his religious duties during the prevailing chaos.”
The two seem mutually exclusive: how can he feel fear, yet remain calm?
What I believe the Book of Changes is telling us is:
The jun zi uses the sudden change and the fear it rouses for self-examination.
He responds to the shock by tempering (mixing) fear with introspection.
Fear and Introspection
Fear is a centrifugal force. It dislocates our sense of self, pulling us “out of ourselves”.
Introspection (literally, “looking inside”) is a centripetal force – it draws us back in, anchoring us in our sense of self.
So the jun zi of the I Ching neutralizes fear with its opposite—introspection.
The Measure of Temperance
Both in Charmides and in Shock, the subjects’ reactions to a distressing incident are used to measure how temperate they are.
And while Charmides’ admirers fail the test, the jun zi passes it with flying colors.
Now, what the jun zi is to the I Ching, Socrates is to Plato’s dialogues.
The whole point of Charmides is for Socrates to establish how temperate Charmides—a handsome youth with whom he discusses temperance—is.
In simple terms: Socrates needs to examine if Charmides’ soul is as beautiful as his body.
“For when… he looked at me with his eyes in such an irresistible way and was drawing himself up to ask a question, … then indeed … I saw inside his cloak, I was inflamed, I was no longer in myself,…”
So Socrates is overwhelmed by the young man’s physique and charm. Yet he is well aware of what is taking place inside of him.
In fact, his attention is immediately redirected to the words of another Greek sage:
“I thought how well Cydias understood the nature of love, when, in speaking of a fair youth, he warns someone ‘not to bring the fawn in the sight of the lion to be devoured by him,’ for I felt that I had been overcome by a sort of wild-beast appetite.”
By means of remembering Cydias’ words, Socrates distances himself from his desire.
He then continues his talk with Charmides …
~ * ~ * ~ *
The jun zi balances out his fear with introspection.
Socrates balances out his desire for a physical connection with Charmides with the desire for a metaphysical connection with him – with the need to know Charmides’ soul.
In Charmides, Socrates speaks to one more person about temperance.
That’s Critias, Charmides’ cousin.
By the time Plato wrote this dialogue, Charmides and Critias were dead.
They died protecting Athenian ‘Thirty’, the most notorious government in the history of ancient Athens.
Charmides and Critias are both among the Thirty’s ranks, with Critias playing an especially important role.
The Thirty’s actions quickly earn them the name Thirty Tyrants:
- They murder Athenian citizens they don’t approve of;
- They make rules about killing innocent foreigners living in Athens in order to confiscate their property;
- Critias has his former friend Theramenes, who openly objects to the murders, killed.
So Critias is the embodiment of tyranny. And tyranny is the ‘political’ opposite of temperance.
Is Critias already such a monster in Plato’s dialogue?
But in his vanity, inflexibility, and love of honor we can see appetites he is working hard to repress.
A Tyrant vs. a Philosophic Soul
Once Critias comes to rule in Athens, these repressed appetites explode in acts of radical cruelty.
He embodies the tyrant, the wild reign of unhealthy appetites.
In contrast, Socrates personifies the ‘philosophic soul’: desires, while still there, are neutralized by their opposites and harmonized with the whole.
Plato also speaks of temperance in another of his dialogues, Republic.
In it, temperance is mentioned as one of the four core virtues of the ideal city:
“My notion is, that our State being perfect will contain all the four virtues--wisdom, courage, temperance, justice.”
He describes temperance as the virtue that binds his citizens together.
Although they may differ in wisdom, strength or wealth, temperance harmonizes them, making them to be of one mind.
But for Plato temperance is also one of the four parts of the soul, one that harmonizes all other parts.
And when all its parts are harmonized, “the soul acts as one”.
For Aristotle, Plato’s disciple, virtue is a state between opposite vices.
So the virtue of courage, for example, is set between cowardice and recklessness.
This means that Aristotle finds recklessness, or too much courage, just as bad as cowardice.
The virtue of temperance is placed between excess and asceticism. In other words, between overindulgence in sensual pleasures and the total avoidance of them.
A Cardinal Virtue
The four virtues of Plato’s ideal city were taken over and immortalized by church men like Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine.
And so Plato’s wisdom, courage, justice and temperance became ‘cardinal’, or most important, virtues for Christianity.
Three of the four made their way to the tarot. Today they are known as the Strength, the Justice, and Temperance.
And all three have numerous representations in art and architecture.
Today, however, the most famous of all is the Justice. The statue of a woman with a blindfold, scales, and a sword can be seen in courthouses throughout the world.
- The blindfold means that Justice is impartial;
- The scales, that She weighs both sides of a case before a decision;
- The sword, that the guilty party will be punished and the innocent party protected.
What about Temperance?
What are its symbols on the first tarot cards, and what do those symbols mean?
But What Is She Mixing?
On most its old depictions—the icons, statues and tarot cards— Temperance is a woman pouring liquid from one pitcher into another.
But what exactly is she pouring and why?
This is where opinions differ.
Some believe that she is mixing hot and cold water, others claim that she is combining subconscious and super-conscious minds …
I believe that the simplest interpretation is the best:
She’s pouring water into wine.
A Lawless Brute
In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus pays a visit to Polyphemus’ cave with his comrades.
Polyphemus is a cyclops—a giant with a single eye in the center of his forehead.
The things turn ugly when Polyphemus, “a lawless brute”, starts eating Odysseus’ companions.
So how does Odysseus outwise this fearsome opponent?
By getting him drunk.
Tempering Wine with Water
Thinning wine with water is an ancient custom.
In the ancient Greek epic literature, heroes always drink their wine mixed with water. The characters who drink undiluted wine are portrayed as cowardly and reckless if not downright stupid.
Like the cyclops Polyphemus.
Homer goes out of his way to tell us that the wine Odysseus gives the cyclops is very strong and unmixed with water.
Polyphemus drinks one bowl after another.
"I poured him another fiery bowl— three bowls I brimmed and three he drank to the last drop, the fool, and then, when the wine was swirling round his brain …"
… Odysseus gouges the giant’s eye out, enabling himself and his comrades to escape.
Calling someone a drunk was one of the worst insults. So when Achilles showers Agamemnon with bitterness in Homer’s Iliad, the first name he calls him is “drunkard” (winebibber):
“"Winebibber," he cried, "with the face of a dog and the heart of a hind" …”
Drunkenness, for ancient Greeks, is dangerous and shameful.
Yet drinking wine with measure was considered a staple of the Greek civilization.
The Homeric epics show a new "civilized" world, characterized by wine use with the closely regulated social norms.
The preferred drinking condition was a moderate intoxication where one’s decorum was maintained—a condition that Theognis later called being ‘neither sober nor too drunk.’
This is only possible if wine is diluted with water.
Temper Your Wine with Water
That mixing water with wine has served as a symbol of moderation in general, can be seen from expression to temper one's wine with water.
The idiom is still used in some European languages. In French, they say mettre de l'eau dans son vin, in Dutch water in zijn wijn doen.
Used metaphorically, it means “to moderate one's eagerness; to cool one's heat or spirits”.
Wine and Water as opposites
Wine, on its own, can be dangerous; it often leads to conflicts and violence.
Water, on its own, does not really get the party going.
Together, blended, they create the perfect, “civilized” mood, where people are open and communicative, but not aggressive.
Wine needs water, water needs wine. Combined, they’re just right.
Ben-Dov, Y.: The Marseille Tarot Reveiled
Sheratt, S.: “Feasting in Homeric Epic”
Papakonstantinou, Z.: “Wine and Wine Drinking in the Homeric World”
Sewel, W.: A Large Dictionary English and Dutch, Part II