It goes without saying that it is extremely common for people to seek these pleasures too frequently, or at the wrong time, or in the wrong way. In doing so they exhibit the vice of intemperance or licentiousness. But most virtues are means between extremes, one of excess and one of deficiency. And that is true in this case. Intemperance is the vice of excess where sensory pleasure is concerned. The vice of deficiency in this area – of being too little disposed to seek sensory pleasure – is known as insensibility. Because intemperance is far and away the more common vice, especially today, insensibility is rarely discussed. But, precisely because intemperance is more common, it is important to understand insensibility, because those rightly concerned to avoid the first vice sometimes overreact and fall into the second.
Aquinas sums up as follows the reason why insensibility is a vice:
Whatever is contrary to the natural order is vicious. Now nature has introduced pleasure into the operations that are necessary for man's life. Wherefore the natural order requires that man should make use of these pleasures, in so far as they are necessary for man's well-being, as regards the preservation either of the individual or of the species. Accordingly, if anyone were to reject pleasure to the extent of omitting things that are necessary for nature's preservation, he would sin, as acting counter to the order of nature. And this pertains to the vice of insensibility. (Summa Theologiae )
Hence, he goes on to say, it is an error to think that avoiding pleasure altogether is a good way to avoid sin. On the contrary, “in order to avoid sin, pleasure must be shunned, not altogether, but so that it is not sought more than necessity requires.”
Now, does this entail that it is always and inherently wrong to avoid a certain kind of sensory pleasure altogether? And what does it mean for a kind of pleasure to be “necessary”? Let’s address these questions in order. First, Aquinas acknowledges that there are cases where it is good to shun sensory pleasure. In the same article, he writes:
It must, however, be observed that it is sometimes praiseworthy, and even necessary for the sake of an end, to abstain from such pleasures as result from these operations. Thus, for the sake of the body's health, certain persons refrain from pleasures of meat, drink, and sex; as also for the fulfilment of certain engagements: thus athletes and soldiers have to deny themselves many pleasures, in order to fulfil their respective duties. On like manner penitents, in order to recover health of soul, have recourse to abstinence from pleasures, as a kind of diet, and those who are desirous of giving themselves up to contemplation and Divine things need much to refrain from carnal things. Nor do any of these things pertain to the vice of insensibility, because they are in accord with right reason.
End quote. Similarly, Aquinas says that forsaking marriage (and thus the pleasure of sex) for the sake of the higher good of complete devotion to the contemplation of God is not only but .
However, in each of these cases, sensory pleasure is forsaken for the sake of some special situation or state in life. Absent such circumstances, it can be vicious to eschew the pleasures in question. For example, suppose a person is married, and desires to abstain from sex altogether for the sake of complete devotion to spiritual things, but his spouse has not consented to this. Then, , it would be wrong to refuse sexual intercourse with the spouse. In the typical case, sexual pleasure is simply a normal part of married life, and ought no more to be shunned than the pleasures of eating and drinking that are also a normal part of life.
What, then, of the other qualification Aquinas makes, to the effect that “pleasure must be shunned, not altogether, but so that it is not sought more than necessity requires”? Some readers might assume that he is saying that we ought to indulge in those pleasures that simply cannot be avoided (such as the minimal pleasure that accompanies any normal act of eating or having sexual relations) but should avoid any pleasure that goes beyond that.
But that is not what he is saying. To see why, consider first what more he says about the nature of the pleasures associated with eating, drinking, and sex, in the context of defending his view that sensory pleasures have primarily to do with the sense of touch. He allows that there are secondary pleasures associated with these activities that involve the other senses:
Temperance is about the greatest pleasures, which chiefly regard the preservation of human life either in the species or in the individual. On these matters certain things are to be considered as principal and others as secondary. The principal thing is the use itself of the necessary means, of the woman who is necessary for the preservation of the species, or of food and drink which are necessary for the preservation of the individual: while the very use of these necessary things has a certain essential pleasure annexed thereto. In regard to either use we consider as secondary whatever makes the use more pleasurable, such as beauty and adornment in woman, and a pleasing savor and likewise odor in food. (Summa Theologiae )
In other words, with food and drink, though what is absolutely inseparable from them are pleasures known through touch (such as a pleasing texture, temperature, and the like), there are also secondary pleasures of taste and smell. Nor are these somehow pointless, for as he goes on to say, they “make the food pleasant to eat, in so far as they are signs of its being suitable for nourishment.” Similarly, though the pleasure of sex involves primarily the sense of touch, the activity is made “more pleasurable… [by] beauty and adornment in woman,” and these pleasures are associated with sight more than touch.
Now, it would be absurd to suppose that Aquinas thinks that temperance allows for the enjoyment only of what is “necessary” in the strictest sense of being absolutely inseparable from food, drink, and sex – for example, that it is temperate to enjoy the texture of food but intemperate to enjoy its taste or odor, and temperate to enjoy the feel of sexual intercourse but intemperate to find pleasure in one’s wife’s beauty. For one thing, these pleasures, despite being “secondary” in Aquinas’s sense, are obviously as naturally associated with food, drink, and sex as the pleasures of touch are. Nature makes food taste and smell good for the same reason it makes eating it feel good, namely to get us to eat. And the beauty of the female body, no less than the pleasures of touch associated with intercourse, is obviously also part of nature’s way of getting men together with women so that they will have children.
For another thing, Aquinas explicitly says elsewhere that temperance allows for the enjoyment not only of pleasures that are necessary in the strictest sense, but also those that are necessary in a looser sense or even not necessary at all:
The need of human life may be taken in two ways. First, it may be taken in the sense in which we apply the term “necessary” to that without which a thing cannot be at all; thus food is necessary to an animal. Secondly, it may be taken for something without which a thing cannot be becomingly. Now temperance regards not only the former of these needs, but also the latter. Wherefore the Philosopher says (Ethic. iii, 11) that “the temperate man desires pleasant things for the sake of health, or for the sake of a sound condition of body.” Other things that are not necessary for this purpose may be divided into two classes. For some are a hindrance to health and a sound condition of body; and these temperance makes not use of whatever, for this would be a sin against temperance. But others are not a hindrance to those things, and these temperance uses moderately, according to the demands of place and time, and in keeping with those among whom one dwells. Hence the Philosopher (Ethic. iii, 11) says that the “temperate man also desires other pleasant things,” those namely that are not necessary for health or a sound condition of body, “so long as they are not prejudicial to these things.” (Summa Theologiae )
So, sensory pleasure can in a relevant sense be “necessary,” for Aquinas, not only when it is strictly unavoidable in order for eating, drinking, and sex to exist at all, but also when it is simply “becoming” in relation to these things. And temperance allows for pleasures as long as they are not a “hindrance” or “prejudicial” to health and soundness of body, even if they are not quite necessary either. One need merely consider the “demands of place and time, and [what is] in keeping with those among whom one dwells.”
Aquinas does not think, then, that temperance requires a meal or sexual relations to be quick and businesslike, such that any pleasure beyond the bare minimum associated with that would amount to intemperance. And that is, of course, just common sense. It is normal for human beings simply to get on with eating, drinking, or lovemaking without scrupling over whether they are taking too much pleasure in it. Indeed, apart from cases where someone clearly has disordered appetites (alcoholism, hypersexuality, or the like) it would ordinarily be neurotic and spiritually unhealthy to fret over such things – to worry that one is guilty of sin for eating an extra slice of bacon, or kissing one’s spouse with great passion, or what have you.
That is not to deny that there can be excess short of addictions like the ones mentioned. For example, that one manifestation of the vice of gluttony is evident in those preoccupied with “food prepared too nicely – I.e. ‘daintily.’” I would suggest that the sort of thing he has in mind is evident today among people who call themselves “foodies” – always going on about food in an embarrassingly overenthusiastic way, endlessly seeking out new culinary adventures, and so on. Similarly, even people who are not quite sex addicts can develop an unhealthy preoccupation with it. When food, drink, or sex becomes, not just a background part of normal human life, but a fixation, that is an indication that someone has fallen into hedonism and thus the vice of intemperance.
Then there is the fact that one might now and again forego the pleasures of food, drink, or sex not because enjoying them would be excessive or in any other way disordered, but simply in a spirit of sacrifice – that is to say, not out of a judgment that they are bad, but rather out of a judgment that they are good but that it would be better still to do without them for the sake of some higher end (to do penance, to develop self-discipline, or whatever).
However, supposing that one is neither engaged in such occasional asceticism nor prone to hedonism, then, as I have said, it would be neurotic and spiritually unhealthy to fret over the minutiae of everyday eating, drinking, and marital sexual relations – to try to ferret out subtle sins, in oneself or others, relating to these things. A person who tends to be overly suspicious of such pleasures is often characterized as a prig, killjoy, or “stick in the mud,” and I’d suggest that this character type is one manifestation of the vice of insensibility. Specifically, it involves insensibility of a kind related to scrupulosity, the obsessive tendency to see sin where it does not exist. It can arise as an overreaction to the opposite extreme vice of intemperance, either in oneself or in the larger society around one.
However, that is not the only source of the vice of insensibility. Some people are simply “cold fish,” eschewing sensory pleasures of one kind or another not because they suspect them of being sinful but rather because they just lack much if any interest in them. Of course, there is a normal range of variation in appetites for food, drink, and sex, just as there are normal ranges of variation with respect to all human traits. But just as some people have extremely strong appetites for one or more of these things and thus are in greater danger than others of falling into intemperance, so too do some people have extremely weak appetites and are in greater danger of falling into insensibility.
Whatever the psychological factors behind a given person’s insensibility, it is truly a vice rather than a mere variation in temperament, because it can harm both the person himself and those with whom he lives. In his 1953 dissertation The Thomistic Concept of Pleasure, Charles Reutemann explains the individual’s need for pleasure as follows:
The conscious suppression of pleasure without some form of sublimation can have very harmful effects, since thereby an appetitive tendency is frustrated in its natural movement. Not only would the appetitive movement tend to become atrophied, but the whole man would be reduced to a state of sorrow and depression…
Inasmuch as [intellectual] activities have constant recourse to the ministrations of sense, there must be a resting to relieve the attendant “soul-weariness.”
If pleasure is necessary as a cure for “soul-weariness,” it must be more necessary for the body, since even “soul-weariness” is reductively attributed to the body. For two reasons the body demands pleasure: as a remedy against pain, and as an incentive to its own activity which is generally laborious. (p. 22)
And on the necessity of pleasure to human social life, Reutemann writes:
Pleasure contributes mightily to the establishing and facilitating of harmonious relations among men. For, just as society would lose its integrity if men did not respect and manifest the truth to one another, so it would lose its intrinsic dynamism if pleasure were not used as a “lubricant” to facilitate inter-personal relationships. Giving pleasure and living agreeably with one’s neighbor is considered by St. Thomas to be a matter of natural equity. (p.23)
Reutemann has pleasure in general in mind here, but let’s consider, specifically, the pleasures governed by temperance. In human beings, eating is not mere feeding, but the having of a meal, which is commonly a social occasion. Drinking, too, is something people prefer to do together – in a bar, at a party, while watching a game together, or what have you. Routinely to have to eat or drink alone is commonly regarded as sad. Breaking bread or having a drink together is commonly thought to foster peace and understanding between people who might otherwise be at odds. What all this reveals is that the pleasures of food and drink are typically shared pleasures, and the more intense when they are shared. We take pleasure not just in the meal, but in the fact that our family, friends, or acquaintances are taking pleasure in it too, and taking pleasure in it with us. Food and drink thereby reinforce social bonds, and all the goods that follow from having those bonds. A person who, due to the vice of insensibility, is insufficiently drawn to such pleasures is thereby going to be less fulfilled as a social animal – lonelier, more self-centered, less able to contribute to or benefit from the social orders of which he is a part.
Sexual pleasure too, when rightly ordered, is inherently social in nature insofar as it functions to bond the spouses together via the most intense sort of intimacy and affection. The vice of insensibility manifests itself in this context when, due either to priggishness or a cold disposition, one refuses sexual relations to one’s spouse, or participates in them only grudgingly and unenthusiastically. The frumpish wife or boorish husband can contribute to an atmosphere wherein this vice is likely to take root. When it does, sex is likely to become a source of marital tension rather than amity.
Temperance in sexual matters, specifically, is known as the virtue of chastity, and it is a large topic of its own. Needless to say, for Aquinas and Catholic moral theology, the fundamental principle here is that sexual intercourse is virtuous only between a man and a woman married to one another, and when not carried out in a contraceptive manner. Within these constraints, there is much in the way of lovemaking that is consistent with chastity. I have spelled out the details in my essay from my book Neo-Scholastic Essays. And I’ve said a lot more about sexual morality in a number of other articles and blog posts, links to which are collected here.
When addressing matters of sexual morality, Thomist natural law theorists and Catholic moral theologians have much to say about the vice of intemperance in this area. This is quite natural and proper, given the extreme sexual depravity that surrounds us today. Sins of excess related to matters of sex are by far the more common ones, and the ones modern people are most resistant to hearing criticism of. All the same, this is only part of the story, because there is an opposite extreme vice too, even if less common. Marital happiness, and the good of the social order that depends on it, require avoiding that vice as well.