Aristotle’s discussion of incontinence refines Socrates’ famous claim that no one ever knowingly does wrong. According to Socrates, ignorance is the source of all wrongdoing, and so perfect wisdom is the best guard against vice. The idea of incontinence—a rough translation of the Greek word akrasia, which more accurately translates as “lacking self-control”—raises a problem for this view because some people clearly do wrong knowingly. A person addicted to cigarettes might light up, saying, “I know this stuff is bad for me and I know I should quit, but I just can’t help it.” This person does not smoke because she is ignorant of the ill effects of smoking but because she lacks the self-control to do what she knows is right. Earlier in the Ethics, Aristotle suggests that virtue is, above all, a matter of habit, and someone raised with the wrong habits will inevitably fall into vice. Virtue, for Aristotle, is a matter of practice. For this reason, he differs from Socrates and Plato by saying that an intellectual understanding of virtue is not enough to guarantee virtue. We can do wrong knowingly if we have not been raised with the strength of character not to want to do wrong.
Aristotle’s emphasis on self-love makes more sense when we understand it in the context of the Greek city-state. His argument that self-love is more important than friendship positions him as one of the early proponents of ethical egoism, the view that if we all took proper care to become good people ourselves, the world would work out for the best and there would be no need for selflessness. This view may seem callous in the modern world of capitalist individualism, where looking out for number one often comes at the expense of others, but it is less odious in the context of Aristotle’s Greece. The Greek city-states were tightly knit communities, where citizens would identify themselves with their city to the extent that exile was considered a fate worse than death. In such a world, one’s own well-being was largely determined by the well-being of one’s city, so it would be in the self-interest of every citizen to look out for the welfare of the city-state and its citizenry. Aristotle’s conception of self-love, then, is much more community oriented than the self-love espoused by modern pseudophilosophers such as Ayn Rand.
Aristotle’s ultimate conclusion that rational contemplation is the highest good is based on a teleological conception of human nature. According to Aristotle, everything in nature has a telos, or end goal. The telos of a knife, for instance, is to cut, and the telos of a shoe is to protect and cushion the foot. In each case, we can see that the telos of an object consists of its distinctive activity. According to Aristotle, the distinctive activity of humans is our capacity for rational thought. For that reason, the exercise of our rational powers is our telos, the highest good we can achieve. Aristotle lists five intellectual virtues with which we can exercise our rational powers. Prudence and art are both practical virtues and hence means to other ends. Of the other three, scientific knowledge and intuition both contribute to gaining a broad understanding of things, while wisdom rests in the contemplation we are capable of when we achieve this understanding. As such, the exercise of wisdom in rational contemplation seems to be the highest achievement of the intellectual virtues.
The conclusion that the telos, or end goal of being human, is rational contemplation may seem strange to modern readers, who have grown up in a world where nature is not seen in such teleological terms. We might agree that knives and shoes have distinctive activities, but only because they were created by humans to serve very specific purposes. The analogy of “distinctive activities” itself is at best tenuous, first because, unlike knives and shoes, we were not created for a specific purpose (so far as we know), and second because, depending on our point of view, we could identify all sorts of activities as distinctive to humans, from using tools to playing golf. Aristotle would argue that only our rationality is an essential feature of our humanity: we could be human even if we didn’t use tools or play golf, whereas we couldn’t be human without being rational. However, even if we accept this argument, we do not have to accept that we should concentrate our energies on rational contemplation simply because that is the “most human” use of our energies.