Of all the virtues, it is the most unfashionable – an austere Scottish grandmother of a virtue. Your hair is too long, your skirt is too short and she absolutely will not get on board with all the higgledy-jiggledy that you young folk call dancing. It’s a virtue that Thomas Aquinas accused of ‘binding passion’ and in more recent years St Stephen of Fry labelled straight-up ‘wickedness’.
But temperance is certainly a virtue, one we would do well to rediscover. The Temperance Movement of the 19th and 20th centuries equated the concept simply with teetotalism and as a result, in gin-soaked Blighty, it sank. The resultant loss of that true virtue of moderation has been too often lost with it. And we’re feeling the consequences more than ever.
Our consumption extremes know no bounds. The unrestrained feeding of our most basic appetites for money, power, food and possessions is almost limitless, frequently ruinously so.
At a very literal level, our inability to control our appetite for food is leaving the UK looking down the barrel of an obesity crisis. About 20 per cent of primary school leavers are obese, and the current quarter of obese adults is predicted to rise to half by 2030. The bare financial cost to the UK of this was put at about £27 billion a year in 2016.
Temperance is certainly a virtue, one we would do well to rediscover
But our lack of self-control creates problems beyond food. ‘The tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts – consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark.’ The Bible, whence that quote comes, is about as popular as temperance these days, but it makes a good point.
In the modern forum of Twitter, might the world be a somewhat better place if an awful lot of people said an awful lot less? What price are we willing to pay to win a 200-character argument with a complete stranger?
And what about our appetite for money and power? There is a popular narrative at present that inequality is worse than ever – it’s not. According to the Institute of Fiscal Studies it has been at worst steady, and in reality declining pretty slowly but consistently, for the last 30 years.
It’s time self-restraint went mainstream.
But it doesn’t always look that way. It’s hard not to feel the opposite when Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, has a reported $150 billion personal fortune, enough to buy every single one of his employees a decent home, outright, and still leave him a multi- millionaire. How much is enough?
That is not to decry his right to earn that, or to undermine capitalism. Employers are one of, if not the greatest engine for social mobility we have, and we should not be passing restrictive laws on income. But what might it do if more people like him were to say, ‘maybe I could tone it down a bit? Is just one billion enough to get by on?’
All is not lost, though, and it is Millennials showing us the way. A 2015 survey found that 79 per cent of people, and even higher among young people, now consider the social impact of an employer when choosing jobs – salary and gains are no longer the sole aim.
What’s more, our Social Enterprise movement is expanding rapidly with an estimated 100,000 organisations contributing billions to tackling social and environmental problems. But so far these are just trends. It’s time self-restraint went mainstream.
Edward Davies is Policy Director for The Centre for Social Justice