Aristotle on Stubbornness

In the ninth section of the seventh book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle continues his investigation into self-control.

Self-control bears some relation to sticktoitiveness. You make up your mind and then you follow through on the decision you’ve made, even if it’s uncomfortable to do so or tempting to do something else instead. But this resembles stubbornness: sticking to your decision just because you’ve made it, even if circumstances change or it turns out to have been a bad decision.

So does self-control mean sticking to your guns when you’ve made a decision, or sticking to your guns when you’ve made a good decision, and only so long as it remains a good one?

The opening paragraph of this section is difficult to parse, and remains so in those of the translations I consulted. If I had to guess, I’d say that Aristotle is saying that a person with good self-control exercises this self-control wisely, to stick with good choices, arrived at through deliberation. He or she makes choices for the purpose of what is good, and it is really what is good that he or she is sticking to, not the choice itself (though usually these will coincide, and so it will appear that it is the choice that is the criteria).

Someone who is truly obstinate is not really exercising self-control — is not holding steadfastly to a rational choice aimed at good — but is yielding to passion and appetite in a parody of self-control. The stubbornly opinionated, for instance, yield to the pleasure of believing themselves righteously correct and hate the pain of admitting that they are wrong, and so they are hesitant to listen to good arguments in opposition to their opinions.

Aristotle mentions also that sometimes you may find that you have to break a promise (and thus behave “incontinently”) for honorable ends. (Here, he mentions the character of Neoptolemus in Sophocles’s Philoctetes, who feels honor-bound both to lie to Philoctetes for the sake of Odysseus, and not to lie for the sake of being an honest person.) This is, Aristotle says, a case of being incontinent because of being tempted by pleasure, but in this case the pleasure is the pleasure of being honorable, not some “disgraceful pleasure,” so this does not count as self-indulgent or incontinent.

Index to the Nicomachean Ethics series

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics