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A Tamed Tongue As a Type of Temperance: Self-Control in Speech

~ by Tyrone Benson ~

“But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison” (Jas. 3:8, NASB). So proceeds a saying from the brother of our Lord, James being doubtless influenced by what Jesus had said: “It is not what enters into the mouth that defiles the man, but what proceeds out of the mouth, this defiles the man. …[For] the things that proceed out of the mouth come from the heart, and those defile the man” (Matt. 15:11, 18).

It is known well within our ranks that there has been a community-wide reflection on the four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude, and (this year) temperance. Reading Pieper’s treatment, I could not help but notice that while he addressed several matters, none of them was speech. Ironically, he does once use the word ‘speech’ to speak of “current usages of speech” and “poverty of language” (176). Here he alludes to his exordial question: “What have the words ‘temperance’ and ‘moderation’ come to mean in today’s parlance?” (147). Yet among chapters on chastity, fasting, touch (i.e., pain), and humility—all of which temperance does concern—there is not one found about speech itself.

As a language instructor, I naturally find language or speech to be a matter upon which temperance touches. Also, being a biblical scholar, I can call to mind a plethora of passages linking speech and temperance. For the sake of self-control, the very theme in view, I will try to limit myself to just a few of these.

In the passage quoted above (Jas. 3:8), the term “tame” is domāre in the Latin , which relates to dominārī (to rule, be master [over]). This corresponds to temperāre (to govern, rule), whence comes the word ‘temperance’ (temperantia, “self-control”)—which, again, is the theme in view. Overall, the idea seems to be one of self-governance in submission to the rule of God. Just as God commanded Cain that he must “master” (Gen. 4:7, Lat. dominārī ) his capacity for what Pieper calls “blind wrath,” a form of “intemperate anger” (195), God likewise commands Christians that we must not let sin “be master” (Lat. dominārī ) over us by reigning in our “members” (Rom. 6:12-14, Lat. membrum)—one of which is the “tongue…set among our members” (Jas. 3:6, Lat. membrum)! 

Though “the tongue is [but] a small part of the body,” it “defiles the entire body” (Jas. 3:5-6; cf. Matt. 15:11, 18). This is due to its innate connection to the heart, seen in David’s prayer for his tongue as well as his heart: “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, my rock and my Redeemer” (Ps. 19:14). David here, submitting himself to God’s rule, was seeking temperance as self-governance in the face of sin: “Also keep back Your servant from presumptuous sins; let them not rule [Lat. dominārī ] over me” (Ps. 19:13). David’s son Solomon went on to write: “He who is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules [Lat. dominārī ] his [own, Lat. suus] spirit, than he who captures a city” (Prov. 16:32). It was also Solomon who wrote: “When there are many words, transgression is unavoidable, but he who restrains [Lat. moderārī » moderātiō “control, government”] his lips is wise” (Prov. 10:19). Surely, this is a call to temperance in speech.

On the note of Solomon’s words “slow to anger” (Prov. 16:32), James employs the same phrase in his letter: “everyone must be quick to hear, slow to speak and slow to anger” (Jas. 1:19). Notably, the phrase “slow to speak” precedes the phrase “slow to anger,” perhaps shedding light on Proverbs 16:32. Perhaps it is by self-control in speech that one’s own spirit is governed. After all, James says, “if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able to bridle the whole body as well” (Jas. 3:2). Indeed, the ‘bridled body’ shown by James concerns the ‘ruled spirit’ shown by Solomon. It seems that Pieper would agree: “It is the nature of the soul to be the ‘form of the body’” (203).

And yet, to reiterate this article’s first quotation: “But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison” (Jas. 3:8). This term ‘restless’ is the same Latin adjective that Augustine uses in what is perhaps his most famous line: “Thou hast made us for Thee and our heart is unquiet [Lat. inquiētus] till it finds its rest in Thee” (Confessions I.i). Notably, it bears the opposite sense of Aquinas’ second meaning as stated by Pieper: “the second meaning of temperance is ‘serenity of the spirit’ (quiēs animī)” (147). Along with this “restless evil” (v. 8) James later in the chapter speaks of “disorder and every evil thing” as present (v. 16). Again, this disorder bears the opposite sense of the first meaning: “The primary and essential meaning of temperāre, therefore, is this: to dispose various parts into one unified and ordered whole” (146). [If I have a chance to write again this year, I would love to share the way(s) in which I seek to cultivate “one unified and ordered whole” in my Latin teaching.] Finally, the “deadly poison” James describes the tongue as being stands in contrast to one of Pieper’s final statements: “This above all: temperance effects purification” (205). The tongue, James says, is not pure but desperately contaminated, thus showing the person’s lack and need of temperance.

Alas, then, how shall we answer the pertinent question? If no one can tame the tongue, then how can one have temperance? Well, though not in the original Greek, it is interesting that in the Latin the term “no one” is nullus hominum: “none of men.” Though I tried to limit myself—whether or not successfully (cf. Jas. 3:2!)—I will at this juncture quote one more biblical passage: “With men [Lat. apud hominēs] this is impossible, but with God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). While no one can tame the tongue in one’s own strength, God makes it possible by the grace available in Christ. True temperance that is truly from the heart is not our doing. Rather, it is possessed by God alone, it was performed by God in Christ, and—therefore (by grace through saving faith)—it is now produced by God in us (Romans 7:14–8:4). To only God be glory for the virtue that is temperance.


Pieper, Josef. The Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance. New York: Harcourt, 1965.

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