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Nicomachean Ethics | Book 7 | Summary

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Summary

Section 1

This section describes the conditions of character to avoid no matter what. These conditions are "vice, incontinence, and bestiality." Aristotle also states in this section that he will first address common beliefs and puzzles about these states of will. He will help readers understand these vicious conditions in terms of their contraries (or opposites). Virtue is the opposite of vice, and continence is the opposite of incontinence. The opposite of bestiality is a heroic or "divine" state similar to a god, whose "state is more honorable than virtue," while bestiality is a state similar to an animal. Both divine and bestial states are rare but possible in humans.

Continence and incontinence are states distinct from virtue and vice. Variations of incontinence, which he will describe later in Book 7, include "softness" and "self-indulgence," and a variation of continence is resistance.

A continent person makes a "rational calculation" of the right thing to do and does it. An incontinent person makes the same rational calculation but does the wrong thing anyway, knowing it is wrong. An incontinent person is led by base appetite. The continent person has the same base appetite and the same knowledge that indulging this appetite is wrong but resists because reason helps overcome the temptation. Continence and incontinence are distinct from temperance, intemperance, and prudence, although the conditions can overlap.

Section 2

The puzzles in Section 2 get more specific about what incontinence really means. Aristotle opposes Socrates's belief that no one knowingly does wrong. Incontinent (weak-willed) people knew at some point in their lives that what they are now doing almost unconsciously was wrong. We may be inclined to forgive them for their behavior now, but we must harken back to when they first committed the action and blame them for their initial downfall. People may pardon a wrongdoer with an incorrect belief and no knowledge, since the wrongdoer did not know any better than to indulge an appetite. Nevertheless, incontinence clearly cannot be pardoned.

The continent (strong-willed) person also differs from the temperate person, since the continent person has "excessive or base appetites" the temperate person lacks: the continent person chooses not to act on base appetites; the temperate person does not have base appetites in the first place.

Continence is a virtue only if it helps someone follow true beliefs and convictions, not false ones. Likewise, incontinence does not mean "[abandoning] every belief." For example, someone who breaks a promise to lie and tells the truth instead may have abandoned a belief, but they still performed a true and correct action.

The truly incontinent person has already been "persuaded to act otherwise" by reason and still does wrong. Someone who makes a rational decision to pursue pleasure could be convinced to make another decision, since they are acting on the basis of reason. With an incontinent person, persuasion does not make a difference.

Section 3

Aristotle brings up other essential questions. Does the incontinent person have full knowledge of what they are doing? Can someone be incontinent about "every pleasure and pain" or only certain ones? What is the difference between continence and resistance?

First, he addresses what kinds of actions, pleasures, and pains incontinence might apply to. Incontinence has "the same range" as intemperance—like intemperance, it applies to bodily pains and pleasures. However, an intemperate person will decide it is right to pursue a certain pleasure. The incontinent person will decide it is wrong to pursue a certain pleasure, but they will pursue it anyway.

However, what knowledge can the incontinent person be held accountable for? Aristotle argues there are different types of knowledge. Someone can have knowledge they do not use. Someone can understand the "universal premise" or broader implications of their knowledge and still be unsure how to apply this knowledge to their actions by using the "particular premise." They have all the facts but do not know what to do with them. People who are "asleep or mad or drunk" are not in a condition to apply their knowledge. Someone's "strong feelings" or "spirited reactions" may override their knowledge as well.

The incontinent person's knowledge resembles the knowledge of someone who acts based on strong feelings. Their beliefs may accord with reason, but they are overwhelmed by appetite. Aristotle compares the incontinent person to an actor reciting lines but not knowing their meaning. They have only "perceptual" or limited knowledge, not full knowledge.

Section 4

Can a person be a generally incontinent (weak-willed) person? How many different ways are there to be incontinent? To answer these questions, Aristotle discusses what incontinence is really about: pleasures and pains. Some pleasures are necessary, like the bodily pleasures of food and sex. Others are ideal but not essential, like honor and wealth. People who pursue these nonessential pleasures to excess are considered incontinent about the specific pleasure they pursue. Someone can be incontinent about honor, pursuing honor more than they should.

People who pursue bodily pleasures to excess, or people who excessively avoid painful physical experiences like hunger and thirst, are considered "simply incontinent" or "soft." An intemperate person is different from a simple incontinent. The intemperate person does not have strong appetites for excessive pleasures but still decides to pursue them. The simple incontinent makes a decision not to pursue excessive pleasures and then acts against this decision knowingly. Simple incontinence, Aristotle decides, concerns the same bodily pleasures and pains intemperance does.

Not every indulgence in pleasure leads to incontinence. Someone overcome by an honorable pleasure, like love for their family, is not incontinent or guilty of a vice, although they may be acting unwisely.

Section 5

Bestial and diseased people, because of their "deformities or habits or base natures," find pleasure in what is not meant to be pleasant at all. Cannibalism, for instance, is a bestial state below even vice. Illness, madness, or even habit can lead to bestial vices. Someone bestial by nature or habit is not considered incontinent.

Regular vices or "simple vice" can become bestial if taken to the extreme. Someone who is afraid of everything, whether they are cowardly by nature or affected by disease, has "a bestial sort of cowardice." Similarly, people have a bestial type of incontinence if they cannot restrain their bestial desires (this is distinct from having a bestial or diseased nature).

Section 6

Aristotle further divides incontinence into matters of spirit and appetite. He considers incontinence of spirit "less shameful." Incontinence of spirit includes irrational anger—for example, someone who rushes to avenge an insult. It is still an overreaction, but there is a type of reason behind the overreaction. The desire to avenge an insult is understandable, even if the action is not. A person who acts out of spirit or emotion also has not plotted to do wrong, which would indicate an unjust character.

Incontinence of appetite merely requires following pleasure, and it is the more shameful form of incontinence. Someone who enjoys being unnecessarily aggressive when there is no reason for aggression engages in incontinence of appetite. Unlike the incontinent of spirit, the incontinent of appetite find pleasure in their actions.

Section 7

How do the pleasures and pains from "touch and taste" relate to continence? Here Aristotle explains the conditions he mentioned earlier in Book 7, softness and resistance. Incontinence and continence concern pleasure. An incontinent person "is prone to be overcome by pleasures," while a continent person controls his desire for pleasure. Softness and resistance concern pain. A soft person will be easily overcome by pains, while a resistant person controls the fear of pain. Most people fall somewhere in between these extremes, although they may have tendencies "toward the worse states" of incontinence and softness. Pains and appetites, like pleasures, can sometimes be essential, sometimes nonessential, and should never be excessively avoided or indulged.

An intemperate person, Aristotle reminds the reader, decides on excessive pleasures for their own sake. They have no regrets and cannot be cured. Intemperance is worse than incontinence, as Aristotle will explain more clearly in Section 8.

Someone can also decide to avoid all physical pain, rather than feeling overcome by pain. This behavior is "a species of softness."

Continence is superior to resistance, since continence involves conscious "overcoming" while resistance involves simply "holding out"—similar to the distinction between winning and "not being defeated." Softness includes self-indulgence and excessive love of amusements as a release from pain. The self-indulgent person cannot handle the pains most people can easily withstand, like someone letting their coat trail on the floor to "avoid the labor and pain of lifting it." Incontinent people can also be impetuous or weak. The weak deliberate but are overcome by their feelings. The impetuous follow feelings without deliberating at all. For example, quick-tempered people are likely to be "impetuous incontinents" since their appetites are intense and overcome them quickly before they can pause and think.

Section 8

Aristotle explains in more detail why intemperance is worse than incontinence. Intemperate people, he reminds, do not regret their actions, and regret is needed for change. Incontinent people, meanwhile, know they are incontinent and are capable of feeling regret. Among the incontinent, the impetuous are preferable to the weak. Impetuous people are guided only by desire. Weak people have reason but choose not to follow it.

Incontinence is not the same state as vice, although the actions they cause are similar. The incontinent person's self-awareness distinguishes them from the vicious person, who does not know they are vicious. The vicious person also acts on their decisions, while the incontinent one does not.

The incontinent person is not convinced they should "pursue ... pleasures without restraint." They can be talked out of their excessive pursuits, but the intemperate person cannot. To illuminate the difference between incontinence and intemperance, Aristotle reminds readers of the importance of principle in guiding action. While "virtue preserves the principle ... vice corrupts it." The right principles are preserved somewhere within the incontinent person. They are still capable of acting on good principles. However, because of their actions, they are still in a base state.

Section 9

Aristotle returns to a puzzle he mentioned earlier: Is sticking to any decision enough to make someone continent, or does continence require someone to stick to the correct decision?

The continent person will stick to a true or correct belief in every case. Someone who sticks to an incorrect belief and cannot be talked out of it is considered stubborn, including "the opinionated, the ignorant, and the boorish." The opinionated are also motivated by pleasure, since they enjoy winning arguments. By contrast, if someone abandons a resolution in order to do the right thing, such as telling the truth, they are not incontinent because they did not keep their resolution. Only indulging "a shameful pleasure" indicates incontinence.

Continence and temperance, like other virtues, must be means or intermediate states between two extremes. There is a type of "person who enjoys bodily things less than is right" but this type is rare. As a rule, a continent person has "base appetites" for pleasure but will not follow them. The temperate person lacks these appetites and finds "nothing pleasant against reason" in them. Both virtues result in similar restraint, but the underlying states are different.

Section 10

This section discusses further questions that may arise about incontinence. A prudent person cannot be incontinent, but a clever person might be. (As Aristotle established in Book 6, both good and bad people can be clever.) In fact, a clever incontinent person can sometimes be mistaken for a prudent person. Only people "excellent in character" can be prudent. In addition, prudent people have correct knowledge and apply it correctly, while incontinent people may start from a good decision but not follow through.

Aristotle illustrates the difference between a weak-willed person and a person who is genuinely base and corrupt: An incontinent person is like a city that passes good laws but never follows through on them by enforcing them. A base or vicious person is like a city that follows through and enforces its laws, except that the laws are bad.

Some types of incontinents, those who have become incontinent through habit, not those who are incontinent by nature, can potentially be cured.

Section 11

Aristotle proceeds to a more elaborate discussion of pleasure. Since a political philosopher is the authority on what's "bad or good without qualification," Aristotle thinks such philosophers need to study pleasures and pains. He mentioned how virtue and vice are related to pleasure, and so he wants to now examine the nature of pleasure in depth.

He begins with common conceptions about pleasure. Most people think pleasure is essential for happiness. Some people think pleasure is not a good at all, and pleasant things actually "impede prudent thinking." Some distinguish between good and bad pleasures. Some call pleasure "not an end, but a becoming."

Section 12

Aristotle argues that goods are too diverse to make broad assumptions about pleasures. Some goods are activities and some are states of being. Some are good for us in one state but not in another, like treatment for illness, which we do not want when we are healthy. Some are good in moderation but not in excess. Furthermore, pleasures are not "a becoming" but rather activities that arise when we exercise a capacity or capability.

Section 13

The views in Section 11, according to Aristotle, do not sufficiently prove that pleasure is not a good thing or even "the best good." Why not?

The goods people enjoy are too diverse to make broad assumptions about pleasures. Some goods are "good without qualification" or always good, and some are right only for certain people. Some goods are activities and some are states of being. Some "restore us to our natural state" such as eating when hungry, drinking when thirsty, or other "activity in the appetites." People might enjoy "sharp or bitter" foods while they are returning to the natural state of satisfaction. Some good things are ideal for us in one state but not in another, like treatment for illness, which we do not want when we are healthy. Some are good in moderation but not in excess. The pleasures that come from different goods are also diverse. Furthermore, pleasures are not "a becoming" but activities arising when people exercise a capacity or capability.

Prudence is not hindered by pleasure, since the pleasures of "study and learning" only enhance the desire to learn. The difference in pleasures, Aristotle thinks, should explain how a prudent person can "[pursue] the painless life" without indulging in base pleasures. The base pleasures, the ones "beasts and children" seek, are bodily pleasures, which can be good in moderation but bad in excess. Prudent people will avoid these excesses but still enjoy pleasures that are "good without qualification," like learning.

Section 14

Pleasure must be good as a contrast to pain, since pain is a known evil, something to be avoided, and the "contrary" (or opposite) to evil needs to be good. Furthermore, the happy life cannot exist without the activity of pleasure. So "the best good" needed for the happy life must involve some type of pleasure.

However, pleasure cannot simply be identified with good fortune or bodily enjoyment. Too much fortune actually gets in the way of happiness. People associate pleasure automatically with bodily or physical pleasures, because those are what humans seek most frequently and share most widely. However, pleasure is much broader. In addition, if pleasure is not a good, why do happy people have pleasant lives? Excellent people consistently seek the good, and this good must include pleasure.

Section 15

Aristotle then addresses the argument that certain pleasures, like study, are choice worthy while bodily pleasures are not. The only bad part of bodily enjoyments, he thinks, is excess indulgence, including excessive avoidance of pain or indulging while trying to drive pain away. He admits that positive physical sensations may feel more "intense" than other pleasures, since they can drive out pain and cure illness. Natural pleasures will lead to "action of a healthy nature." Human beings are always changing, so they are always seeking different pleasures. The superior nature of the gods means they enjoy simple, unchanging pleasures, while humans, who are inferior and cannot "find pleasure in rest," need variety.

Analysis

One of Aristotle's goals in Book 7 is to clarify the difference between incontinence and intemperance, since the two vices are similar and common. The incontinent person understands that what he is doing wrong. His reasoning process is similar to the continent person's, but he chooses the action of indulging his appetite, and he may regret it later. The intemperate person sees nothing wrong with overindulgence. He does what he enjoys with no regrets. As with Aristotle's discussion of the virtues, intent and mindset make all the difference in vice. An action can appear good or bad regardless of the person's state when he acts. Incontinent and intemperate people may appear to act the same way, but only the incontinent person can be helped.

Aristotle's extensive description of incontinent people responds to Socrates's assertion that anyone who knows the right thing to do will do it. Aristotle thinks Socrates is being too generous. Ignorance, Aristotle believes, is rarely an excuse for vice. Situations in which people genuinely act out of ignorance are rare. Aristotle emphasizes the difference between knowledge and belief. A person may believe something untrue, and they may have doubt, but neither condition makes them blameless. Beliefs can even be dangerous. Aristotle cites Heraclitus in Section 3, saying people can be just as convinced of their beliefs, true or untrue, as they can be about their knowledge.

Aristotle frequently recites common beliefs, using phrases like "they say" or "the things that are said." He then defends or (more often) refutes these beliefs. His statement about "the sophistical argument" in Section 2 warns readers about the Sophists, a school of philosophers in the 5th century BCE whose teachings continued to influence rhetoricians and philosophers for many generations. Sophists designed their arguments to confuse people deliberately, not to engage in a search for the truth. The idea of "foolishness combined with incontinence" producing accidental good behavior is a type of Sophist argument Aristotle wants to ensure his readers do not fall for.

"Supposition" refers to a cognitive state or what people suppose is true in their minds. Aristotle established in Book 6 that the prudent person has consistently accurate judgment, so prudence and incontinence cannot exist together. Incontinence involves more than acting on a false belief. An incontinent person has a correct belief but will not use it.

Aristotle uses a syllogism in Section 3 to make his definition of incontinence clearer to the reader. The "belief hindering [someone] from tasting" can be stated as a major premise: I should not taste anything pleasant. The minor premise is "Everything sweet is pleasant and this [food] is sweet." The conclusion, to Aristotle, is, I should avoid tasting this food. The incontinent person comes to the right conclusion. Still his appetite will take over and he will taste the food anyway. He knows in a "universal" or abstract sense what is right. Nevertheless, he failed at the "particular" or the action based on the belief. Thus, the incontinent person can feel internal moral conflict in the way an intemperate person cannot. In addition, this lack of conflict, to Aristotle, is the sign of a limited moral sensibility.

The outlier of bestiality is a contrast to the "divine" state he will discuss further in Book 10. Some of Aristotle's beliefs about bestial behavior rely on xenophobia, or fear of "foreigners." Others reference ancient Greek ideas about homosexuality. The social status of a partner was more important than their gender. Sexual relationships between two grown men who were equal citizens would lower their status. Mentoring relationships between grown men and younger boys, meanwhile, were considered part of a boy's social development and growth and often involved sexual relations. Aristotle refers to this type of relationship when he discusses the "erotic lover" in Book 8.

When Aristotle mentions spirit in Section 6, he is talking about anger. A person who acts out of anger—someone who seeks vengeance, for instance—believes what they are doing is right, even if their judgment is compromised. Aristotle finds this vice more forgivable than following excessive appetites.

However, the human capacity for decision and calculation, if it is applied in an evil way, can inflict more damage than animal urges can. Book 7 analyzes how frequently the lack of restraint implied by incontinence and intemperance can make human behavior evil. Aristotle fears "a bad human being" more than a beast. He is more concerned about unprovoked violence than anger-motivated violence. How much more damage will the unprovoked person do when they become angry?

The Section 7 discussion of impetuosity, softness, and resistance illuminates the many ways people can err through simple defects of personality. Softness implies a reluctance to endure small inconveniences—not a terrible-sounding vice, but not a behavior centered in virtue either. Aristotle mentions an unnamed vice in which someone "enjoys bodily things less than is right." Mastery of physical appetite is crucial to virtue. Moreover, a person's underlying state, not their behavioral tendencies, is Aristotle's true concern.

Incontinence can be cured through better deliberation and better decisions. The incontinent person may eventually discover physical pleasures are not worth it. Nevertheless, he will need a transformation in reason and motive.

With so many ways to err in the pursuit of pleasure, how can pleasure be successfully integrated into the good person's life? In Section 11 Aristotle lists common arguments against pleasure, using phrases like "people say" and "it seems to some people," a rhetorical strategy Aristotle frequently uses when he is about to refute an argument. In Book 10, he will more fully explain his conclusion in Section 12 that pleasure is an activity. For now he emphasizes that pleasures are good when moderated and associated with virtuous action. Besides, pleasure is a necessary ingredient of happiness, and happiness is the whole point. Aristotle thinks every part of the human function adds up to the whole. Since every human chases pleasure from birth, how can it not be an essential ingredient of the human function?

Again, the discrimination of prudence becomes essential. Prudence, combined with continence and temperance, lets someone know when to indulge physical desires and when to stop. The intensity of bodily pleasures, and the ease of pursuing them to excess, may make people think they are vices by definition. Nevertheless, Aristotle repeats that it is all about mindset and moderation. Food is clearly an indispensable pleasure or humans would not experience hunger. The only pleasures that allow excess are those that also bring pain—evidence of the imperfect human condition, since people are halfway between animals and gods.

The variety of pleasures available to humans may seem like an unmitigated good. However, Aristotle sees variety as a sign of human limitations compared to the gods' perfection. He believes stability, "unchangingness," and "rest" are preferable to change, and frequently references the virtuous person's stability. Humans rely on a complex and imperfect human happiness to approach the contentment of the gods.

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