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Saturday, July 07, 2012

DEWEY: The Virtues (Temperance)

In this week’s reading John Dewey makes the observation that The Athenian Greek was impressed with the fact that just as there are lawless, despotically ruled, and self-governed communities, so there are lawless, servile, and self-ruled individuals. We might be impressed with the same question: why are some cities failing while other cities are thriving?  Why do some people fail at life and others succeed?  Dewey believes the old-fashioned virtue we now call temperance is a common factor in succeeding and thriving in life.  He says temperance is not the same thing as just not drinking too much alcohol.  Temperance is a philosophy of life; an attitude about living well.  Classical Greeks thought temperance in mind and body reflected harmony and order in the universe; and harmony and order meant beauty to the Greek.  Uncontrolled passions destroy that beauty.  Then Dewey shows how the virtue of temperance  changed in the ages that followed: Through the Christian influence… Passion is not so much something which disturbs the harmony of man’s nature or which interrupts its orderliness as it is something which defiles the purity of the spiritual nature.  In the Christian view temperance leads to beauty too but it’s a beauty of spirit rather than harmony of mind and body.  The goal is still the same. People who govern their passions are generally the people who succeed best in life; people who cannot govern their passions generally fail.  Communities (whether small towns or large nations) represent this same principle on a larger scale.  Communities which can govern themselves well will succeed; those communities which can’t will fail.  This sounds simplistic and life is rarely lived out in such black and white terms.  Dewey is well aware of that fact; people without passions wouldn’t be people at all.  So he takes into account our inborn desires and passions.  The goal is to use our passions well, not destroy them.  We don’t want to kill off all the innocent passions which make life worth living; we only want to keep harmful passions from taking over completely.  Dewey puts it this way: Self-control… is not (a desire or passion) which has to be checked (much less eliminated).  It is rather that tendency of desire and passion so to engross attention as to destroy our sense of the other ends which have a claim upon us… Having a little fun sometimes is not the problem; having fun is necessary to be fully human and healthy.  But wanting to have fun all the time sets us up for failure.  We also have other responsibilities in life.  So Dewey claims that …The underlying idea in temperance is then a care of details for the sake of the whole course of behavior… There’s a time to have fun and a time to work; and work means paying attention to all the little details that lead to a successful life.  Laxness in conduct means carelessness… Things start falling apart if too many little details aren’t taken care of.  Dewey concludes that to live in the sense of the larger values attaching to our passing desires and deeds is to be possessed by the virtue of temperance.  Desires will come and go.  That’s why Dewey believes there are larger values in life than just having fun.  There are some things we should naturally want to accomplish.  That’s true not only for a person, but also for a city, or a whole nation.  Those people, cities, or nations who can temporarily set aside their desires for instant gratification will be rewarded in the long run with bigger rewards, the “larger values” that Dewey is talking about.  Temperance helps because trivialities and superficialities entangle us in a flippant life.  We can spend years chasing after all the fun things because each one as it comes promises to be thrilling… But when the thrill is gone there are still bills to be paid.  Here’s the irony of temperance: Those who are prone to reflection upon results are just those who are least likely to be carried away by excitement… People who can govern themselves will do just fine.  But for those who are carried away habitually by excitement, the disease and the inability to take the cure (remedy of reflection) are the same things.  These people will not do fine.  Temperance is the key to success according to Dewey.


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