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Temperance - Pietro del Pollajolo (1470)

“Temperance is a tree which has for its root very little contentment, and for its fruit calm and peace.”

  • Gautama Buddha

“The well-ordered mind knows the value, no less than the charm, of reticence. The fruit of the tree of knowledge ... falls ripe from its stem; but those who have eaten with sobriety find no need to discuss the processes of digestion.”

  • Agnes Repplier

What is Temperance?

Temperance is the virtue that moderates our appetite for pleasures. Its purpose is not to deprive us of pleasure, but to give us the freedom and ability to enjoy life’s greater goods.

Temperance applies to all of our desires. Gluttony in food and drink, lust in sexual desire, vociferousness or an unbridled tongue in speech, rashness in action, and immoderate anger are all examples of immoderation. Intemperance leads us down a hole, where we become more and more self-willed, and beholden to our wants, desires and impulses. On the other hand, the more we exercise our faculties of self-control, the more moderate and well-ordered our desires, the stronger our willpower, and more disciplined as people we become. Characteristic of human nature is our faculty of reason – the choice and understanding afforded by it and the capacity it gives us for greater forms of delight beyond the merely sensible and animalistic. When we are intemperate, we are effectively neglecting our rational capacity, listening instead to the impulses, instincts and raw desires, which make us childish and out of control.

Many have a hard time with the practice of temperance because it seems like saying ‘no’ to good things. Yet, we can see its fruits clearly in context. When we eat, we can easily ruin our meal by eating too much of the appetizer before the main course. In romantic relations, genuine intimacy with another person is spoiled if we give in to sexual desires before a deep emotional connection and exclusive commitment is formed; in speech and action, we can make hasty and rash decisions when we act on our first impulses, without reflection.

When we lack temperance in speech and with our opinions, we run the risk of harming others, of upsetting social situations, and of developing an unhealthy attachment to our own views. Furthermore, we risk damaging our own reputation, and becoming difficult to be around, and repulsive to others, enshrouded in a cloud of our own self-centredness.

Our words have a tremendous impact on people. We can use them to edify and uplift, or to tear things and others down. Gossip involves speaking about another person’s private affairs or in spreading rumours about people; detraction involves speaking of another’s faults without good reason, without them knowing, and in public; and backbiting is more subtle, aimed at undermining a person’s reputation in a clandestine manner, through private conversation. Calumny, libel and slander all involve telling lies about another’s character, so as to bring them harm.

Humility is the antidote to intemperance, which is rooted in the pride of not wanting to wait, to listen, and use reason. It moderates our appetites, through the adoption of a modest and meek disposition. From the root word humus, it literally means being low to the ground. Humility can be incredibly difficult to foster, but we may do so over time by accepting humiliations, obeying our legitimate superiors and those in our life to whom we are responsible and owe our time and concern, fostering a healthy distrust of our immediate response to things, acknowledging that we are each of us, but one of many people in this world; and by calling to mind the virtues and gifts of others.

In summary, the fruits of temperance are many. Temperance gives us a kind of freedom from an enslavement to our raw instincts that when harnessed, lead to higher forms of enjoyment and fulfillment, in all spheres of life.

Written by Peter Copeland

Interview on Temperance in Word with David Marshall

What is temperance in word?

Temperance in word refers to the ability to speak with moderation and restraint. It requires self-control and the ability to refrain from expressing excessive emotions or making impulsive or reckless statements. It is also associated with the use of clear and measured language and the ability to listen carefully and respond thoughtfully.

The Importance of temperance in a work context

Temperance in word is essential in the workplace because it helps to create a professional and respectful environment. It allows clear communication and the ability to express thoughts and ideas effectively without offending. Long experience shows that temperance leads to better teamwork, more productive meetings and more effective decision-making. One of the big advantages of exercising temperance in communication is that it makes it easier for others to express themselves. A harsh word shuts down communication and risks losing valuable, even critical, feedback. A few examples can help illustrate this.

During a meeting, a team member shows respect for their colleagues by speaking clearly and concisely, and focussing on the issues. The team member does not indulge in self-promotion and refrains from criticizing colleagues. While listening to others express their views, the team member does not interrupt, listens actively, and does not indulge in other activities such as attending to emails. In particular, the team member asks questions designed to improve understanding and not criticize or trip up the speaker. This kind of behaviour shows temperance in word and manner, respect for each other, and importantly, helps the team reach optimum outcomes from the meeting.

A manager communicates with an underperforming employee with a calm and measured tone, avoiding criticism or blame, providing constructive feedback, and suggesting ways to improve. Every individual has something valuable to contribute, even if they are having difficulty at the time. Building on a person’s strengths rather than focussing on their weaknesses can help the employee restart their career in many cases. It also results in saving the individual’s dignity and releasing renewed energy and engagement with work.

A sales representative interacts with a demanding customer politely and professionally, avoiding becoming defensive or argumentative, diffusing the situation, and finding a solution that satisfies the customer. Being defensive and arguing intemperately is one of the cardinal sins in communication. It shuts down communication and results in the breakdown of a relationship.

These examples demonstrate how temperance in word can help to create a professional and respectful environment, build and maintain positive relationships, and achieve desired outcomes in the workplace.

How have you personally built on this virtue? Did somebody mentor you on this? Have you mentored others about temperance in word?

Being temperate in word came to me very early in life. I come from a family with a religious background, so respect for elders and teachers, and providing help to siblings or to those in need was a way of life from my early years. In that respect, I was very fortunate because those skills became valuable as I entered the workforce and built my career. However, although I was lucky to start with a good base, learning and improving has been a lifelong journey. For example, I had to train myself to listen carefully to others and not to build a counterargument in my head while the other person was speaking. Nothing is more empowering to another person than to be genuinely respected and listened to. As a result, I learned to focus my responses on clarifying questions, not criticism. If temperately and respectfully delivered, the questions lead to a productive dialogue in which your partner explores the issue rather than defending a position.

The other thing I learned and continued to refine is the Importance of humility. When speaking to someone, you must respect the person you are talking to. They are important human beings with life, desires, and hopes that go beyond who you are. No matter who they are, you can always learn something from them. If you accord them respect, you will be paid back many times over.

Did somebody mentor you on this? Have you mentored others about temperance in word?

I have always had a good relationship with my superiors. One reason for this, as previously mentioned, is my respect for elders and teachers. But respect takes many forms. I learned to respect my manager's time and the toll their responsibilities can take on them. A typical manager receives criticism from colleagues and superiors, as well as demands and problems from their team members. It can be very stressful. I learned to refrain from dumping raw or undigested problems on my manager's lap. Instead, as a sign of respect for my manager's time and stress, I learned to always bring up a problem with my best efforts to suggest a solution. My managers responded gratefully and appreciated the thoughtfulness. Another lesson I learned early on was not to criticize my colleagues to my manager. Finding good team members is a perennial challenge for managers. The last thing a manager needs is strife and dysfunction in a team. Over the years, I have worked for many managers and executives who have valued my approach to life and work, and given me increasing responsibilities.

In return, I have mentored many young managers in my career. Imparting values is an integral part of mentoring, and temperance in word and behaviour is a large part of that. It begins with selecting promising young staff and helping them develop, but it also involves taking good - but hot-headed - young managers and helping them see the virtues of restraint and temperance. Seeing someone you have mentored rise to high achievement is one of the great joys of working life.

How have you lived this virtue at work?

One of the biggest challenges a manager or executive will face is a crisis at work, especially when there is no easy or quick solution. Crises that last a long time and need perseverance and hard work over an extended period are the most stressful and most challenging. I have faced many small and some not-so-small crises in my career. During these times, I have made sure not to download my stress onto my team. My role as a leader is to work on solutions, harness the best from my team, and clear the ground for them to succeed. I have always given all the credit to my team members, and I have conveyed a sense of calm and determination in the face of adversity. My motto, often repeated by my colleagues and team members, has always been "one step at a time gets you there."

Do you have any examples of friends or colleagues living this virtue at work?

The best example is when I was a candidate for a senior role in a New York investment bank. As you may know, investment bankers, especially Wall Street bankers, are not known for their temperance in word or deeds. The CEO who interviewed me and gave me the job told me later that at the beginning, he had some misgivings about my mild persona and wondered if I would survive the cut and thrust of the investment banking world. He saw personal values of temperance and determination in me that he felt would be valuable to his organization. He and my colleagues on the executive team soon learned that a polite and temperate manner did not mean that I was not tough and tenacious. In many situations, being underestimated turned out to be a big advantage. I am glad I did not disappoint the CEO's faith in hiring me, and I contributed to many successful outcomes for the bank.

Do you have any examples of failing to live this virtue at work, and how did you overcome that?

Two examples come to mind. In the first, when I was the head of a government ministry, I was in charge of a significant project that crossed ministerial lines. I was faced with several leaders of ministries who didn’t want to cooperate and who, in my view, were protecting their turf rather than doing the right thing for the government as a whole. Things came to a head when I openly confronted one senior ministry head in front of others at a meeting, using strong words. I knew at the time that I had made a cardinal mistake. Others around the table saw my outburst as overreach and evidence that I had lost control of myself. The others quickly closed ranks and froze me out. I salvaged some excellent results from the project, but never felt comfortable or accepted among my colleagues again. In that sense, I never did "recover" from that situation and soon left my post to return to the private sector. Luckily for me, my one big mistake did not ruin me forever. Unfortunately, my lesson in intemperance came at a high price. Still, I picked myself up, continued to learn, and found success in other assignments.

The second example is when, as CEO, I approved a significant investment that went sideways for a long time, losing money and not delivering results. At a status meeting with my team, I became frustrated by what seemed to me to be the somewhat clueless and unconcerned response from one of my senior team members to a question I had asked. I lost it, threw my pen down on the conference table, walked out of the meeting and slammed the door behind me. This time, I was lucky. My team understood my rare outburst came from the stress of the situation and that I continued to have complete faith and respect for each of them. I never repeated the behaviour. The crisis passed, and my team went on to deliver extraordinary results. A lifelong practice of respect and temperance allowed my team to forgive me.


I hope I have shown that temperance in word and deed yields many valuable results; it allows for a productive workplace and a positive working environment for yourself and for your colleagues and teammates. It is important to remember that temperance is not a sign of weakness. You can be determined, tenacious, hardworking and single-minded, without being intemperate. Over the long run, temperance in word and deed results in gaining the respect and even affection of those you deal with. Sadly, you do fail from time to time, and that too is a lesson in the value of humility and the need to persevere and stick to your values.

About David Marshall

David Marshall was born in 1946 in post-colonial India from parents of Iraqi background. He lives in Toronto with his wife, Emylia, two children, and a beloved dog.


Banking and Insurance

  • Vice-Chairman, CIBC, responsible for the bank's multi-billion-dollar credit card, insurance, and mortgage businesses. Also responsible for President’s Choice Financial bank collaboration with Loblaws

  • Managing Director, Bankers Trust, a leading Wall Street investment bank. Responsible for global operations trading $300 billion a day. Also a member of the private equity board

  • President and CEO, Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, one of North America’s largest injury insurers. After 10 years of $900 million a year of losses and a $14-billion unfunded liability, returned the WSIB to financial stability with annual surpluses of between $2 billion and $3 billion. Directed the elimination of WSIB’s $14-billion unfunded liability, setting the stage for over $1 billion in annual premium reductions for Ontario’s employers and increased the benefits for insured individuals. Grew the investment fund from $14 billion to $30 billion over six years

Public Service

  • Assistant Auditor General for Canada, Federal Deputy Minister Public Works, Deputy Receiver General for Canada

  • As Assistant Auditor General, responsible for the audit and value-for-money reviews of major federal government departments. As Deputy Minister, responsible for managing all federal real estate in Canada, including Parliament Hill and office space for 250,000 public servants. Conducted central procurement of $12 billion in goods and services annually. Appointed to stabilize the department after the national sponsorship scandal and reformed procurement practices. Responsible for custody of all federal government receipts and disbursements and for producing the financial statements of the Government of Canada. Appeared as an expert witness in public enquiries and before parliamentary committees.

  • Canadian Ambassador to Barbados and the Eastern Caribbean. Conducted Canada’s diplomatic business in the Eastern Caribbean involving six island nations

Information Technology

  • Responsible for the introduction of large-scale technology investments in both the government and private sectors. Responsible for implementing the multi-million-dollar technology and operations for the Goods and Services Tax (GST)

Advisory, Consulting (current)

  • Through JKM Financial Corp, advisory services to governments and public corporations on financial management, insurance and pensions


  • Fair Benefits Fairly Delivered, an examination of auto insurance in Ontario

  • CD Howe paper Time for a Tune Up, on reform of auto insurance in Canada

"Wise men speak because they have something to say; fools speak because they have to say something."

  • Plato

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