Yesterday I quoted from a recent article by Chris Snowdon. In the same piece he wrote:
The above link takes one to a 2015 article by Snowdon in which he wrote:
[the modern anti-alcohol movement] remains steeped in temperance. Most people think that the temperance movement is virtually dead and that ‘public health’ is a different beast which just happens to have the same objectives of raising taxes, restricting licensing and banning advertising. In fact, the old temperance groups are still very much alive. They have simply changed their names or set up new organisations to pursue the same goals. This is one reason why I use quote marks around ‘public health’. I refuse to accept the rebranding of moralists, religious zealots and puritans.
The definition of temperance is. 1 : moderation in action, thought, or feeling : restraint. 2 a : habitual moderation in the indulgence of the appetites or passions.
What’s so good about moderation? Why is it regarded as virtuous to engage in self-denial with respect to alcohol and tobacco (and any number of other things)?
In Christianity there is a long history of abstinence or self-denial of this sort. And one form of abstinence is fasting. And one period of fasting is Lent:
From its start on Ash Wednesday until its conclusion on Easter Sunday, Lent has been a traditional time for fasting or giving something up or abstinence.
Why should it be virtuous to engage in self-denial for several weeks every year? What are the origins of this practice?
The Christian practice of fasting must also be associated with with the opposite practice of feasting. For if Christianity entails fasts, it also has many feasts. The practice of Christianity entails a cycle of feasting and fasting.
And in this respect Christianity simply reflects the annual cycle of rural life. During Spring, seeds were germinated and animals mated. During Summer both plants and animals grew. And in the Autumn the plants were harvested and the animals were slaughtered. And so it was in late autumn that there was an abundance of food available, and so this was the time of necessary feasting, in a time when many foodstuffs could not be preserved for long.
But the corollary of this was that Winter and early Spring (the period around Lent) was a time of relative scarcity of food. There were few plants or animals to eat. And so this was a period of necessary fasting and abstinence.
And this might often be a period of self-denial. During periods of relative shortages of food, parents might deny themselves food so that infants and children could continue to be well fed. Some people would deny themselves food so that others could continue to eat. It was a “selfish” adult who refused to deny himself for the sake of others.
Seen in this light, self-denial and abstinence and fasting were not virtuous in themselves, They were only virtuous to the extent that other people (e.g. children) benefited as a consequence.
But this annual cycle of necessary feasting and fasting came to an end when ways of preserving food for long periods of time (using salt, sugar, drying, canning, refrigeration, etc.) became available. Once this happened, it was no longer necessary to have feasts at the end of summer to consume surplus food accrued over previous months. Nor was it necessary for fasting at the end of winter in order to extend a deficit of food during this time. Instead, preserved foodstuffs could be eaten at the same rate throughout the year: there ceased to be a need for either feasting or fasting.
But if people continued, as a matter of settled religious practice, to observe the traditional annual cycle of feasting (Thanksgiving, Christmas) and fasting (Lent), it could only be by detaching these practices from their original practical purposes, and making them virtuous in themselves. There was no longer any obvious reason for these practices, and so some other justification for them had to be found. It was only at this point that self-denial came to be regarded as virtuous in itself.
Christianity’s annual cycle of feasting and fasting, and of death and rebirth, was one which reflected the same cycle already present in the natural cycle of the seasons. Christianity was fully embedded in the natural world. It is us moderns who, insulated by our technologies from the worst effects of the natural cycle of seasons, have become estranged both from the natural world and from the Christianity that reflected and celebrated it. We no longer know why we there should be Christmas and Easter, or feasting and fasting, or death and rebirth. Or if we continue in their observance, we do so using new justifications for them. If we continue to practise self-denial, even though the necessary and purely practical reason for it has vanished, it is because some of us see self-denial and abstinence and fasting as virtuous in themselves.
Certain traditional practices are slow in dying out. Tea was always traditionally made in a teapot in which the tea leaves could be retained. But once porous teabags were invented, it was no longer necessary to use teapots and tea-strainers. Nevertheless, many people continue to brew tea using loose tea and teapots and strainers. But to do so they need to invent new justifications for this practice (e.g. better flavour/authenticity).