Analyzing Aristotle's Account of Incontinence

Updated on January 30, 2018
Luke Holm profile image

Luke Holm earned bachelor degrees in English and Philosophy from NIU. He is a middle school teacher and a creative writer.


Incontinence ("a want of continence, control, or self-restraint") is often used by philosophers to translate the Greek term Akrasia (ἀκρασία). Incontinence typically refers to someone who is lacking the ability for self-control or moderation, especially when it comes to desiring the wantonness of an appetite (sex, alcohol, drugs, etc.). In philosophical (and literary) circles, questions of incontinence typically pertain to a person who knows what they should do (the good), but are consumed by an overwhelming desire to do the opposite (usually driven by the will). Are these people to blame, or are they acting like children--completely unaware of their actions and the situation at hand.

Aristotle's Definition of Incontinence

When Aristotle gives his account of incontinence, he takes into consideration the man who acts against his own judgment. He is not trying to prove that incontinence is possible, rather, only how incontinence can occur. “Acting against one’s judgments was, for Aristotle, a defect of character -- a defect which has come to be known as incontinence” (Lear 175). This differs from Socrates’ account, if he has one, in the fact that Socrates would have said that an incontinent man acts against his best judgment. However, this is not a possibility for Socrates, so Aristotle pays no specific attention to this argument. Therefore, for Aristotle, a man who experiences incontinence is one who is partially ignorant as to what the best judgment would be for the actions he has available to him.


An Incontinent Man Acts in Ignorance

However, it seems as though there are still those who can recite which path of action is right to chose. Here, Aristotle relates these people to drunkards who can recite Empedocles. They have the first level of potential deliberation, but their jump to the second level of actuality is like an actor on a stage. These people act in ignorance in the way a student who is learning material for the first time believes himself to be master of said material.

The logos of which they speak does not come about from the true foundation of a correct logos of the soul. Aristotle believes that one must become ‘like-natured’ (sumphuenai) to that which one is saying, or in this case, to that which one is deliberating upon. This like-nature should be both in the subject and in the soul. If these two actualities do no correspond or exist, then the man is acting incontinently, or in ignorance of what the true path of action should be. This remains a deep problem, especially when the incontinent is “brought face to face with his ignorance when his is put in a situation in which he must act on his purported beliefs” (184).

How Does Incontinence Occur?

Aristotle’s claim that an incontinent man acts in ignorance stems from his discussion in Book VII of the “Nicomachean Ethics.” One who directly acts in form of incontinence is one who is directly aware of all avenues of action that can be had. This is a difficult quality for Aristotle to swallow, for he thinks that such highly self-conscious beings are far and few. Therefore, there is not necessarily an incontinent man, rather, there is a man who experiences incontinence. Now, the question is how incontinence can occur.

Aristotle states that the man who experiences incontinence has the ability to deliberate which actions are best for him to proceed in acting upon. However, this is as far as the man gets, for he does not take this ability of deliberation into actuality. “Aristotle accepts that a man actively exercising his knowledge could not act incontinently with respect to it, so he concentrates on those cases in which a man may possess the knowledge but somehow be prevented from exercising it” (181). What blocks this man’s ability to act in respect to exercising his knowledge is something like a passion or a strong pull toward a certain appetite. “The strong passions work like a drug which shuts judgment down, just as does wine or sleep” (181). The knowledge is still there, yet it lies latent, submerged in passion.

Aristotle and Virtue Theory

Incontinence is Mistake in Judgement

Thus, if one is acting with true knowledge, incontinence is impossible. It is only the truly ignorant who hold the form of incontinence in their souls. “For Aristotle, incontinence is possible when one’s judgment is a sincerely held false conscious belief” (185). The incontinent man does not mistake the path of action he should take, rather, he has mistake only about himself.

Questions & Answers

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      • Jay C OBrien profile image

        Jay C OBrien 

        2 years ago from Houston, TX USA

        The decisions you make and the actions you take are the means by which you evolve. At each moment you choose the intentions that will shape your experiences and those things upon which you will focus your attention. These choices affect our evolutionary process. If you choose unconsciously, you evolve unconsciously. If you choose consciously, you evolve consciously.

        Your soul is that part of you which is immortal. Every person has a soul, but a personality that is limited to the five senses (materialistic) is not aware of its soul, and therefore cannot recognize the influences of its soul. As a personality becomes multi-sensory (spiritual), its intuition (hunches and subtle feelings) become important to it. It comes to recognize intentions and to respond to them rather than to the actions and words it encounters.

        Your soul loves without restriction and accepts without judgment.


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