I am working my way through the book, On Reading Well, to explore the concept of virtue. This is not exactly the author’s intent for her readers as the book’s title indicates. Professor Karen Swallow Prior does want us to read well by suggesting a few guidelines for helping us delve deeper into the form and content of a book as a means to enhance what people often refer to today as our emotional intelligence.
Key to Professor Prior’s methodology are four concepts to help us plumb the depths of any literary work by 1) reading a wide array of literature (what she calls reading promiscuously), 2) reading slowly as opposed to being a casual reader, 3) underlining and making marginal notes to help underscore vital points in storyline and character development, and 4) reading virtuously. It is this latter concept, which fundamentally shapes the format for the rest of her book.
Professor Prior looks at twelve literary works to show us how each one illustrates specific virtuous traits in keeping with those historically identified by philosophers and theologians as essential for personal and social wellbeing. For Aristotle this meant the attainment of the ultimate purpose for one’s life, happiness.
The first section of the book examines the four cardinal virtues, which the Greek philosopher Plato proclaimed as foundational in each citizen for sustaining the viability of any society. The four include prudence, temperance, justice and courage.
Last week’s message was my response to how Professor Prior used Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel, The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, to teach about the virtue of prudence. This week the pairing is F Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel, The Great Gatsby, to discourse on the virtue of temperance.
The Latin word temperantia was used by Cicero to translate Plato’s use of the Greek word sophrosyne, which may be more appropriately translated into English as moderation. To be temperate is to moderate our behavior, traditionally applied to our basic appetite for food, drink, and sex. But the character of Jay Gatsby shows us that intemperance is not limited to how we indulge our cravings for these three things. The accumulation of material possessions in an ostentatious display of wealth is an outward manifestation of an intemperate spirit.
Gatsby’s demonstration of conspicuous consumption emanates from his pursuit of a former lover. His obsession propels him to acquire great wealth – as evidenced by his mansion, lavish parties and pricey clothes – to entice the fickle Daisy back into his life. It doesn’t work, but that is the only spoiler you’ll get from me in this message. Read the book or watch one of the cinematic attempts to tell this story within the allotted running time of a movie to learn of Gatsby’s fate.
I will tell you is that what Jay Gatsby and Tom Jones have in common is that neither one is the exemplar of their respective virtues under consideration. We learn about temperance in Gatsby and prudence in Jones by what’s missing from their lives. The lesson, if any, seems to come from a sense of loss for what might have been had they behaved differently, as in virtuously.
It is hard to find a prominent literary character, who personifies temperance (or prudence for that matter). In my reading experience the virtue of being temperate seems to be left to supportive female characters, such as Bronwen in Richard Llewellyn’s 1939 novel How Green Was My Family or Mary Vertrees in Booth Tarkington’s 1915 novel The Turmoil. Further, it seems to me, that the gift of temperance revealed in these women is reflected as much in their physical appearance as in their behavior. Both are beautiful but not glamorous, poised without being rigid, graceful in their movements, slender, soft spoken, arresting though modestly dressed and present without being domineering.
Consider Tarkington’s description of Mary Vertrees as he hints of her internal qualities through the simple act of watching her play a piano. He writes, “There is no gracefulness like that of a graceful woman at a grand piano. There is a swimming loveliness of line that seems to merge with the running of the sound, and you seem, as you watch her, to see what you are hearing and to hear what you are seeing.”
We typically refer to the lack of temperance or moderation in a person’s appetites as the need for self-control. But such a banal analysis ignores what is truly at work in the individual, whose behavior craves some satiation in the form of food, drink, sex or (like Gatsby) acquisitions. At stake is the suppression of feelings; food, drink, sex and possessions becoming the narcotic for sedating an awareness of our own emptiness.
My idea of a temperate person is expressed in the words written by the Apostle Paul in a letter addressed to a small fellowship of Christians in (appropriately enough) the Greek city of Philippi. He told them of his own experience with living a life of moderation by saying;
“I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want.” Philippians 4:12
Contentment: it is the hallmark of a temperate person.