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The Four Labors of Wisdom: Self-Control

The Four Labors of Wisdom: Self-Control
By
James Scott Trimm



In our previous articles we cited the following passage from The Wisdom of Solomon concerning the “Four Labors of Wisdom” also known as the “Four Virtues”:

5  If riches are a desirable possession in life,
what is richer than wisdom who effects all things?
6  And if understanding is effective,
who more than she is fashioner of what exists?
7  And if any one loves righteousness,
her labors are virtues;
for she teaches self-control and prudence,
justice and courage;
nothing in life is more profitable for men than these.
(Wisdom of Solomon 8:5-7 RSV)

In another article we learned aboutPhilo’s Midrash on Genesis 2:10 which teaches that generic virtue goes out as an unceasing and everlasting flow from the Word (logos) of Elohim to increase and nourish specific virtues in the souls of those that love Elohim and that from there generic virtue is marked off by fixed boundaries as prudence (rational judgment), courage, self-control, and justice and that each of these is a ruler and a queen that helps us to rule over our passions.

The Fourth Book of Maccabees (which has sometimes been titled “On the Supremacy of Reason) we learn much more about these four Labors of Wisdom, or “virtues” which 4Maccabees calls “Four Kinds of Wisdom”:

Now the kinds of wisdom are rational judgment, justice, courage, and self-control.
(4Macc. 1:18)

Paul lists one of the “fruits of the Spirit” as “patience” or “self control” or “temperance”  (Gal. 5:23 the second word, in Aramaic M'SAIB'RANUTA and in Greek EGKRATEIA).  

His teaching is in keeping with the teaching of Ben Zoma who, in the Mishnah said: “Who is strong? He who controls his inclinations.”  (m.Avot 4:1)

According to 4Maccabees:

If, then, it is evident that reason rules over those emotions that hinder self-control, namely, gluttony and lust,
(4Macc. 1:3)

30 For reason is the guide of the virtues, but over the emotions it is sovereign.
Observe now first of all that rational judgment is sovereign over the emotions by virtue of the restraining power of self-control.
31  Self-control, then, is dominance over the desires.
32  Some desires are mental, others are physical, and reason obviously rules over both.
33  Otherwise how is it that when we are attracted to forbidden foods we abstain from the pleasure to be had from them? Is it not because reason is able to rule over appetites? I for one think so.
34  Therefore when we crave seafood and fowl and animals and all sorts of foods that are forbidden to us by the law, we abstain because of domination by reason.
35  For the emotions of the appetites are restrained, checked by the temperate mind, and all the impulses of the body are bridled by reason.
(4Macc. 1:30-35)

Why did YHWH give us the Koshrut (Kosher laws) (see Lev. 11:1-31& Deut. 14:3-21)? Some say they were given for health reasons, others say they were given for no reason we can ever know.  The first century Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria believed that they were given to teach us self-control.  He wrote:

XVII (100) Moreover, Moses has not granted an unlimited possession and use of all other animals to those who partake in his sacred constitution, but he has forbidden with all his might all animals, whether of the land, or of the water, or that fly through the air, which are most fleshy and fat, and calculated to excite treacherous pleasure, well knowing that such, attracting as with a bait that most slavish of all the outward senses, namely, taste, produce insatiability, an incurable evil to both souls and bodies, for insatiability produces indigestion, which is the origin and source of all diseases and weaknesses. (101) Now of land animals, the swine is confessed to be the nicest of all meats by those who eat it, and of all aquatic animals the most delicate are the fish which have no scales; and Moses is above all other men skilful in training and inuring persons of a good natural disposition to the practice of virtue by frugality and abstinence, endeavouring to remove costly luxury from their characters,
(Special Laws IV)

This is in keeping with the teaching of 4th Maccabees which says:

For whence is it, otherwise, that when urged on to forbidden meats, we reject the gratification which would ensue from them? Is it not because reasoning is able to command the appetites? I believe so. 34 Hence it is, then, that when lusting after water-animals and birds, and fourfooted beasts, and all kinds of food which are forbidden us by the law, we withhold ourselves through the mastery of reasoning. 35 For the affections of our appetites are resisted by the temperate understanding, and bent back again, and all the impulses of the body are reined in by reasoning.
(4Maccabees 1:33-35)

We read in 4th Maccabees that one key to self-control is to become master over the emotions and that this is accomplished thru reasoning (or in the Aramaic version, a “mind of shalom”):

30 For reasoning is the leader of the virtues, but it is the sole ruler of the emotions. Observe then first, through the very things which stand in the way of self-control, that reasoning is absolute ruler of the inclinations and emotions.
31 Now self-control consists of a command over the lusts.
(4Macc. 1:30-31)

The first century Jewish Philosopher Philo of Alexandria echoes this teaching saying:

For these passions are the causes of all good and of all evil; of good when they submit to the authority of dominant reason, and of evil when they break out of bounds and scorn all government and restraint.
(Life of Moses 1; VI, 26)

According to 4th Maccabees it was this ability of self control that empowered Joseph to resist the temptation of Potiphar’s wife (Gen. 29:7-12):

1 And what wonder? if the lusts of the soul, after participation with what is beautiful, are frustrated,
2 on this ground, therefore, the temperate Joseph is praised in that by reasoning, he subdued, on reflection, the indulgence of sense.
3 For, although young, and ripe for sexual intercourse, he abrogated by reasoning the stimulus of his passions.
4 And it is not merely the stimulus of sensual indulgence, but that of every desire, that reasoning is able to master.
5 For instance, the law says, Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife, nor anything that belongs to thy neighbour.
6 Now, then, since it is the law which has forbidden us to desire, I shall much the more easily persuade you, that reasoning is able to govern our lusts, just as it does the affections which are impediments to justice.
(4Macc. 2:1-6)

The first century Jewish writer Philo of Alexandria also writes that Moses, even before he was commissioned by YHWH, had this mastered self-control over his emotions:

VI. (25) And when he had passed the boundaries of the age of infancy he began to exercise his intellect; not, as some people do, letting his youthful passions roam at large without restraint, although in him they had ten thousand incentives by reason of the abundant means for the gratification of them which royal places supply; but he behaved with temperance and fortitude, as though he had bound them with reins, and thus he restrained their onward impetuosity by force. (26) And he tamed, and appeased, and brought under due command every one of the other passions which are naturally and as far as they are themselves concerned frantic, and violent, and unmanageable. And if any one of them at all excited itself and endeavoured to get free from restraint he administered severe punishment to it, reproving it with severity of language; and, in short, he repressed all the principal impulses and most violent affections of the soul, and kept guard over them as over a restive horse, fearing lest they might break all bounds and get beyond the power of reason which ought to be their guide to restrain them, and so throw everything everywhere into confusion. For these passions are the causes of all good and of all evil; of good when they submit to the authority of dominant reason, and of evil when they break out of bounds and scorn all government and restraint. (27) Very naturally, therefore, those who associated with him and every one who was acquainted with him marvelled at him, being astonished as at a novel spectacle, and inquiring what kind of mind it was that had its abode in his body, and that was set up in it like an image in a shrine; whether it was a human mind or a divine intellect, or something combined of the two; because he had nothing in him resembling the many, but had gone beyond them all and was elevated to a more sublime height. (28) For he never provided his stomach with any luxuries beyond those necessary tributes which nature has appointed to be paid to it, and as to the pleasures of the organs below the stomach he paid no attention to them at all, except as far as the object of having legitimate children was concerned. (29) And being in a most eminent degree a practiser of abstinence and self-denial, and being above all men inclined to ridicule a life of effeminacy and luxury (for he desired to live for his soul alone, and not for his body), he exhibited the doctrines of philosophy in all his daily actions, saying precisely what he thought, and performing such actions only as were consistent with his words, so as to exhibit a perfect harmony between his language and his life, so that as his words were such also was his life, and as his life was such likewise was his language, like people who are playing together in tune on a musical instrument. (Life of Moses 1; VI)

4Maccabees states:

15 It is evident that reason rules even the more violent emotions: lust for power, vainglory, boasting, arrogance, and malice.
16  For the temperate mind repels all these malicious emotions, just as it repels anger -- for it is sovereign over even this.
(4Macc. 2:15-16)

These malicious emotions are all derivations of “pleasure” (4Macc. 1:25-27) while anger is derived from both pleasure and pain (4Macc. 1:24) (this was covered in detail in a recent article).  

When Moses was angry at Datham and Abiram (Num. 16:1-35; Sira 45:18) he exercised self-control over anger:

17  When Moses was angry with Dathan and Abiram he did nothing against them in anger, but controlled his anger by reason.
18 For, as I have said, the temperate mind is able to get the better of the emotions, to correct some, and to render others powerless.
19 Why else did Jacob, our most wise father, censure the households of Simeon and Levi for their irrational slaughter of the entire tribe of the Shechemites, saying, "Cursed be their anger"?
20 For if reason could not control anger, he would not have spoken thus.
(4Macc. 2:17-20)

The Torah teaches us self-control and YHWH wants us to learn to exercise self-control.  As one of the Four Labors of Wisdom, self-control flows from Reason and from the Word (Logos) of YHWH, if we will but allow the Word to nurture self-control in our souls.

COMING SOON:  The Four Labors of Wisdom: Justice

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Help support our project to put the ancient Aramaic text of the Book of the Enoch (see Jude 1:14-15) up on the internet in interlinear format keyed to Strong's Word Numbers. We started posting this material just recently, and will continue posting more every few days as the work continues. Click here to see it

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