Aristotle's Ethics: Book 7

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Aristotle begins this book by warning that there are three types of character traits to be avoided: vice, incontinence (lit: lack of mastery) and brutality. Brutality is not often found, because it exceeds vice by so much as to be almost superhuman. We use the term to describe an extremely vicious person. The incontinent man experiences passions and feelings that conflict with reason, therefore he tends to do what he knows to be wrong. In contrast the continent man knows what his desires are, but is the master of them: he doesn’t follow them because he is guided by reason.

 

An incontinent man is worse than someone who acts badly after deliberating about it, because at least the latter is amenable to reason and could change his mind, but the incontinent man already knows what is good but simply ignores it because he’s ruled by his passions. The difference between the incontinent man and the licentious man is that the latter deliberately chooses to pursue the pleasure of the moment and believes that he ought always to do so, whereas the incontinent man doesn’t share this belief. He thinks he shouldn’t pursue pleasure, but does so anyway.

 

Having knowledge and not using it in this way implies a different form of “having” knowledge in the sense that you can have it and not have it, like someone who is asleep, mentally disturbed or drunk. Having knowledge is no guarantee that someone will act on it. It is like someone learning a subject – they can reel off what they know without understanding it, because knowledge has to be assimilated. Incontinent people utter sentiments as actors do. Incontinence of temper is less shameful than incontinence in respect of desire, because temper pays some attention to reason but hears it imperfectly, whereas desire does not hear it at all.

 

The licentious man is worse than the incontinent man, because he acts not under any great compulsion but through choice. The incontinent man, in contrast, is soft and effeminate: he cannot withstand pains which most people can. There are two kinds of incontinence: impetuosity and weakness. The weak deliberate and then under the influence of their feelings fail to abide by their decision. The impetuous are carried away by their feelings because they have failed to deliberate.  

 

Incontinence is not really a vice, because it is contrary to the agent’s choice, whereas vice is in accordance with choice. Therefore, incontinent men are not wicked, but they do wicked things. When the incontinent man pursues excessive bodily pleasures contrary to right principle, he does so without the conviction that he is right, whereas the licentious man has this conviction. Thus, the incontinent man can easily be persuaded to change while the licentious man cannot. Virtue preserves, while vice destroys the first principle – it is virtue that allows us to think rightly about the first principle (in conduct the first principle is the end).

 

The incontinent man is mastered by his feelings to the extent of not acting according to the first principle, but is not so completely mastered as to be convinced that he should pursue such pleasures unrestrainedly. He is superior to the licentious man, because in him the highest element, the first principle, is preserved.

 

Those who are obstinate are not influenced by argument, because they are susceptible to desires and are often carried away by pleasure. They resemble the incontinent man, rather than the continent, except that the reason the incontinent man will not change is because of his passion, whereas the obstinate man will not change because he enjoys the sense of superiority in thinking he is right. Those who are obstinate can be divided into the opinionated, the ignorant and the boorish.  

 

It is not possible for a person to be at the same time prudent and incontinent, because the prudent man is morally good. Merely knowing what is right is not enough, a person must be disposed to do it. The incontinent is not so disposed. Nor does he know what is right in the active sense: only as a person asleep or drunk can he be said to know something. He is like a state that passes all the right laws and has good laws, but makes no use of them.

 

The study of pleasure and pain is the task of the political philosopher, because he decides the end which is the standard by which we call a thing good or bad without qualification. Some think that no pleasure is a good either in itself or incidentally, because pleasure and goodness are not the same. Others believe some pleasures are good, but most are bad. And others believe that even if pleasures are good, still pleasure cannot be the supreme good. 

 

But these arguments don’t prove that pleasure is not a good or even that it is not a supreme good. First, things are good in two ways: as absolutely good and sometimes as good for somebody. As for the argument that there must be something better than pleasure, because an end is better than a process, pleasures are not processes, nor do they involve a process; they are types of activity and, therefore, an end.

 

It is generally admitted that pain is an evil and must be avoided, so pleasure must be a good. The highest good, the unimpeded exercise of every faculty, must involve pleasure. That’s why everyone assumes that a happy life is a pleasant one, because no activity is perfect if it is impeded and happiness is a perfect thing. Yet the argument that provided a man is good he is happy is nonsense. Whether he is good or not, no man is happy if he suffers personal disasters. A happy man needs, in addition, physical advantages as well as external things and gifts of fortune.

 

All bodily pleasures are not bad, but only if they are pursued to excess. One reason why bodily pleasures seem to be especially desirable is that pleasure drives out pain, so we pursue pleasure as a cure for our suffering. Moreover, because they are intense, bodily pleasures are pursued by those who can’t enjoy other kinds. There is nothing culpable in this if the pleasures are harmless. On the other hand, pleasures unaccompanied by pain don’t admit of excess. These are pleasures derived from things pleasant by nature and not as a remedy for pain. They are naturally pleasant, because they stimulate the activity of a given natural disposition.   

 

Analysis

 

In this book Aristotle adds a further distinction to his account of what it is to lead a good life. It is not enough just to know what is good, it must pursued deliberately. The problem with the incontinent man is that the way in which he knows it, doesn’t lead to him choosing to act in accordance with it. In this sense he doesn’t really know it at all, because it doesn’t have an influence on his behavior. He is like someone who is drunk, mentally ill or like an actor who knows his lines, but has no knowledge of their significance. Despite knowing what he must do the incontinent man instead acts in accordance with his desires and passions. To be a virtuous person calls not only for deliberation, but that we act on that deliberation. We must not only do the right thing, but also for the right reason with the right desire.

 

Aristotle insists that pleasure in itself is not a bad thing, indeed, for someone to be virtuous he must take pleasure in doing virtuous things. If a person’s desires are equivalent to right reason, the mean, then virtuous action will be pleasant. But still, pleasures should not be confused with happiness. They are positive reinforcement to acting virtuously, but, although some do, not all pleasures lead to long-term happiness. It depends on the sort of activity they accompany. A virtuous activity will bring a good type of pleasure, whereas vice is associated with bad pleasure.

 

Finally, Aristotle spends time drawing a distinction between an activity and a process, which might seem unimportant. He insists that pleasure is an unimpeded activity of the natural state. Activities are different from processes in that they are an end in themselves and we experience them when we exercise a natural capacity. Thinking, then, is an activity because it is an end in itself, whereas walking is done for a purpose beyond itself, usually to reach somewhere. An activity is something that is entire to itself: it is complete – it begins and finishes when we stop the activity.

 

Pleasure, then, is an activity of the natural state. It is an end in itself – complete. And it is something that cannot be impeded. So when we perform an activity of the natural state, when we think or look out at beautiful scenery, and our activity is unimpeded, we are experiencing pleasure.   

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