It has taken me the better part of 40 years to come to grips with the divinatory meaning of the Temperance card. The common understanding that it means nothing more than “moderation” has never convinced me. Nor has all of the elevated talk in the literature about alchemical transmutation and the reconciliation of opposites (Fire and Water), V.I.T.R.I.O.L and the need to seek within for the “Stone of the Wise,” the relation of this card to ATU VI and the “consummation of the marriage”. Beyond its association to the sign of Sagittarius, there is a wealth of ideas to contemplate but precious little to immediately apply at the level of a mundane inquiry. Other than the repeated reference to transmutation, about the only straightforward things Aleister Crowley said about it are: “combination of forces; success after elaborate manoeuvers.”
The quandary for me has been in grasping the “active” potential in this card; since its keynote is “reconciliation of opposites,” it would seem to produce a state of neutrality that is essentially passive. However, while mutable Sagittarius is the most subtle of the Fire signs, the interaction of Fire and Water would still release Air, as Crowley notes. This would link it to Atu VI and the opposite sign of Gemini, as well as the “decision” implied by The Lovers. Consequently, the mode of activity indicated would be significantly mental in nature, and the concern would be with bringing a high-minded sense of propriety and fairness to bear on the subject at hand.
I got more value out of Paul Foster Case’s book “The Tarot, A Key to the Wisdom of the Ages:”
“Temperance, in the day when Tarot was invented, meant “tempering” or “modifying.” It therefore suggests “adaptation.” To adapt is to equalize, to adjust, to coordinate, to equilibrate.”
Therefore, I generally see this card in a reading when there is a need to strike a delicate balance between an enthusiastic, spontaneous response (Fire, Sun, Tiphareth) and a more dispassionate, reflective reaction (Water, Moon, Yesod); between what the ego is insisting that you do and what the emotions caution you not to do. To me, “adaptation” and “adjustment” suggest the idea of successfully modulating one’s stance when there are two equally compelling but contradictory forces in play. It’s the “fine Art of Right Action” (neither too much force nor too little) when a discriminating finesse is called for. There can be a need to walk a fine line between over-reacting and under-reacting. There is also a need to be flexible but firm. (Ill-dignified by element, position or reversal, it could mean compensating behavior that offsets but doesn’t directly confront an imbalance; another possible interpretation is an exaggerated sense of self-importance.)
Transmuting an instinctive, self-righteous and overtly forceful urge into an impulse to follow one’s conscience or “moral compass” in the matter could be the best course to take. The desire to “set things right” in a Sagittarian sense can be a powerful driver, but the tendency of Sagittarius to be 100% convinced of the correctness of its own principles can result in missing some of the subtle nuances of the situation. If you’re getting this card repeatedly, independent of any particularly pressing issue in your life, maybe you need to pay closer attention to that “inner voice” and let it speak more loudly in your daily affairs. A profound (Major Arcanum) philosophical (Sagittarius) attitude (egoistic/emotional, Sun/Moon) adjustment (Temperance) could be in order.