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.