Aristotle on Self-Control

We’re not quite finished with book seven of The Nicomachean Ethics yet, but Aristotle shifts topics here, and I thought I’d try to do a wrap-up of his ten — sometimes overlapping, and at least once just plain contradictory — sections on the subject of self-control.

Self-control is what you exhibit when, after you have deliberated on the right course of action and have chosen the right thing to do, temptation tries to steer you in another direction and you resist temptation, doing the right thing anyway. Lack of self-control happens when you are unable to resist this temptation, and you choose wisely but don’t follow through on the choice you have made.

This differs from temperance and intemperance, in that the temperate person doesn’t really suffer from strong temptations to begin with, and the intemperate person doesn’t choose wisely to begin with. Temperance and intemperance are a virtue and a vice, because they are character traits formed from habitual choice. Self-control and its absence aren’t a virtue and vice but are some other sort of thing (lack of self control isn’t a choice but acting regardless of choice).

So self-control is not the same as temperance, nor is it quite the same as saintliness (a nearly-divine, superhuman self-control). Similarly, lack of self-control is not the same as intemperance, nor is it quite the same as brutishness (a nearly-subhuman savagery).

Self-control is also distinct from stubbornness. The person with self-control decides to do the right thing and sticks with that determination. The stubborn person, by contrast, makes a decision and sticks with the decision, whether or not it is, or ends up being, the right thing. Stubbornness indeed is a variety of intemperance: favoring the pleasure of self-righteousness or decisiveness over actually being virtuous.

Self-control comes in degrees; it’s not an either you have it or you don’t sort of thing. Some people are more continent, some people less so.

Self-control in the face of tempting pleasure is something like endurance in the face of discouraging pain. Some people are tempted by pleasure; some by quenching the pain of desire for pleasure. (In the one case, we would need self-control; in the other, we would need endurance.)

The nebbish lacks endurance, and folds under insignificant inconveniences; people who are overly-fond of recreation may also escape the unpleasantnesses of life in this way.

Lack of self-control is not the same as indecisiveness. It can be difficult to weigh competing ethical demands, and circumstances can change, so it is possible to make a deliberate ethical choice and still have good reason to change your mind at some point. Changing your mind in the service of virtue is no vice.

That said, lack of self-control is not some sort of last-minute prudence, as some would have it, in which a virtuous action looks unappealing up close and so you rationally abandon it. Lack of self-control is never a variety of practical wisdom.

Lack of self-control can be seen as a lapse of knowledge, akin to being asleep, insane, or intoxicated. Although incontinent people can articulate the reasoning behind the choice they made (but then abandoned) this only means that they know how to fake reasonable understanding; they haven’t really understood. Somehow they have lost track of the particular premise in a syllogism in which they have accepted the universal. You are more likely to do this when there is a competing syllogism whose conclusion offers the bait of sensual pleasure.

Lack of self-control can be divided into four varieties and two types:

It can be general (lack of self-control in the face of necessary pleasures, like food or sex — the same general subject matter as temperance), in which case it is lack of self-control proper. Or it can be specific (lack of self-control in the face of certain pleasures that, while good in themselves, can be carried to extremes, like victory, honor, or wealth), in which case it isn’t really lack of self-control, but is sometimes called that metaphorically.

A third variety is lack of self-control in the face of certain things that aren’t typically pleasant, but are so in certain people due to some pathology or other: people who obsessively eat paper, or people who have a sadistic psychopathology, for instance. People who have a lack of self-control as the result of pathology aren’t really exhibiting lack of self-control as Aristotle is using the term; neither brutal savages, who are something “beyond the limits of vice” — more alarming perhaps, but probably less harmful than actual vice.

A fourth variety is not prompted by the temptation of pleasure but by the fury of anger. This is less-blameworthy than the varieties prompted by pleasure, as anger is a natural human thing (whereas excessive pursuit of pleasure is abnormal and grotesque), is partially obedient to reason, is less-premeditated, and is inherently unenjoyable.

The two types of lack of self-control are 1) failure to stick with the conclusions of your deliberation due to being carried away by emotion (“weakness”), and 2) failure to deliberate in the first place, letting emotion take over from reason (“impetuosity”).

Of these:

  • Impetuosity is easier to correct than weakness.
  • Lack of self-control acquired through bad habit is easier to correct than innate lack of self-control.
  • Between the intemperate person and the person with a lack of self-control, Aristotle is of two minds as to which is more correctable. On the one hand, you can persuade the intemperate person using reason, while the person without self-control is evidently impervious to reason. But, on the other hand, the person without self-control performs wrong actions regretfully, while the intemperate person is without regrets and therefore without any motive to change.
Index to the Nicomachean Ethics series

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics