It would be too simple to say temperance is the sole solution to America’s multifaceted crisis of addiction, but it’s entirely realistic to think there will be no solution that leaves out temperance. In the absence of temperance, we shall continue to apply patchwork, partial solutions while piously decrying addiction as a moral evil.
Not that patchwork isn’t needed. For instance, Food and Drug Administration commissioner Scott Gottlieb’s proposal to reduce the needlessly long periods for which opioid painkillers often are prescribed sounds like a reasonable idea. Unfortunately, some medical groups are on record opposing mandatory education for physicians to accomplish it.
Over at the Justice Department, the new approach involves a return to tough law enforcement, including long prison sentences for drug-related offenses.
Leaving the pros and cons of that to those better equipped to judge, one can only say it’s at best a bit of patchwork that leaves untouched the larger issues raised by addiction.
It’s important to recall that addiction isn’t only a matter of prescription opioids and street drugs. Viewed in a holistic sense, American addiction extends to things like the routine abuse of alcohol and the epidemic of internet pornography. And how about the 5 million Americans who spend 40 hours a week playing video games? If that isn’t addiction, what is?
About the only form of addiction that has been successfully eliminated (not totally, of course, but at least partly) is smoking. Even there, the change required decades and came about through a three-pronged effort based in fear, cost and class-based snobbery. Isn’t it time to give temperance a try?
“Temperance” commonly is understood in a narrow sense as referring only to abstention from alcohol. But it has a classical meaning that takes in far more.
Aristotle understood that, “The temperate man desires the right things in the right way and at the right time.” This form of temperance indeed may involve swearing off some good things, either temporarily or permanently. But more often than not, it would mean using good things in a way that’s more reasonable and suited to their purposes.
At first one might think the need for temperance was so obvious that it hardly needed stating. But apparently, that isn’t true for large sectors of American society today. Granted the exceptions, our nation on the whole is a very wealthy country where pampered self-indulgence is not only accepted but held up as an ideal.
Doubt that? Then spend a little time watching TV commercials, with their unabashed appeals to easy, instantaneous gratification, whether by drinking beer or driving a luxury automobile.
Pope St. John Paul II called this state of mind and soul “superdevelopment” and said that in its own way it was “as harmful as excessive poverty.” Whatever you call it, it’s the mortal foe of temperance.
Intemperance is typical of children and of adults with childish dispositions. This suggests that acquiring temperance is a matter of formation, a part of growing up. And that means temperance and the behaviors associated with it can and should be taught. Teaching temperance is a central task for formation agents like parents, churches, schools and the media.
And there’s the rub. There is money — big money — to be made by exploiting intemperance, and the formation agents of American popular culture seem bent on making it. Find a way to change that, and we will have taken a giant step toward solving the national crisis of addiction.
Russell Shaw is an OSV Newsweekly contributing editor.