Temperance, Fortitude, and Prudence

By Alphonse Cerza
Short Talk Bulletin: November 1977

Freemasonry is sometimes described as a school which teaches men a way of life which has met the test of time. We do not have a monopoly on the teaching of moral Truths, but we do have a special way of teaching which is both interesting and effective. Freemasonry teaches its members all the cardinal virtues which are designed to make its members better men, but this Short Talk will discuss only three of them: Temperance, Fortitude and Prudence.

Temperance: The word “temperance” has acquired an unfortunate connotation in modern times. It is frequently associated with the movement to eliminate the use of alcoholic beverages. But the word has a much broader meaning. The Masonic definition of Temperance may be stated briefly as follows: Temperance is that due restraint upon our affections and passions which renders the body tame and governable, and frees the mind from the allurements of vice. Every Mason is then told that Temperance should be the constant practice of every Mason, as he is taught to avoid excess in all things, such as contracting any licentious or vicious habit, the indulgence of which might lead him to- suffer, or to lose his health, or cause him to lose his reputation.

In a general sense it means that one must exercise a degree of self-restraint and self-control at all times, in all the activities of life, including both words and deeds. The key idea is “moderation in all things.” The idea is well illustrated in the old statement: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” It does not mean abstinence except in matters which are inherently bad or harmful.

The word “temperance” comes to us from the Latin, which means to temper or harden according to the use intended. As a consequence, we must recognize that there cannot be hard and fast rules in this subject. Each person must decide for himself how much restraint and self-control must be exercised in a particular situation. For example, I like to eat apple pie; one small piece is adequate to satisfy my desire after a hearty meal. My neighbor might not eat as hearty a meal, but might desire a larger piece of apple pie. Both of us by the exercise of self-control and by being temperate refrain from having a second helping.

Fortitude: The second principle under consideration is that of Fortitude. It is closely related to Temperance because very often the use of Fortitude is necessary to being temperate in a specific situation.

In Freemasonry Fortitude is defined as that noble and steady purpose of the mind whereby we are enabled to undergo any pain, peril or danger, when prudentially deemed expedient. The word is related to the word “fort,” which originally denoted a structure built around something for protection. It is a word that comes to us from the Latin and indicated not so much a moral attitude, but rather the true quality of manhood, as is implied that one had strength and courage.

Fortitude, therefore, is that quality of character which gives a person strength to withstand temptation and to bear all suffering in silence. Fortitude is a virtue, for it permits one to do his duty undisturbed by evil distractions. It is in great measure a frame of mind to regulate one’s words and deeds with courage and with determination. It is both a positive and a negative quality in that it creates courage to do what is right and also creates strength or character to withstand intemperance. Above all else, it also creates the mental attitude to bear one’s burden bravely when all other remedies fail.

Prudence: The third basic principle, Prudence, is closely related to both Temperance and Fortitude, for it is the type of yardstick which is to be used in determining what constitutes Temperance in a specific situation and to what extent Fortitude should be applied.

Freemasonry defines Prudence as that principle which teaches us to regulate our lives and actions agreeably to the dictates of reason, and is that habit by which we wisely judge, and prudently determine, the effect of all things relative to our present as well as our future happiness.

The application of Prudence to our everyday life means that we will use discretion in our acts and words; that we will use good judgment in what we say and do; and that we will use self-control and foresight in all such matters. It also means that we will act intelligently and with conscious regard of what the consequences will be.

I mentioned that I like to eat apple pie. By the use of Prudence I realize that if I have had an ample meal, it is best that I have only a small piece of apple pie for dessert. Using Prudence helped me to realize that if I have a large piece of apple pie, and then have a second helping, I will feel stuffed and suffer physical discomfort. So I decide to be temperate in eating apple pie. I realize the possible consequences and with the use of Fortitude I refrain from having a second helping. Prudence teaches me to build a fort against my desire to satisfy unduly my desire and taste for a second helping and that it is best that I be temperate and have only one small piece.

Sometimes it is easy to abstain or to be temperate. I am reminded of the familiar witticism of the elderly Brother who said, “I have finally learned to subdue my passions. Mother Nature has taken care of that.”

In conclusion, we would do well to remember the words of Voltaire, a Mason, when he said: “The richest endowments of the mind are temperance, prudence, and fortitude. Prudence is a universal virtue, which enters into the composition of all the rest; and where she is not, fortitude loses its name and nature.”