I am not a huge fan of the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna. While I appreciate the artistry of the 16th and 17th century European oils which are the bulk of the collection, I find the works’ motifs and the overabundance of portraits tedious. When I travel to my nation’s capital for some cultural edification, I am more likely to visit the Albertina or the Leopold Museum.

However, there are a handful of paintings in the KHM’s collection that I do like. Among them is Children’s Games by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Bruegel is best known for his paintings of Flemish peasants. In his raw and vivid depictions of village life, Bruegel shows surreal, disturbing, even gruesome scenes: turgid bellies bursting open, greedy drunkards, carousing maid, leers and grimaces. Bruegel criticizes the gluttony and greed of his time. He holds up a mirror to viewers – both his contemporaries and the modern observer – and urges us to live virtuous lives.

One of the cardinal virtues is temperance. Christianity draws on antiquity and its philosophers, who regarded proper moderation a prerequisite for a happy life. By moderation they did not mean mere renunciation, but prudent composure and ordered understanding. In other words, finding a balance between too much and too little.

This is the opposite of what contemporary economies and consumer societies strive for. We focus on relentless consumption without limitation, always faster, always bigger, always more.

In our hectic, we don’t reflect on the consequences of our behavior. The greatest cause of premature death is excess: excessive eating, excessive alcohol, excessive use of our devices, excessive convenience. Lack of moderation makes us slaves to our never-ending desires.

Consumer excess also pollutes our environment. We produce more than we need and more than we can consume. In Europe, approximately one-third of all food is wasted, and fast fashion urges us to discard our clothes to make room in the closet new ones.

Is one’s life truly fulfilling if lived in this manner? Can contentment and freedom be gained through prudent composure? Leave a comment.

Image: Children’s Games by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna.

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