Can a Devout Christian Enjoy a Chocolate Éclair?
Modern culture presents explosions of pleasures and delights as a supreme goal for all those who want to enjoy life to its fullest. People insist upon the best foods, drinks, accommodations and entertainment. This pursuit of happiness becomes the meaning and purpose of countless lives.
With such goals accepted as the norm, the rigorous practice of virtue is often presented as austere and unattractive. Virtuous people do not seem to enjoy life and suppress the desires that make most people happy.
The false notion that culture seems to be developed by those enjoying life to its fullest adds to the misperception. Virtuous people appear as unpolished individuals who abstain from beautiful and delightful things as the manifestations of a corrupt and sinful world.
And so, people might ask: Can a devout Catholic enjoy a chocolate éclair from a fine pastry shop? Can Christians own splendid works of art? Morally, can they own and enjoy a beautiful and even stately home? Are virtue and culture irreconcilable contraries? Must authentic virtue always be represented by drab materials and colours?
Thus, the great paradox of virtue versus culture arises. Finding themselves on the horns of this false dilemma, many abandon the Christian life and sink into the delights of culture. Others err in eschewing all culture, wrongly believing it will necessarily lead to sin and vice.
Both positions distort reality and must be denounced.
Temperance Solves the Dilemma
Temperance is the key virtue that solves this dilemma. By definition, it is the virtue whereby man governs and moderates his natural appetites and passions in accordance with the norms prescribed by reason and the Church.
Temperance is connected to all that involves the senses and passions. Its practice necessarily imposes restrictions that cause discomfort and inconvenience. In addition, the sensibility is the most volatile of human faculties and easily revolts against the moderating action of the intellect.
Thus, the unruliness of the sensibilities gives rise to the culture clash dilemma. The solution must be the proper practice of temperance, which puts everything in balance and engenders a vigilant understanding of intemperance and its manifestations.
The Attractiveness of Intemperance
What makes intemperance attractive is its instant gratification. When the human psyche encounters an object of beauty or desire, the sensibilities are aroused and give rise to a first movement of exuberance and spontaneity that delights the person. The gratified senses clamour for more. When the intelligence or the will later enter, they introduce reflections that can restrain this first movement and keep it in reasonable bounds. Should a person reject these limits, the exuberant thrust of the sensations can quickly lead to self-indulgence and vice.
Thus, many seek to avoid this struggle by giving in to a life governed by spontaneous desires and acts that give the appearance of freedom and delight. So many modern pleasures are based on this intemperate model. Today’s hyper-sexualized society and individualist quests for ever more intense and sophisticated pleasures come from this false notion of freedom.
Moreover, people make the mistake of associating this shallow system of intense gratification with culture. They also mistake temperance for a staid outdated caricature of what a person should be.
A True Notion of Temperance
A true notion of temperance leads to the governing and regulating of the passions and desires according to reasoned norms. It does not call for the extinguishing or suppression of the passions but their governing. It accommodates all reasonable and chaste desires found in culture. Temperance should work together with the sensibility so that people might better appreciate and enjoy the delights and beauty that culture provides.
Thus, if a beautiful piece of music, for example, merits great applause, the temperate person gives it freely and liberally. A refined dish might be savoured and appreciated, especially when it facilitates good conversation and conviviality. Temperance can incite a person to great energy and enthusiasm when reason dictates such measures. It need not suppress; it can also stimulate a person to intense action.
Indeed, failure to react with energy or vigour can also be an expression of intemperance. The key is not the intensity of an action but its proportionality to reason and faith.
A Different Kind of Vitality
However, this action governed by reason will lack something of the shallow spontaneity and exuberance of the sensibility’s first movement. It will cause less immediate delight and pleasure. The temperate act will still spark contentment, but it will be more pondered and profound.
Temperance builds strong personalities because it allows individuals to capitalize on their qualities which are put at the service of reflection and the will. Thus, temperance broadens horizons. It increases the capacity to endure suffering. It makes extraordinary planning possible. All these qualities shine with a different splendour than that of the sensibility’s movements of exuberant spontaneity. Far from stifling vitality, temperance deepens it and makes it more expressive.
Thus, temperance facilitates the enjoyment of authentic culture. Through reflection, temperance deepens the understanding of a culture’s beauty and truth, thus allowing people to develop it further. Temperance enables people to give due value to those things of culture that lift their minds to God.
By savouring reality, temperance allows those who practice virtue to enjoy culture—whether it be a chocolate éclair or musical masterpiece. Such souls are capable of feats, great and small.
Destroying the Illusion of Intemperance
The illusion that virtue and culture clash is found on the dazzling side of intemperance. As long as the overwhelming image of exuberant spontaneity persists, superficial observers will always believe in the superiority of intemperance.
Indeed, intemperate individuals experience times of exuberant spontaneity that result in immense and exhilarating pleasures. These delights include cuisine, conversation, adventures, travel and everything that makes up culture.
This pleasure is increased by the frenetic intemperance that characterizes the present anti-culture where people want everything instantly, effortlessly and without consequences. The frenetic nature of these pleasures only exacerbates the thirst for them. The quest for quantity destroys the pondered love for quality in culture, which gives it meaning.
The Bluff of Intemperance
The fires of these pleasures may appear continuous and delightful. However, everyone knows they are not constant. In this sense, intemperance is a bluff that promises everything while fluctuating between highs and lows.
Thus, modernity teaches the enormous error that intemperate persons only have delights. Media, films and advertising portray people living in this fashion. However, everyone who lives this lifestyle knows that these pleasures fade. When this happens, they are forced to reflect on the meaning of life. They then see the emptiness of these fleeting, intemperate pleasures. They realize that a hedonistic life dedicated to pleasure has no purpose and context.
The intemperate individuals pretend they have no problems, but they have bouts of depression, irritation, headaches, melancholy and sadness. The interior of such intemperate souls is profoundly uninviting. Episodes of sadness and joy are unevenly and erroneously distributed.
The way of temperance provides the elements to endure suffering and acquire balance. Its pondered ways resolve the questions about life’s meaning that haunt postmodern humanity. It fosters a culture that reflects both the sadness and joy that are part of life.
Indeed, evidence is appearing of a shallow Facebook culture that reveals the emptiness of these pleasures. So many intemperate individuals are immersed in a hyper-linked anti-culture full of loneliness and despair under the veneer of artificial happiness.
Real Culture Presupposes Temperance
Real culture presupposes the practice of temperance. Culture should have something of the freshness of the first movement of the sensibility and the solidity of the pondered intelligence. One must always watch and guard against the sensibility not coordinating with reason. Within that vigilance, people can savour things and experience the pleasure of being virtuous. The object of culture should be to facilitate this pleasure and thus benefit all society.
There are vocations inside temperance in which people, especially religious, will give up many legitimate and chaste pleasures that God puts in their path. However, that is not the way for most people. Civil society cannot be modelled after a monastery, which is deserving of all admiration and respect.
The life of Christian virtue should have those cultural elements, full of vitality and balance, that help the person deal with the joys and sadness of life. It should be filled with art and excellence, challenging people to develop their personalities.
The Message of Temperance
Temperance sends the message that the life of a person need not be a hell. Culture can help make things liveable, dignified and agreeable. Such lives have their crosses and sacrifices, but as a whole, they will be happier than those who are intemperate.
In sum, there is nothing wrong with temperate people enjoying the fruits of culture as long as these chaste pleasures are under the watchful eye of reason and faith. The object of this enjoyment must be the pleasure of being virtuous. Christians know that life cannot be all pleasure, but culture can help mitigate the sufferings inherent to this valley of tears. Culture should be a means by which people come to know God and His Providence.
There is no clash between virtue and authentic culture. The True Christian treasures beauty in any form. Devout Catholics do well to enjoy chocolate éclairs.
By John Horvat