The Temperate Man Learns What is Good

Borrowing a page from Alfred the great's notebook

My wife has recently encouraged me to resurrect the practice of my “commonplace notebook,” which is the recording of wise quotes and sayings that one comes across in reading or what have you. King Alfred the Great, who led the legendary expansion of Christianity, learning, and the defeat of many Viking strongholds in England, was said to have kept a Encheiridio, a collection of sayings, which he had read to him so that he could fulfill the words of the Scripture:

And now, brethren, all that rings true, all that commands reverence, and all that makes for right; all that is pure, all that is lovely, all that is gracious in the telling; virtue and merit, wherever virtue and merit are found—let this be the argument of your thoughts (Phil. 4:8, Knox).

While other kings spent their time in court hearing their own praises or amusing themselves with extravagance (i.e. on social media), King Alfred the Great pondered the truth. Surely this is a lesson for fathers, who should be royal rulers in their homes, on the need to make truth “the argument of [our] thoughts,” and not the vapid discussions that fill today’s media.

Even with my intuitively trust in tactile things (like writing and books), when my wife gave me a new notebook, I still felt within a scoff at the practice – I can get to anything with Google, so why spend the time to read, isolate a saying, and write it down? But the practice is almost immediately fruitful. While writing the other evening, my son watched me with great intent. (I am also trying to recover writing in cursive since I slipped into using “type” years ago. Type is the lettering of machines and the only reason we’re losing cursive’s beauty and elegance is to the habit of the machine.) He asked what I was writing, we talked about what I was writing and how I was writing, which led to the whole family enjoying an evening of writing down wise sayings as beautifully as possible and discussing them. In short, this small discipline of reading, reflecting, and writing has already been well worth it.

Disciplined Minds

Discipline may be just the perfect word for us to consider when we talk about learning or growing in wisdom. And we as fathers, mentors, and leaders better know this is a grave duty we have. “Tell me, then, thou who teachest others, hast thou no lesson for thyself?” (Romans 2:21).

On the fourth Sunday of Lent the lesson in Fraternus’ study of the virtues is “the temperate man learns what is good.” This might seem strange since “learning what is good” would seem to fall under the virtue of prudence, since that is the virtue that discerns the good act in any situation. Why, then, would it fall under temperance?

First, we should note that all virtues are connected. You cannot be prudent and intemperate in the same act. The virtues are not “best practices” that can be implemented to different degrees to get some kind of desired outcome. To grow in virtue is to perfect the powers of being human, specifically and most fully in loving as God has called us to love. This is how St. Augustine preserved the ancient philosopher’s wisdom when it comes to virtue while avoiding a synchronizing with pagan morality to shape Christian action. He did this by showing that, in Christ, our virtues are essentially forms of love:

Temperance is love surrendering itself wholly to Him who is its object; courage is love bearing all things gladly for the sake of Him who is its object; justice is love serving only Him who is its object, and therefore rightly ruling; prudence is love making wise distinctions between what hinders and what helps itself.

So, yes, understanding what is good is prudence, “making wise distinctions.” But to learn what is good is an action that is deeply related to discipline, or temperance “surrendering itself wholly.” The main reason is because – today especially – we are distractible creatures. As our stomach yawns to be fed, so too the mind wants to know stuff – it wants to understand. If we see some whispering, we’re interested in what was said. If we see something interesting, we look and listen toward that thing. We’re essentially open to truth, to knowledge, and that’s how we were made. But, of course, because the world itself is an endless array of truths, we have to find ways to focus in on something specific. The whispering secret might be distracting us from a task we should be focusing on; the interesting thing is a rabbit whole on the internet. The point is, if we want to know anything well (or gain any skill whatsoever), we have to discipline our desire to know.

This is why St. Thomas Aquinas put studiousness under the cardinal virtue of temperance. Studiousness refers to a focused study of truth, a “keen application of the mind…,” as Aquinas put it. As you can tell by the word, it is the act of “being a student” of something, submitting to the act of learning by focus and blocking out other distractions.

For bodily health we say no to some foods and drink and yes to others. Similarly, studiousness says no to some occupations of the mind and yes to others. It says no so that it can say yes. The greater the potential for distraction the greater need there is to temper and discipline what the mind receives. Today, with so much distraction and noise, this virtue is perhaps needed more than ever.

For me, I needed a notebook to slow down and ponder. (I also needed a loving wife to suggest it.) This is a big reason we’ve launched Sword&Spade magazine too, to help bring disciplined reflection to the lives of common men by publishing a quarterly magazine, printable ebooks, and even mailing books to men’s doorsteps. What will your discipline be?

St. Augustine of Hippo, recounting in his Confessions, how the study of truth helped increase his desire for God:

How ardent was I then, my God, how ardent to fly from earthly things to You! Nor did I know how You would deal with me. For with You is wisdom. In Greek the love of wisdom is called philosophy, with which that book inflamed me. There be some who seduce through philosophy, under a great, and alluring, and honourable name coloring and adorning their own errors. And almost all who in that and former times were such, are in that book censured and pointed out. There is also disclosed that most salutary admonition of Your Spirit, by Your good and pious servant: Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ: for in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily (Colossians 2:8-9). And since at that time (as Thou, O Light of my heart, know) the words of the apostle were unknown to me, I was delighted with that exhortation, in so far only as I was thereby stimulated, and enkindled, and inflamed to love, seek, obtain, hold, and embrace, not this or that sect, but wisdom itself, whatever it were; and this alone checked me thus ardent, that the name of Christ was not in it. For this name, according to Your mercy, O Lord, this name of my Saviour Your Son, had my tender heart piously drunk in, deeply treasured even with my mother’s milk; and whatsoever was without that name, though never so erudite, polished, and truthful, took not complete hold of me.

Catechism 2530: The struggle against carnal lust involves purifying the heart and practicing temperance.

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