Our human nature was created by God in such a way as to insure our survival as a species. The bodily appetites that deliver the most pleasure also happen to be the very ones we most need in order to keep us going on the planet earth. In themselves, they are good, as St. Thomas affirms, and there is nothing wrong with the pleasure they give. But, paradoxically, we need some moderation in these areas in order to enjoy the pleasure they give. How do we manage this?
There is very little in our secular culture to help us here. The advertising media exploits all our appetites in order to sell its products, thereby increasing our desire to posses those products and experience those pleasures, and giving us a vague feeling of inferiority if we do not. Being sexually active is presented as the greatest and most fulfilling human experience by the story-line of most films, plays and television shows. Chastity is rarely presented at all, and almost never shown in a positive light. The pleasures of food and alcohol are raised to the level of culinary art by celebrity chefs and the entire food industry. Yet, the fact that there are a rising number of individuals pursuing Twelve Step1 programs in order to handle addictions in these areas testifies to the truth that the Church has always known and St. Thomas clearly articulated in the thirteenth century. We need self-control with regard to our pleasures.
We also need to think. Our mind, our reason is more powerful than we may realise and can give us the real guidance we need. How reassuring this information is: that we have within us the capacity to direct our growth in goodness. This is nothing to do with IQ, and everything to do with opening our mind to the truth and our heart to the promptings of grace.
The media and pop culture rely on us not thinking very deeply – and certainly not praying – so that we may be seduced by the personalities and products the media presents, and become consumers of what they sell. If we do not think too much, then our appetite for power and pleasure and possessions will move us to buy things that the businesses supporting the media want us to buy – things that will seem to feed these appetites, and give us the illusion that we, too, look like media stars and share somehow in their life of glamour and pleasure. This is manipulation on a grand scale. This illusion is something from which we need to withdraw in order to discover our true identity. We desperately need our ability to think, we need the use of what St. Thomas would call our reason, in order to live on a level in which we see through what is fraudulent and empty. Only then will we discover the joy of living in communion with God, and with what is true, and with a set of values in which temperance as a virtue becomes possible to us.
1It is important to point out that there can be a difference between addiction and intemperance, at least where drugs and alcohol are concerned. Drug and alcohol addiction is usually considered a disease which originates in a genetic pre-disposition to it. The only “cure” is complete abstinence from all substances. This is not the place to give a full description of the characteristics of addiction. I refer those interested in learning more about this to any writings on the Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous.