Aristotle on Incontinence

These NWTRCC National Gatherings are intense. By the end of the day my brain is all mushy and I have to strain to process one more piece of information. The time difference got to me too, a bit. I thought I was clever, booking an early-morning flight so I could get home mid-day and have some time to unwind. I didn’t think that it would mean waking up at 2:30 AM home-time to get to the airport.

While I was in our session on war tax resistance counseling skills training, coincidentally, I got an email from someone seeking war tax resistance counseling who had read my blog and had gone from feeling like tax resistance would be too overwhelming and difficult to feeling hopeful that there would be a method that would be right for her. So the heartwarming glow from the meeting has followed me home to my inbox.

I’m home, hopefully for a good while. I’ve been away more than not lately, and as the lady with the nice shoes says, there’s no place like home. My work-for-a-living work is on an uptick lately, too, but I hope I’ll be able to keep up the pace here at The Picket Line.

Today, more Aristotle!

In the fourth section of the seventh book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle raises and begins to address two additional questions about lack of self-control, or “incontinence”:

  1. Are some people incontinent in general, or do people display incontinence with respect to certain things?
  2. What is the relationship between continence and temperance, and between continence and endurance?

Aristotle says that there are two categories of pleasure that can prompt incontinent behavior: “necessary” pleasures (things like food and sex), and certain other pleasures that are worth pursuing but that people are prone to pursue to excess (things like victory, honor, and wealth).

The pleasures in the first category (and associated pains, like hunger, thirst, and excesses of heat & cold) are the same as those that were the concern of temperance and intemperance (a virtue and vice Aristotle covered in book three). When incontinence is displayed here it is incontinence without qualification — not only a fault but a kind of vice, Aristotle says.

The difference between continence/incontinence and temperance/intemperance is that temperance or intemperance is a choice and a habit of character — an exercise of the will — while incontinence is contrary to choice — a failure of will.

For those pleasures in the second category, however, continence and incontinence is only so with respect to the particular pleasure. Indeed, it is not continence or incontinence proper, but is only given those names by analogy. People who display one of these qualified varieties of incontinence are not vicious but are merely excessive to a fault in pursuit of good things.

I’m not sure why Aristotle distinguishes this from a vice; it seems to me that a habit of character that leads to someone pursuing some good or avoiding some bad excessively would qualify as a vice if in fact it is a fault and “bad and to be avoided” (not just a harmless eccentricity).

Index to the Nicomachean Ethics series

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics