Temperance =/= Prohibition.

willardBy the Rev. Dr. Mark D. Isaacs,

Charles Harry Copestake AMD Council, No. 69

March 1, 2014

Moderation in all things.”[1]

“Learn to subdue your passions and improve yourself in Freemasonry.”


The recent ignominious needle-still-in-the-arm heroin death of the well-known actor Philip Seymour Hoffman (1967- 2014) set me to thinkin’.

Our culture–and our Society–seems to have forgotten the ancient virtue of Temperance.  As a result, we live in a time of extreme this, and extreme that.  Everything must be X-TREME!   Xtreme cars; xtreme lashes; xtreme hair; xtreme music; xtreme tattoos; xtreme snowboards; xtreme deodorant.   All of this is extremely tedious!   “Extreme everything” appears to be the working motto of our present dysfunctional age.

In our First Degree ritual we hear–and learn–of the Four Cardinal Virtues: Temperance, Prudence, Fortitude, and Justice.  Freemasons have taught these virtues to their Entered Apprentices for centuries.

It is important to note that the Four Cardinal Virtues are not unique to Freemasonry.  These virtues actually date back to at least the time of Plato (428 B.C.-354 B.C.) and the Ancient Greeks.

In the West, the Four Cardinal Virtues have been integrated into the Judeo-Christian world-view.  For example, in Jewish thought, in The Wisdom of Solomon we read, Wisdom [Sophia] “teaches self-control and prudence, justice and courage.  Nothing in life is more profitable for morals than these (8:7).”

With St. Ambrose, Bishop of Milan (c. 340-397 A.D.), and St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (354-430 A.D.), these well-known Hellenistic virtues were incorporated into the teachings of Roman Catholic moral philosophy.[2]  St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) ranked Temperance as the fourth of the Cardinal Virtues, because it serves Prudence, Justice, and Fortitude.  Moderation of our own desires is essential to acting rightly (Prudence); in giving each man his due (Justice); and in standing strong in the face of adversity (Fortitude).  Temperance is that virtue which attempts to overcome the human condition that “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak (St. Mark 14:38).”  These Virtues were transmitted into the practical philosophy of the cathedral building medieval stonemasons.

The Four Cardinal Virtues are typically combined with the three Theological Virtues or Graces of “Faith, Hope, and Charity/Agape Love” found in I Corinthians 13:13.  The Four Cardinal Virtues, plus the three Theological Virtues, compose “the Seven Heavenly Virtues.”   For hundreds of years, these Seven Virtues have been accepted by thoughtful Western people as rock solid morals to live by.

On Temperance

When most people hear the word “Temperance” they tend to think that it applies only to the prohibition of alcoholic beverages.

According to Merriam-Webster, the first definition of Temperance is “the practice of drinking little or no alcohol.”   The second definition is “the practice of always controlling your actions, thoughts, or feelings so that you do not eat or drink too much, become too angry, etc.”

The word “Temperance” comes from Middle English, from Anglo-French, and from Latin temperantia, from temperant, temperans, present participle of temperare, “to moderate, be moderate.”  It was first used in written form during the 14th century.

The Broader and Deeper Definition

In Freemasonry, the word Temperance embraces the second broader and deeper Merriam-Webster definition.  Temperance means moderation in all things.  The word “all” includes everything from alcohol, to doughnuts, to so-called health habits [e.g., veganism to “binge and purge” dieting].  According to Masonic philosophy, anything–and any activity–in extreme is to be shunned and avoided.  The Mason works to live his life “on the Level,” and “by the Plumb.”  We strive to live life right “on the Square.”

In practice, a Mason is to avoid excessive wasteful living habits.  We should strive to live well-balanced and well-rounded lives.

Temperance, with this broader and correct definition, includes the control of emotions [such as road-rage and anger] when dealing with brother Masons, our families, our business associates, and our neighbors.  In other words, we are not to be controlled and swept away by our irrational emotions.  Thus, rather than staging a “road-rage” incident, in the face of a conflict or crisis we are to remain calm and rational.  Rather than angry outbursts, we need to calmly seek solutions, peaceful resolutions, and creative alternatives.  Temperance provides a workman with a solid foundation to rebuild broken and fallen life situations.

Temperance also includes not over indulging in food [gluttony] or drink [drunkenness (including here all forms of illicit drug use)].  We all know that gluttony and/or drunkenness can lead to death and destruction.  We are all aware of friends and family members who struggle with eating disorders, and from effects of chronic alcoholism.  The cost of deviating from the virtue of Temperance devastates families and robs individuals from achieving their full potential.

Masonically speaking, the excessive use of liquor can also make a Brother loquacious.   A liquor-driven, loquacious Brother can cause a lapse in judgment leading to a loss of secrets entrusted by fellow Masons.  Observance of Temperance allows Masons of all walks of life, regardless of societal or monetary class, to freely share in their commonality in our temples.

The Ancients taught that Temperance, like all of the virtues, are beneficial for the mind, body, and spirit.  The individual–as well as Society–benefit when citizens are self-regulating, peaceful, and moderate in their daily lives.

 The Critical Distinction between Temperance and Prohibition

In common parlance many people tend to blur the distinction between Temperance and Prohibition.  The virtue of Temperance is an individual choice and a discipline based on self-control and moderation.

Prohibition, on the other hand, is a collectivist and Statist “top down” program that attempts to use the force of the Law to control individual behavior and to enforce “a higher” morality.

As the United States learned during the Prohibition Era (1919-1933)–with the passage of the 18th Amendment–Prohibition produced and created the opposite effect!  Rather than creating a sober and moral society, Prohibition drove the production and consumption of alcohol into the underground economy resulting in increased gang violence, widespread political corruption, and a general increase in social chaos.[3]  This “noble experiment” was abandon in 1932 when Brother and President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1882-1945) was elected President.  This led to the final repeal of the Volstead Amendment in 1933.[4]

The problem is, to this day, many people still confuse and blur the distinction between Temperance and Prohibition.  Historically speaking, this occurred because of the tireless work of organizations such as The Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU).[5]  The WCTU was founded in 1873.  It was the first mass organization among American women devoted purely to

political action and social reform.  The WCTU effectively linked zealous secular and religious reformers through a series of sophisticated and far-reaching strategies.

The WCTU was inspired by the Greek writer Xenophon (c. 430-354 B.C.), who defined Temperance as “moderation in all things healthful; total abstinence from all things harmful.”  Rather than a personal weakness, an individual choice, or moral failing, the WCTU perceived alcoholism as both the root cause and consequence of an entire range of larger societal problems.

The WCTU’s most effective leader was the remarkable Frances Willard (1839-1898).  Willard, who served as WCTU president for 19 years, was an energetic American educator, temperance reformer, political organizer, and women’s suffragist.  She was instrumental in the passage of both the 18th (Prohibition) and 19th (Women Suffrage) Amendments to the U.S. Constitution.[6]

Willard became the national president of the WCTU in 1879.   Her personal slogan was “Do Everything” to incite the women of the WCTU into action.  This included preaching, publicizing, publishing, petitioning, lobbying, and education.

Willard’s greater Progressive vision included federal aid to education, free school lunches, unions for workers, the eight-hour work day, work relief for the poor, public health, municipal sanitation and boards of health, national transportation, strong anti-rape laws, international peace, and protections against child abuse.  The WCTU also agitated against the use of tobacco.  As early as 1885 the WCTU formed a special “Department for the Overthrow of the Tobacco Habit.”


For contemporary Masons, when we discuss the virtue of Temperance, it is vital for us to personally understand this mentally and spiritually healthful concept of “moderation in all things.”  As our ritual states, “this virtue [Temperance] should be your constant practice as you are thereby taught to avoid excess [i.e., xtreme everything!].”

Then, when we explain this concept to others, it is vital to state that this is a powerful concept for individual moral improvement.  Freemasonry strives “to make good men better.”  It is also vital to explain that we are not advocating WCTU style prohibitionist measures.  A series of new laws are not going to make our Society a better place.

Our world can only become better if each individual strives to work these classical virtues and to incorporate them into their own lives.  We should learn from the tragic death of individuals such as Philip Seymour Hoffman that Temperance [well-practiced], and not a chemically induced “escape from reality” is the way to make the world a better place.

Therefore, for a Freemason, Temperance is much more than not drinking alcohol.  Temperance is self-discipline.  Temperance is a way of life.  Temperance is a way of thinking.  Temperance is not passé.  It is a new-old way of approaching the many challenges and the problems of this world.

The Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Temperance, Fortitude and Justice.

[1] “Moderation in all things,” is an extrapolation of Aristotle’s Doctrine of the Golden Mean (presented in Nicomachean Ethics).  His ethic works around finding the mean–or middle ground–between excess and deficiency.  An example of this would be his presentation of courage being the happy medium between the extreme of rash action and the deficiency of cowardice, in respect to a person’s possible action in the face of danger.

[2] Catechism of the [Roman] Catholic Church (Liquori, MO: Liquori Publications, 1994 ), Article 7:1805 and 1809, p.p.443-445.

[3] Edward Behr, Prohibition: Thirteen Years that Changed America (New York: Arcade Publishing, 1996), pp.161-173.

[4] Ibid., pp.234-236.

[5] In addition to the WCTU, the Prohibition Party, the Masonic-like International Order of Good Templars, the American Temperance Society, and The Anti-Saloon League all worked to pass Prohibition legislation.  The powerful Anti-Saloon League, established in 1893 was dissolved in 1933.  It was the leading organization lobbying for Prohibition in the United States in the early 20th century.  It was a key component of the Progressive Era, and was strongest in the South and rural North, drawing heavy support from Pietistic Protestant ministers and their congregations, especially Methodists, Lutherans, Baptists, Disciples of Christ, and Congregationalists.

[6] Ibid., pp.38-39.

About leader

District Deputy Grand Master Saratoga-Warren District 1998-2000; Grand Lodge Leadership Services Committee; Leadership Development Course Coordinator; Vice Chairman Grand Master's Educational Task Force; Vice Chairman Grand Lodge Child ID Committee; District Deputy Grand High Priest 14th Capitular District; Grand Master of the 1st Veil 2010; Grand Master 2nd Veil 2011; Grand Master 3rd Veil 2012 Grand Royal Arch Captain 2013 Grand Principal Sojourner 2014 Grand Captain of the Host 2015 Warren County Historical Society Board of Trustees; Queensbury Masonic Historical Society Charter Member; State Chairman Lodges & Buildings Committee Deputy Grand Master's Advisory Committee
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