embracing the virtue of temperance (part 2)

embracing the virtue of temperance (part 2)
Photo by Nathan Dumlao / Unsplash

In Marguerite Yourcenar's Memoirs of Hadrian, the emperor Hadrian conveys to Marcus Aurelius that excessive eating is a prevalent flaw among Romans. He points out that many citizens indulge in “poisoning themselves with spice” and drowning their dishes in rich sauces, resulting in overwhelming their taste buds and, consequently, themselves. Yielding to such excesses diminishes their ability to savor life and disrupts their equilibrium.

Hadrian advocates for a preference for simplicity. He informs Marcus that he “finds joy in moderation,” not only in dining but also in maintaining physical fitness. Being in good shape to confront daily challenges is essential, but pushing oneself to the extremes of fanaticism is discouraged. Hadrian emphasizes the importance of steering clear of both laziness and excessive exertion, navigating the middle path to discover the Golden Mean. This means finding a balance where one is neither overly nor underprepared but adequately “ready” for whatever comes their way.

In his Meditations, Marcus Aurelius defines self-control as "a virtue capable of resisting pleasure.” (8.39) He asserts that temperance separates humans from animals, noting that: “It’s typical of rational and intelligent activity to be self-contained and never overcome by the activity of either the senses or the impulses. The point is that sensations and impulses belong to our animal nature, while it’s the aim of intelligent activity not to surrender its leadership and be overcome by them.” (8.55)

For Marcus, this rational faculty exists to understand the impulses and regulate them, rather than be used by them. He further advises: “Clear your mind; control your impulses; extinguish desire; see that your command center retains its self-mastery.” (9.7)

Marcus takes inspiration from his adopted father Antoninus Pius, someone he remembers in the first book of Meditations as “being indifferent to the empty glory of so-called honors,” who “knew by experience when to tighten the reins and when to slacken them,” and who showed “sober reliability in all things.” (1.16)

Marcus admired his father’s “ability to enjoy the material comforts of life in an unpretentious way, but also without apology, so that he simply accepted them as matters of fact when he had them and felt no lack when they were gone.” He appreciated that Antoninus was “regular in his bathing habits, not given to adding to his residences, careless about what he ate, unconcerned about the cut and color of his clothes, and indifferent to the physical attractions of his slaves.” (1.16)

Marcus writes that cultivating temperance is challenging yet incredibly important. Later, in the sixth book, Marcus again encourages himself to be a disciple of Antoninus and reflects on how “he was easily satisfied when it came to things like lodgings, bedding, clothes, food, and attendants.” (6.30)

At the end of his heartfelt tribute in the first book, Marcus honorably likens his father to Socrates, by saying that “he had the ability both to refrain from and to enjoy the things that most people are too weak to refrain from and too inclined to enjoy. Strength of will—the ability to persevere in the one situation and remain sober in the other.” (1.16)