There are three bad states of character: vice, incontinence, and brutishness. Opposite to these three are virtue, continence, and superhuman virtue. We now examine incontinence and softness, or effeminacy, and their opposites, continence and endurance.
A great deal of inconsistency exists among popular views about incontinence. How does incontinence arise: is it through ignorance or in full knowledge? With respect to what are people incontinent? How does incontinence differ from vices like licentiousness?
Aristotle proposes four solutions. First, it is possible that a person knows what is wrong but does not reflect upon this knowledge, and so does wrong without thinking about it. Second, the incontinent person may make a false inference when using the practical syllogism due to ignorance of the facts. Third, the incontinent person may be emotionally excited or mentally disturbed and therefore unable to think clearly. Fourth, desire may cause a person to act hastily without self-restraint or more careful reasoning.
A person who shows excessive desire for the pleasures of victory, honor, or wealth is called incontinent with qualification: “incontinent with respect to victory,” for example. By contrast, a person who shows excessive desire for bodily pleasure, such as sex or food, is simply called incontinent without qualification. Incontinence with qualification is not real incontinence, but is only called incontinence by analogy to incontinence without qualification. Licentiousness and incontinence are closely connected, though the licentious person acts out of choice while the incontinent person lacks such self-control.
It is more forgivable to be incontinent as a result of temper than desire. A person with a short temper is reasonable up to a point, but the person who gives in to desire is entirely unreasonable. Furthermore, being incontinent is better than being licentious, since it is better to do bad things from lack of self-control than from conscious choice. Continence is preferable to endurance, since continence involves conquering the pull of desires rather than just enduring them. The opposite of endurance is softness or effeminacy, where a person is unable to bear the sorts of pains most people can.
The licentious person is more easily reformed than the incontinent person, because he or she acts from choice and can be reasoned with. The licentious person is wicked, while the incontinent person does wicked things without being willfully wicked.
Many philosophers are critical of pleasure. Some say that pleasure is always bad, arguing that temperate and prudent people avoid pleasure, that pleasure clouds sensible thought and distracts us from our proper ends. Others say that some pleasures are disgraceful or harmful. Yet others say that pleasure cannot be the supreme good, since it is not an end in itself, but a process.
Aristotle responds that pleasure is an activity, hence an end, not a process. Pleasure is harmful only in a limited sense, while the highest pleasures, such as contemplation, are not harmful in any sense. In fact, achieving the supreme end of a good life is a pleasurable activity, and we seek the good life precisely because it is pleasurable. This kind of pleasure is the highest good of all. Pleasures of the body are bad only if taken to excess. Nonetheless, pleasures of the mind are preferrable.
Socrates claimed that no one knowingly does wrong. In his view, any wrongdoing results from ignorance of one kind or another. The goal of moral education, then, is to ensure that everyone knows what is good and why it is good so that no one will be susceptible to the sorts of ignorance that lead to wrongdoing.
Aristotle accepts Socrates’ thesis but realizes that it calls for some detailed elaboration. Not all bad behavior is the same, so there must be various kinds of ignorance, some more culpable than others.
Aristotle identifies three major sources of wrongdoing: vice, incontinence, and brutishness. Vice is the opposite of virtue. Like virtue, it is developed from a young age through habit and practice. Also like virtue, vice is a disposition to behave in a certain way. A person with the virtue of temperance is disposed to behave temperately and will think of temperance as the correct form of behavior. By contrast, a person with the vice of licentiousness is deposed to behave licentiously, and will think of this licentiousness as the correct form of behavior. Vice is therefore the worst of the three sources of wrongdoing, since a person who acts out of vice acts voluntarily and deliberately: having thought about a particular act, this person has decided that it is the right thing to do.
The incontinent person differs from the vicious person, then, in that the incontinent person knows what is good but does wrong anyway. An incontinent person might have the virtue of temperance and know that licentious behavior is blameworthy, but still lack the self-control to resist licentious behavior. Incontinence is not as bad as vice, since it is more a form of weakness than actual moral badness.
Brutishness is an extreme form of irrational wrongdoing. A brute lacks the capacity for rational thought altogether and so has no sense of what is right or wrong. With characteristically Greek xenophobia, Aristotle suggests that brutishness is most common among non-Greeks but remarks that brutish behavior can also be found in the mentally ill and other unbalanced characters.
“Incontinence” is a vague definition of the Greek word akrasia, which is more accurately but more cumbersomely translated as “lacking self-control.” Akrasia is particularly puzzling for anyone who accepts Socrates’ claim, since the person who does wrong out of akrasia does so with full knowledge of the wrongdoing. If Socrates is right and no one knowingly does wrong, how are we to account for akrasia?
Akrasia involves giving in to guilty pleasures, so it should come as no surprise that we find an analysis of pleasure in the book that deals with akrasia. Aristotle is much more approving of pleasure than Plato and Plato’s followers, and he defends pleasure on a number of counts. According to Plato, pleasure comes from a process of restoration. For instance, we get pleasure from eating because we are restoring our bodies from a state of hunger to a state of satiation. For Plato, then, pleasure cannot possibly be the supreme good, since it is only good at all when we are in a less than ideal state. At best, it is a process that helps us reach a better state, but then we should value that better state and not the process that leads us there.
Aristotle disagrees fundamentally with Plato’s analysis of pleasure, arguing that it is an activity, or energeia, and not a process. For instance, we get pleasure from listening to good music not because listening brings us to some desirable end state, but because listening is an activity worthwhile in itself. Recall that in Book I, Aristotle also describes happiness as an activity. For Aristotle, the good life is not an end state that we are constantly striving for, but rather a way of living that consists of habitually virtuous activities. Pleasure is not incidental to the good life; it is the feeling of satisfaction we have when living well.
Only truly virtuous people take pleasure in the right things, however. Neither the incontinent nor the continent person has this kind of virtue. Both have formed bad habits and are tempted to take pleasure in the wrong sorts of activities. The continent person differs from the incontinent in that he or she is able to control these temptations.
Akrasia, then, is a result of poorly formed habits, like vice. Unlike vice, though, akrasia involves an intellectual understanding of what is right. In Aristotle’s view, it is possible to do wrong while knowing what is right, because the intellect does not always have full control over the mind’s lower functions. In this respect, Aristotle represents a modification of the Socratic view, maintaining still that wrongdoing consists of a kind of ignorance, but suggesting also that perfect rationality is not a foolproof shield against wrongdoing.