Is Temperance a Heathen Virtue?

Posted by Byron Pendason on July 3, 2023 CE, in , , ,

Wes hāl!1

When I was working on my blog post about the cardinal virtues, one person objected to temperance being a Heathen virtue. They sent me a quote from Tacticus’s Germania to prove their point. The quote was:

To pass an entire day and night in drinking disgraces no one. Their quarrels, as might be expected with intoxicated people, are seldom fought out with mere abuse, but commonly with wounds and bloodshed.

There’s a few problems I see with using this quote to disprove temperance among the Anglo-Saxons. First, I think they were thinking of the modern meaning of temperance which describes abstention from all alcohol. Think of the temperance movement. However, this isn’t the classical meaning of temperance, which is moderation, self-discipline. This is reflected in the writings of the classical philosophers, but also in the meaning of the Old English word translated as temperance. The definition of the Old English word (ge)metgung is Moderation, temperance, a fit or proper measure, a direction, a regulation (An Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, Bosworth-Toller).

Another problem is that Tacticus wrote Germania about 500 years before the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes migrated to Britain. A lot of what Tacticus says about the Germanic tribes is still true of the Anglo-Saxons 500 years later. A lot of it isn’t. For example, Tacticus tells us they didn’t have temples. Historians tell us that the Anglo-Saxons did have temples, though.

Here are some quotes from Anglo-Saxon sources about temperance in its classic meaning:

A man should be firm in wisdom and moderate, prudent in mind. (Precepts 86-7)

Every man should act with moderation both to friends and foes. (The Wanderer 111-12)

Over-indulgence and idleness lead to bad health; if you want to be healthy, drink in moderation. (Old English Dicts of Cato 60)

Sometimes men are thirstiest after drinking mead. (Durham Proverbs 8)

Even the Havamal speaks about temperance:

Less good than they say for the sons of men is the drinking oft of ale: for the more they drink, the less can they think and keep a watch o’er their wits. (Havamal 12)

Keep not the mead cup but drink thy measure; speak needful words or none: none shall upbraid thee for lack of breeding if soon thou seek’st thy rest. (Havamal 19)

So the answer to the question posed in the title is a resounding yes. Temperance is a Heathen virtue.

The problem is the changing language. Since temperance in contemporary English conjures up images of swearing off alcohol and doesn’t seem to apply to moderation in other areas of life, I think I’m going to update the language that I use when talking about virtues to use moderation instead of temperance. Better communication is always a good thing!

Beo gesund!1

  1. Wes hāl and Beo gesund are Old English greetings and farewells that literally mean Be well/whole/healthy. The first seemed to be more common among the Anglian dialects and the second more common among the Saxon dialects. I prefer to use both though, the first as a greeting and the second as a farewell.  2