Book 7: Characters Other Than Virtue and Vice.
But in what sense, it may be objected, can a man judge rightly when he acts incontinently?
Some people maintain that he cannot act so if he really knows what is right; for it would be strange, thought Socrates, if, when real knowledge were in the man, something else should master him and hale him about like a slave. Socrates, indeed, contested the whole position, maintaining that there is no such thing as incontinence: when a man acts contrary to what is best, he never, according to Socrates, has a right judgment of the case, but acts so by reason of ignorance.
Now, this theory evidently conflicts with experience; and with regard to the passion which sways the incontinent man, if it really is due to ignorance, we must ask what kind of ignorance it is due to. For it is plain that, at any rate, he who acts incontinently does not fancy that the act is good till the passion is upon him.
There are other people who in part agree and in part disagree with Socrates. They allow that nothing is able to prevail against knowledge, but do not allow that men never act contrary to what seems best; and so they say that the incontinent man, when he yields to pleasure, has not knowledge, but only opinion.
But if, in truth, it be only opinion and not knowledge, and if it be not a strong but a weak belief or judgment that opposes the desires (as is the case when a man is in doubt), we pardon a man for not abiding by it in the face of strong desires; but, in fact, we do not pardon vice nor anything else that we call blamable.
Are we, then, to say that it is prudence that opposes desire [in those cases when we blame a man for yielding]? For it is the strongest form of belief. Surely that would be absurd: for then the same man would be at once prudent and incontinent; but no one would maintain that a prudent man could voluntarily do the vilest acts. Moreover, we have already shown that prudence is essentially a faculty that issues in act; for it is concerned with the ultimate thing [the thing to be done], and implies the possession of all the moral virtues.
Again, if a man cannot be continent without having strong and bad desires, the temperate man will not be continent, nor the continent man temperate; for it is incompatible with the temperate character to have either very violent or bad desires.
They must, however, be both strong and bad in the continent man: for if they were good, the habit that hindered from following them would be bad, so that continence would not be always good; if they were weak and not bad, it would be nothing to respect; and if they were bad, but at the same time weak, it would be nothing to admire.
Again, if continence makes a man apt to abide by any opinion whatsoever, it is a bad thing—as, for instance, if it makes him abide by a false opinion: and if incontinence makes a man apt to abandon any opinion whatsoever, there will be a kind of incontinence that is good, an instance of which is Neoptolemus in the Philoctetes of Sophocles; for he merits praise for being prevented from persevering in the plan which Ulysses had persuaded him to adopt, by the pain which he felt at telling a lie.
Again, the well-known argument of the sophists, though fallacious, makes a difficulty: for, wishing to establish a paradoxical conclusion, so that they may be thought clever if they succeed, they construct a syllogism which puzzles the hearer; for his reason is fettered, as he is unwilling to rest in the conclusion, which is revolting to him, but is unable to advance, since he cannot find a flaw in the argument. Thus it may be argued that folly combined with incontinence is virtue:—by reason of his incontinence a man does the opposite of that which he judges to be good; but he judges that the good is bad and not to be done; the result is that he will do the good and not the bad.
Again, he who pursues and does what is pleasant from conviction, and deliberately chooses these things, would seem [if this doctrine be true] to be better than he who does so, not upon calculation, but by reason of incontinence. For the former is more curable, as his convictions might be changed; but to the incontinent man we may apply the proverb which says, “If water chokes you, what will you wash it down with?” For if he were convinced that what he does is good, a change in his convictions might stop his doing it; but, as it is, though he is convinced that something else is good, he nevertheless does this.
Again, if incontinence and continence may be displayed in anything, who is the man whom we call incontinent simply? For though no one man unites all the various forms of incontinence, there yet are people to whom we apply the term without any qualification.
Something of this sort, then, are the objections that suggest themselves; and of these we must remove some and leave others; for the resolution of a difficulty is the discovery of the truth.