Book 7: Characters Other Than Virtue and Vice.

Chapter 4: Of incontinence in the strict and in the metaphorical sense.

So much, then, for the question whether the incontinent man knows or not, and in what sense it is possible to act incontinently with knowledge. We next have to consider whether a man can be incontinent simply, or only incontinent in some particular way, and, if the former be the case, what is the field in which the character is manifested.

It is evident that it is in the matter of pleasures and pains that both continent and hardy and incontinent and soft men manifest their characters.

Of the sources of pleasure, some are necessary, and others are desirable in themselves but admit of excess: “necessary” are the bodily processes, such as nutrition, the propagation of the species, and generally those bodily functions with which we said that profligacy and temperance have to do; others, though not necessary, are in themselves desirable, such as victory, honour, wealth, and other things of the kind that are good and pleasant.

Now, those who go to excess in these latter in spite of their own better reason are not called incontinent simply, but with a qualifying epithet, as incontinent with respect to money, or gain, or honour, or anger — not simply, since they are different characters, and only called incontinent in virtue of a resemblance—just as the victor in the last Olympic games was called a man; for though the meaning of the name as applied to him was but slightly different from its common meaning, still it was different.

And this may be proved thus: incontinence is blamed, not simply as a mistake, but as a kind of vice, either of vice simply, or of some particular vice; but those who are thus incontinent [in the pursuit of wealth, etc.] are not thus blamed.

But of the characters that manifest themselves in the matter of bodily enjoyments, with which we say the temperate and the profligate are concerned, he who goes to excess in pursuing what is pleasant and avoiding what is painful, in the matter of hunger and thirst, and heat and cold, and all things that affect us by touch or taste, and who does this not of deliberate choice, but contrary to his deliberate choice and reasoning, is called incontinent—not with the addition that he is incontinent with respect to this particular thing, as anger, but simply incontinent.

A proof of this is that people are also called soft in these latter matters, but not in any of the former [honour, gain, etc.].

And on this account we group the incontinent with the profligate and the continent and the temperate (but do not class with them any of those who are metaphorically called continent and incontinent), because they are in a way concerned with the same pleasures and pains. They are, in fact, concerned with the same matters, but their behaviour is different; for whereas the other three deliberately choose what they do, the incontinent man does not.

And so a man who, without desire, or with only a moderate desire, pursues excess of pleasure, and avoids even slight pains, would more properly be called profligate than one who is impelled so to act by violent desires; for what would the former do if the violent passions of youth were added, and if it were violent pain to him to forego the satisfaction of his natural appetites?

But some of our desires and pleasures are to be classed as noble and good (for some of the things that please us are naturally desirable), while others are the reverse of this, and others are intermediate between the two, as we explained before,—such things as money, gain, victory, and honour falling within the first class. With regard both to these, then, and to the intermediate class, men are blamed not for being affected by them, or desiring them, or caring for them, but only for doing so in certain ways and beyond the bounds of moderation. So we blame those who are moved by, or pursue, some good and noble object to an unreasonable extent, as, for instance, those who care too much for honour, or for their children or parents: for these, too, are noble objects, and men are praised for caring about them; but still one might go too far in them also, if one were to fight even against the gods, like Niobe, or to do as did Satyrus, who was nicknamed Philopator from his affection for his father—for he seemed to carry his affection to the pitch of folly.

In these matters, then, there is no room for vice or wickedness for the reason mentioned, viz. that all these are objects that are in themselves desirable, though excess in them is not commendable, and is to be avoided.

Similarly, in these matters there is no room for incontinence strictly so called (for incontinence is not only to be avoided, but is actually blamable), but because of the similarity of the state of mind we do here use the term incontinence with a qualification, saying “incontinent in this or in that,” just as we apply the term “bad physician” or “bad actor” to a man whom we should not call bad simply or without a qualifying epithet. Just as in the latter case, then, the term badness or vice is applied, not simply, but with a qualification, because each of these qualities is not a vice strictly, but only analogous to a vice, so in this case also it is plain that we must understand that only to be strictly incontinence (or continence) which is manifested in those matters with which temperance and profligacy are concerned, while that which is manifested with regard to anger is only metaphorically called so; and therefore we call a man “incontinent in anger,” as “in honour” or “in gain,” adding a qualifying epithet.


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