The Problem of Pleasure & the Temperance Touchstone

When Daedalus gave his son wings, Icarus took off for the most enjoyable experience of his life. As he headed towards the warmth of the sun though...

 Min read
March 30, 2024
The Problem of Pleasure

When Daedalus gave his son wings, Icarus took off for the most enjoyable experience of his life. As he headed towards the warmth of the sun though, something happened. The wax that held his wings together began to melt. The wings broke apart and he fell into the sea and drowned. This fable reminds us of a truth we all know: Not everything that feels good is good. This distinction between feeling good and being good can lead us to classify 4 types of experience:

Category 1: feels good and is good. This is called virtue or holiness.

Category 2: is good but doesn’t feel good. This is called continence.

Category 3: feels good but isn’t good. These are various sins of intemperance.

Category 4: doesn’t feel good and isn’t good. This is when vice becomes self-destructive addiction.

Spiritual “Anemia”

A man wandered through the desert for two weeks until he was on the verge of collapse from hunger and thirst. Suddenly a bag of Oreos and a chilled two-liter bottle of Coke appeared before him. As he reached for them Little Miss Church cried out, “Stop! No! You can’t have that! That’s bad for you!” The man put them away and waited for the lady to leave before enjoying his feast. This illustrates the life of many Christians today. They starve their hearts of beauty in their life of faith and then indulge in spiritual and emotional junk food when no one is looking. This double life is not what we were made for. How are we to break out of this cycle of starving and binging?

Feast of Faith

Later this same man from the desert was again presented with a bag of Oreos and a two-liter of Coke. He didn’t touch them. He didn’t experience any draw towards them. His hunger and thirst were already satisfied. He’d just eaten Thanksgiving dinner. If we allow ourselves to feast on the riches of beauty in the Christian faith, we will have no need for “junk food.” Card. Ratzinger in his interview with Vittorio Messori known as the Ratzinger Report stated: “The only really effective [argument] for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb.”

The saints model for us what it’s like to live in Category 1. While they suffer, they have an inner strength, joy, and levity that we long for. While it is possible to pray to the saints. It can also be helpful to get to know them by reading about their lives. Some of my personal favorites are: Joan of Arc by Mark Twain, St. Francis of Assisi and The Dumb Ox (about Thomas Aquinas) by GK Chesterton, and almost any historical fiction saint biography by Louis de Wohl (my personal favorite is Throne of the World about Leo the Great).

Another great way to live in Category 1 is to immerse yourself in Christian art, and you owe it to yourself to explore this rich patrimony. You owe it to yourself to give Gregorian Chant a listen once in your life. You owe it to yourself to see the paintings of Michelangelo and Caravaggio. You owe it to yourself to make an attempt at the poetry of Boethius, Dante, and John of the Cross. You owe it to yourself to gaze on the great sculptures of Bernini, to contemplate Jesus bloody and dirty on a Mexican crucifix. You owe it to yourself to at least begin to watch Mel Gibson’s The Passion, The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, and The Chosen series. You owe it to yourself and your kids (or maybe grandkids) to read CS Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. And you owe it to yourself to enjoy your personal favorites again and again. Let their beauty draw you closer to God.

The Song of Creation

While Ignatius of Loyola outlined many different methods of prayer, when it came to his own personal prayer, his biographer writes: “The greatest consolation he received was from gazing at the sky and the stars and the sea. He did this often and sometimes for quite a long time.” God has written two books: Sacred Scripture and Creation. Sometimes we don’t need others to tell us about God. Sometimes we can let God’s works speak to us directly. And this experience can lead us to praise, as in Daniel 3:57 “Bless the Lord, all you works of the Lord, praise and exalt Him above all forever!”

Getting out of a rut

As you’re reading this, you might be thinking, “But what about the bad habits I’ve already got? How do I stop doing those?” Well, step one is: catch yourself. And when you do, ask yourself, “Why do I want this?” The answer will either be some form of pleasure or to get out of some sort of pain or both. Whatever the case may be, you can then ask yourself, “What else would definitely give me this same benefit without the guilt?” Then go and do that instead.

The Temperance Touchstone

Going back to the idea of the 4 Categories of experience, the real question is this: How do I take those Category 2 experiences and turn them into Category 1? And then how do I take those Category 3 “junk food” experiences and turn them into Category 4 so I stop doing them? Both great questions. And in both cases you can use the Temperance Touchstone process.

Step 1: identify the experience you want to modify.

Step 2: On a scale of -10 to +10, how much do you enjoy this experience right now.

Step 3: On that same -10 to +10 scale, how much do you wish you’d enjoy this experience.

Step 4: Change how you feel about the experience using these 3 questions: What could you notice about this experience that would make it how you want it, or at least move it in the right direction? What could you add to it? What could you believe about it?

For example, I used to hate riding a bike. It was a -7 for me. The seat was painful. Leaning forward caused back pain. I dreaded injury or death from traffic. I feared that my bike could get stolen. But I also thought, “man, it sure would be nice to use this bike sometimes” so I ran a Temperance Touchstone on myself hoping to push biking to a +8.

What did I notice about biking? It was faster than walking if I had a time crunch. I could expand my distance for not needing to use my car. I would move more than if I were driving to all those places. I’d save a little money on gas. It’d be easier than walking on days where I was tired. It was much easier going downhill. I kinda enjoyed the intensity of biking uphill. I noticed how much I liked the wind hitting my face and the scenery whizzing past.

What did I add to biking? If I could music, that’d help a lot. If I could get my back right, then there’d be no or less pain. If I changed the seat, it too would be less painful or even painless. If I wore a helmet and gloves and only went on known, well-lit routes, I’d feel safer. If I had a lock, I’d worry less about it getting stolen. Also, I thought if I could take shortcuts I can’t take in the car, that’d give me an extra boost of joy.

What could I believe about biking that’d make it more enjoyable? It’s more efficient than walking. It’s healthier than driving in the car. It’s safe as long as I’m a safe rider. It’s one more excuse to listen to music. It’s a chance to see my area from a different perspective.

The biggest hits were movement, safety, shortcuts, and music. With all of that, I got to a +7, and I’ve been biking frequently ever since. The same process could also be used to enjoy less those things you wish you wouldn’t do.

Download the Temperance Touchstone Worksheet.

A Prayer for Temperance

Nicholas of Flüe has left us a wonderful prayer for living temperance:

“My Lord and my God, take from me whatever keeps me from You.
My Lord and my God, grant me whatever brings me to You.
My Lord and my God, take myself to live wholly in You.”


Being a saint doesn’t mean living in continence, battling our appetites to do what’s right. Holiness is doing the good with ease, promptitude, and joy, drawn by our appetites to do what’s right. Temperance directs our appetites to the true good so we can live like the man who’s just enjoyed a feast, not like one lost in the desert.

James Lee