Aristotle on Endurance and the Nebbish

In the seventh section of the seventh book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle compares self control with endurance.

People with self control are able to resist the temptation of pleasure when it is excessive or might lead them to do something they know is wrong. People with endurance are able to put up with pain and unpleasantness when they can and they know that such is the right thing to do. Perhaps these are just flip sides of the same basic trait.

As has been mentioned before, loss of self control means giving into temptation or retreating from what is unpleasant despite knowing that it is the wrong thing to do; intemperance means giving into temptation or shirking unpleasantness because you don’t see anything wrong with doing so. Because of this, Aristotle says the intemperate person is “without regrets, and therefore incurable [incorrigible], since a man without regrets cannot be cured.”

There is an additional issue: with regards to certain pleasures, some people are motivated by the pleasure itself, and others are motivated by quenching the pain that comes from the desire for the pleasure. Think of the gourmand as opposed to the person who is famished, or the person who loves sex and the person who is sex-starved. Each one can behave similarly in their pursuit of the pleasure they’re after, but the motives are subtly different.

With these things in mind, we can rank these various responses to pain and pleasure. Worst is the person who does wrong in pursuit of pleasures that aren’t particularly strong, just because he or she doesn’t have any compunction: the intemperate person. Not so bad are those who are tempted by strong desires, or dissuaded by great pains. Also not so bad are those who lose it due to sudden anger. Better yet is the patient or enduring person, who is able to put up with pain and unpleasantness for worthy goals. And best of all is the continent person, who habitually avoids excesses of pleasure from a well-formed character.

Next, Aristotle describes the nebbish, wimp, or pansy. The sort of person “who drags his robe after him, that he may not be annoyed with the pain of carrying it… who, imitating an invalid, does not think himself a wretched creature, although he resembles one who is.” This person is the counterpart of the intemperate person who foolishly gets carried away by even insignificant pleasures: the nebbish is stymied by even insignificant pains and inconveniences. Some such people are just naturally fragile and they can’t really be blamed for it, but in other people this tendency is blameworthy.

Aristotle says that people who are overly-fond of sport and amusement may be exhibiting a form of this: using these distractions to escape from their day-to-day troubles.

Finally, Aristotle subdivides lack of self control into two varieties:

failure, due to being carried away by emotion, to stand by the conclusions of one’s deliberation
impetuosity, precipitancy
failure to deliberate, instead allowing oneself to be led by one’s emotions

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics