Temperance is the fourth of the cardinal virtues. It is listed last not because it is least important, but because it touches the intimate dimension of the human being, unlike the other virtues, which concern the common good. Precisely for this reason it is indispensable for virtuous action, which has as its condition the integrity of the person: “Prudence looks at the concrete reality of all beings; justice regulates relations with others; with fortitude the human person, forgetting the self, sacrifices goods and life. Temperance, on the other hand, focuses on the individual […]. Temperance means looking at oneself and one’s own condition, directing one’s focus and will on oneself.” Temperance has a reflexive character; it returns to the subject and shapes him or her, bringing inner harmony between sensitivity, intellect and will, allowing the individual to express all his or her potential.
This virtue was highly valued in the ancient world, as can be seen from even a simple glance at the terms employed. The Greek word enkrateia comes from the root krat (power, dominion, government, authority) combined with en (self). Temperance is the ability to govern oneself, to master feelings and thoughts. It is the point of arrival of a path of knowledge and self-modeling, the ideal par excellence of ancient philosophy, as recently rediscovered especially by Michel Foucault and Pierre Hadot, an ideal later lost in the course of time.
The specific domain of enkrateia is sensitivity (the faculty concerned with desire, epithymētikon), everything that has to do with the care of the body (sexuality, eating, drinking, activity, rest) allowing its integration with the rational part of the soul. As self-mastery, temperance also helps in mastering aggression, the faculty called “irascible.” It is, therefore, indispensable for action and for reasoning lucidly, unclouded by the passions (cf. Pseudo-Plat, Definitions, 412 b; Xenophon, Memorabilia, II, 1, 1).