Running Toward Temperance
~ by Christi Seaward ~
One of life’s great joys is reading classic literature where authors instruct and delight. Charlotte Brontë is one of those great authors. In her novel, Jane Eyre, Brontë delights readers with a well-crafted story of a young woman who finally finds peace after a difficult childhood. Brontë also instructs readers about the virtue of temperance. When the protagonist, Jane, is confronted with a crucial life decision, she not only turns away from vice but demonstrates how to run towards the virtue of temperance.
The current understanding of temperance is likely similar to Aristotle’s idea of temperance as “a mean with regard to pleasures” (Aristotle 1117b). Temperance often prompts ideas about moderation in drinking, eating, or the use of social media. However, the virtue of temperance is much more meaningful than following a code of mere moderation. In The Four Cardinal Virtues, Joseph Pieper asserts that the goal of temperance is “man’s inner order” (Pieper 147). Being attentive to inner order means loving the right things with the right intensity in the right order. Followers of Christ understand that inner order means loving God first before everything else. Matthew 6:33 instructs Christians to “seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” Demonstrating the virtue of temperance requires loving God as a top priority. Temperance is more than just minimizing vice. It is a purposeful leaning into all that will most please God.
Understanding Jane, as a character, enhances the appreciation of her demonstration of temperance. Although Jane Eyre opens with Jane as a young girl living in her aunt’s home, Brontë skillfully portrays Jane Eyre as a person disconnected from any real sense of family. Jane is isolated without any close relationships, so her desire for attachment makes her vulnerable. As an adult, Jane draws a self-portrait that visually represents her unattached state. Under her self-portrait, she writes, “Portrait of a Governess, disconnected, poor, and plain” (Brontë 170). Jane is not being hyperbolic in her assessment. She is consistently described as plain, she possesses little money, and she has no close family or friends. The only potential for meaningful human connection is with her employer, Mr. Rochester, and Jane’s disconnected state makes her especially vulnerable to this relationship.
For a brief season of her life, Jane does experience an intimate human friendship with a girl named Helen whom she meets at the boarding school where they both attend. Before Helen dies of tuberculosis, she teaches Jane invaluable spiritual lessons. One of the important lessons Helen teaches Jane is that living for the love of other people is a temporal perspective. Helen encourages Jane to think of eternity:
“… you think too much of the love of human beings; you are too impulsive, too vehement; the sovereign hand that created your frame, and put life into it, has provided you with other resources than your feeble self, or than creatures feeble as you. Besides this earth, and besides the race of men, there is an invisible world and a kingdom of spirits: that world is round us, for it is everywhere; and those spirits watch us, for they are commissioned to guard us; and if we were dying in pain and shame, if scorn smote us on all sides, and hatred crushed us, angels see our tortures, recognise our innocence … Why, then, should we ever sink overwhelmed with distress, when life is so soon over, and death is so certain an entrance to happiness—to glory?” (Brontë 70-71).
The idea that there is an invisible world and eternal glory eventually seeps into Jane’s soul and directs her decisions. Helen’s words shape Jane’s idea of God, and this will eventually surface when Jane faces one of the most important decisions of her life.
Jane is a vulnerable, unattached young woman who finds a true companion in her employer, Mr. Rochester. As a young adult, Jane takes a job as a governess teaching the ward of Mr. Rochester in his home at Thornfield Hall. At Thornfield Hall, Jane finds more than income. She finds companionship, security, and belonging with Mr. Rochester. Eventually, Jane and Mr. Rochester grow to love each other and become engaged. However, Jane is soon faced with a crucial life decision after she discovers Mr. Rochester is already married to a woman who suffers from mental illness. Mr. Rochester urges Jane to forget about his wife and move to Europe with him where they can essentially live as a “married” couple without anyone knowing the truth of the situation. Mr. Rochester’s offer to Jane is both immoral and tempting. Jane Eyre loves Mr. Rochester. In Mr. Rochester, Jane has found an important intellectual equal, a playmate, and a confidant. She has found a connection she never had, and she does not want to lose it.
Jane is sorely tempted to be Mr. Rochester’s mistress, but Jane’s decision to leave Mr. Rochester and Thornfield Hall demonstrates temperance. As Jane wrestles with her choice, she turns to God in prayer: “One idea only still throbbed life-like within me – remembrance of God” (Brontë 320). Jane’s turn toward God shows that she is not merely running away from the vice of unchastity, but she is charging toward inner order. She desires God more than the security of Thornfield Hall and more than the intimacy she shares with Mr. Rochester. Jane’s flight allows her to attend to the order of her soul by placing God first.
Brontë invites readers to reflect on the ordering of their souls. To be human is to wrestle with temptations and sometimes make life-altering decisions. Mr. Rochester once “stood between” Jane and her “every thought of religion” (Brontë 295). He is an idol that Jane rejects in favor of God. In Jane Eyre, Brontë calls out to readers and provides Jane as an example of a virtuous woman who not only flees from vice but brings order to her soul by steeling her feet and running toward temperance.
Aristotle, et al. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2012.
Brontë Charlotte. Jane Eyre. Bantam Books, 1987.
Pieper, Josef. The Four Cardinal Virtues: Prudence, Justice, Fortitude, Temperance. University
of Notre Dame Press, 2011.
Dr. Seaward received her B.A. in Liberal Arts and earned her elementary teaching credential at California State University, Stanislaus before becoming an Air Force wife in 1992. She completed her M.A. in Humanities from California State University, Dominguez Hills, and her Ph.D. in Humanities with a concentration in Literature from Faulkner University where the Great Books program changed the way she viewed education. She is blessed to be a wife and mother of two daughters in college. Dr. Seaward taught a course on Aquinas and Dante and served as the faculty adviser for the student book club at Kepler Education. This is her first year teaching at Scholé Academy, and she is enjoying the model of restful learning. She is a long-time admirer of C.S. Lewis, and she enjoys taking long walks with her husband, watching sumo wrestling, and the pleasure of reading.