In the archaic world, Temperance was a symbol of balance and harmony.
As seen in my previous posts about ancient Greece and China (see Temperance as Harmony of the Soul), a temperate person deals with an extreme by balancing it out—by introducing its opposite.
But in the medieval period a new idea of Temperance emerged.
And this new idea is at times pretty bizarre.
In two out of three Eteilla’s tarot decks, Temperance is depicted as a girl with a bridle in her hand.
The bridle is normally part of the horse’s gear. It is used to restrain or guide the animal.
The ‘bit’ of the bridle is placed in the horse’s mouth. It is through the discomfort and/or pain caused by even the gentlest bit, that the animal is controlled.
So Eteilla wants us to know that the 'Temperance girl' has to restrain her appetites or desires by force. And the pain is an unpleasant but inevitable consequence.
Temperance and Rage
In the ancient world Temperance was connected to violent passions, such as sexual desire, rage or fear.
Connection with anger/rage/wrath was especially strong. This is obvious even today, from words and phrases such as “temperament” and “keep (or lose) one's temper”.
Put Your Sword in Its Place
Giotto’s fresco cycle, Seven Vices and Virtues, decorates the walls of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.
Temperance, one of the virtues, stands in her niche, binding up the straps around the hilt of her sword.
She is next to Wrath, the third vice, because she needs to ‘temper’ it.
More interestingly, she is placed below the fresco of the Betrayal.
The betrayal in question is Judas’ betrayal of Christ.
According to the gospels, Judas leads a crowd to arrest Jesus. Among the crowd is the high priest’s servant.
Judas kisses Jesus to point him out to the crowd. It is this kiss that Giotto portrays.
But he uses what happens next as inspiration for the Temperance fresco: one of Jesus’ disciples ‘loses his temper’—draws his sword and cuts off the servant’s ear.
Jesus then commands him: ‘Put your sword in its place, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword.’(Matthew 26:52)
What’s That in Her Mouth?
Giotto’s Temperance, unlike Jesus’ apostle, is binding the straps on the hilt of her sword so that it cannot be drawn.
She seems to have overcome her rage, her wrath.
Thanks to the bridle she is biting on.
The Brownie Experiment
“The cookies just came out of the oven, smelling deliciously and oozing with chocolate chips. On the table next to the cookies was a bowl of radishes.”
This is how Charles Duhigg, the author of The Power of Habit, begins the chapter on (what I call) ‘the brownie experiment’.
Mark Muraven, a psychology PhD candidate, conducted this experiment with his colleagues. Their ‘guinea pigs’ were hungry students; the point of the experiment was to force the students to exercise their willpower:
They were to eat ONLY the food that was assigned to them: chocolate brownies OR radishes.
Impossible to Solve
The radish eaters were miserable.
One took a brownie, smelled it, then put it back. Another grabbed a few brownies, then put them down.
And then he licked his fingers.
After 5 minutes they were given a puzzle ‘to kill the time’ and told it was easy.
In truth the puzzle was impossible to solve. And so it took enormous will power to keep working on it.
Unlike the brownie eaters, the radish eaters muttered, complained, snapped at the researchers … They worked more than two times shorter on the puzzle than the cookie eaters before giving up.
Fighting off temptation is difficult.
The fact that girls and women who represent Temperance in the middle ages often wear or carry a bridle proves just how difficult fighting off temptation is.
“Ask people to name their greatest personal strengths, and they’ll often credit themselves with honesty, kindness, humor, creativity, bravery, and other virtues— even modesty. But not self-control. It came in dead last among the virtues being studied by researchers who have surveyed more than one million people around the world.” (Baumeister & Tierney, Willpower)
Will Over Instinct …
… is an expression used to show what Temperance was considered to be in the middle ages.
It is in this period that she suddenly found herself set against appetites and passions. The latter were considered not only the negative pole, but vices—the work of the devil.
So they had to be extinguished without mercy.
Yet when Will and Instinct clash, Will is almost always defeated.
So the solution the Middle Ages came up with was to use force. Temperance was seen as a forceful and absolute abstinence from vices.
And so Temperance came to signify its own opposite: harmony, inclusiveness and compromise transformed into fanaticism, intolerance and puritanism.