Book 7: Characters Other Than Virtue and Vice.

Chapter 3: Solution: to know has many senses; in what sense such a man knows.

We have, then, to inquire (1) whether the incontinent man acts with knowledge or not, and what knowledge means here; then (2) what is to be regarded as the field in which continence and incontinence manifest themselves—I mean whether their field be all pleasures and pains, or certain definite classes of these; then (3), with regard to the continent and the hardy man, whether they are the same or different; and so on with the other points that are akin to this inquiry.

(But we ought to begin by inquiring whether the species of continence and the species of incontinence of which we are here speaking are to be distinguished from other species by the field of their manifestation or by their form or manner—I mean whether a man is to be called incontinent in this special sense merely because he is incontinent or uncontrolled by reason in certain things, or because he is incontinent in a certain manner, or rather on both grounds; and in connection with this we ought to determine whether or no this incontinence and this continence may be displayed in all things. And our answer to these questions will be that the man who is called simply incontinent, without any qualification, does not display his character in all things, but only in those things in which the profligate manifests himself; nor is it simply an uncontrolled disposition with regard to them that makes him what he is (for then incontinence would be the same as profligacy), but a particular kind of uncontrolled disposition. For the profligate is carried along of his own deliberate choice or purpose, holding that what is pleasant at the moment is always to be pursued; while the incontinent man thinks otherwise, but pursues it all the same.) [Let us now turn to question (1).]

As to the argument that it is true opinion and not knowledge against which men act incontinently, it really makes no difference here; for some of those who merely have opinions are in no doubt at all, but fancy that they have exact knowledge.

If then it be said that those who have opinion more readily act against their judgment because of the weakness of their belief, we would answer that there is no such difference between knowledge and opinion; for some people have just as strong a belief in their mere opinions as others have in what they really know, of which Heraclitus is an instance.

But we use the word know (ἐπίστασθαι) in two different senses: he who has knowledge which he is not now using is said to know a thing, and also he who is now using his knowledge. Having knowledge, therefore, which is not now present to the mind, about what one ought not to do, will be different from having knowledge which is now present. Only in the latter sense, not in the former, does it seem strange that a man should act against his knowledge.

Again, since these reasonings involve two kinds of premises [a universal proposition for major and a particular for minor], there is nothing to prevent a man from acting contrary to his knowledge though he has both premises, if he is now using the universal only, and not the particular; for the particular is the thing to be done.

Again, different kinds of universal propositions may be involved: one may concern the agent himself, another the thing; for instance, you may reason (1) “all men are benefited by dry things, and I am a man;” and (2) “things of this kind are dry;” but the second minor, “this thing is of this kind,” may be unknown or the knowledge of it may be dormant.

These distinctions, then, will make a vast difference, so much so that it does not seem strange that a man should act against his knowledge if he knows in one way, though it does seem strange if he knows in another way.

But, again, it is possible for a man to “have knowledge” in yet another way than those just mentioned: we see, I mean, that “having knowledge without using it” includes different modes of having, so that a man may have it in one sense and in another sense not have it; for instance, a man who is asleep, or mad, or drunk. But people who are under the influence of passion are in a similar state; for anger, and sexual desire and the like do evidently alter the condition of the body, and in some cases actually produce madness. It is plain, then, that the incontinent man must be allowed to have knowledge in the same sort of way as those who are asleep, mad, or drunk.

But to repeat the words of knowledge is no proof that a man really has knowledge [in the full sense of having an effective knowledge]; for even when they are under the influence of these passions people repeat demonstrations and sayings of Empedocles, just as learners string words together before they understand their meaning—the meaning must be ingrained in them, and that requires time. So we must hold that the incontinent repeat words in the same sort of way that actors do.

Again, one may inquire into the cause of this phenomenon [of incontinence] by arguments based upon its special nature, as follows:—You may have (1) a universal judgment, (2) a judgment about particular facts which fall at once within the province of sense or perception; but when the two are joined together, the conclusion must in matters of speculation be assented to by the mind, in matters of practice be carried out at once into act; for instance, if you judge (1) “all sweet things are to be tasted,” (2) “this thing before me is sweet”—a particular fact,—then, if you have the power and are not hindered, you cannot but at once put the conclusion [“this is to be tasted”] into practice.

Now, when you have on the one side the universal judgment forbidding you to taste, and on the other side the universal judgment, “all sweet things are pleasant,” with the corresponding particular, “this thing before me is sweet” (but it is the particular judgment which is effective), and appetite is present—then, though the former train of reasoning bids you avoid this, appetite moves you [to take it]; for appetite is able to put the several bodily organs in motion.

And thus it appears that it is in a way under the influence of reason, that is to say of opinion, that people act incontinently—opinion, too, that is, not in itself, but only accidentally, opposed to right reason. For it is the desire, not the opinion, that is opposed to right reason.

And this is the reason why brutes cannot be incontinent; they have no universal judgments, but only images and memories of particular facts.

As to the process by which the incontinent man gets out of this ignorance and recovers his knowledge, the account of it will be the same as in the case of a man who is drunk or asleep, and will not be peculiar to this phenomenon; and for such an account we must go to the professors of natural science.

But since the minor premise is an opinion or judgment about a fact of perception, and determines action, the incontinent man, when under the influence of passion, either has it not, or has it in a sense in which, as we explained, having is equivalent, not to knowing in the full sense, but to repeating words as a drunken man repeats the sayings of Empedocles.

And thus, since the minor premise is not universal, and is thought to be less a matter of knowledge than the universal judgment [or major premise], it seems that what Socrates sought to establish really is the case; for when passion carries a man away, what is present to his mind is not what is regarded as knowledge in the strict sense, nor is it such knowledge that is perverted by his passion, but sensitive knowledge merely.


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