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Continence may be defined as abstinence from even the licit gratifications of marriage. It is a form of the virtue of temperance, though Aristotle did not accord it this high character since it involved a conflict with wrong desires--an element, in the mind of the philosopher, foreign to the content of a virtue in the strict sense. Continence, it is seen, has a more restricted significance than chastity, since the latter finds place in the condition of marriage. The abstinence we are discussing, then, belongs to the state of celibacy, though clearly the notion of this latter does not necessarily involve that of continence.
In considering its practice we regard continence as a state of life. Though among savages and barbarians every one, as a rule, seeks to contract an early marriage, yet even among these peoples continence is frequently practiced by those who discharge the public duties of religion. Thus according to authorities cited by Westmarck, the male wizards of Patagonia embraced a life of continence, as did the priests of the Mosquito Islands and of ancient Mexico. According to Chinese law such condition of abstinence is made obligatory upon all priests, Buddhist or Taoist. Among the Greeks continence was required of several orders of priests and priestesses, as it was of the vestals among the Romans. The continence extensively observed among the Essenes, the Manichæans, and some of the Gnostics, though not confined to a priestly class, was reckoned the means to a greater sanctification. Such widespread practice offers evidence of an instinctive feeling that the indulgence of our sensual nature is in a measure degrading, and that it is particularly incompatible with the perfect purity that should characterize one consecrated to the worship of the All Holy. That the attitude of a number of sects towards the lower side of human nature has taken on a character of unreasonable, and even absurd, severity is clear. This is observed especially in the case of the Manichæans and branches of the Gnostics in the past and of the Shakers and other unimportant communities in our time. The law of the Catholic Church imposing a state of continence upon its ministers and upon its religious orders of men and women is set forth in the articles CELIBACY OF THE CLERGY ; RELIGIOUS LIFE ; and VIRGINITY.
Two general objections are frequently urged against the state of continence. First, it is said that the condition of continence is detrimental to the well-being of the individual. In such a statement, it will be frequently found, continence is understood as an unchaste celibacy, and such surely is not only a moral but a physical evil most pernicious. Certain it is, however, that the self-sacrifice and control involved in true continence finds fruitage in a greater measure of moral power. The words of Jesus Christ ( Matthew 19:12 ) may be here appealed to. Moreover, the abstinence of which we speak is a condition of increased physical vigor and energy. Of this many savages are not unmindful; for among a number of these continence is imposed upon the braves during times of war as a means of fostering and strengthening their daring and courage. A second objection rests upon considerations of the social good. It is contended that a state of continence means failure to discharge the social obligation of conserving the species. But such an obligation falls, not upon every member of the community, but upon society at large, and is amply discharged though there be individual exceptions. Indeed the non-fulfillment of this duty is never threatened by a too general observance of sexual abstinence. On the contrary it is only the unlawful gratification of carnal passion that can menace the due growth of population. But it may be said that the practice of continence withdraws form the function of reproduction the worthier members of society-those whose possible offspring would be the most desirable citizens of the State. This contention, however, overlooks the social service of the example set by such observance-a service which, in view of the duty incumbent upon every individual of society of observing absolute chastity for periods of greater or less duration, is of highest value.
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