Book 7: Characters Other Than Virtue and Vice.

Chapter 7: Incontinence yields to pleasure, softness to pain. Two kinds of incontinence, the hasty and the weak.

With regard to the pleasures and pains of touch and taste, and the corresponding desires and aversions, which we before marked out as the field of profligacy and temperance, it is possible to be so disposed as to succumb to allurements which most people resist, or so as to resist allurements to which most people succumb. When they are exhibited in the matter of pleasures, the former of these characters is called incontinent and the latter continent; when they are exhibited in the matter of pains, the former is called soft and the latter hardy. The character of the general run of men falls between these two, inclining perhaps rather to the worse.

But since some pleasures are necessary, while others are not, and since the necessary pleasures are necessary in certain quantities only, but not in too great nor yet in too small quantities, and since the same is true of appetites and of pains, he who pursues pleasures that fall beyond the pale of legitimate pleasures, or pursues any pleasures to excess, is called profligate, if he pursues them of deliberate purpose for their own sake and not for any result which follows from them; for such a man must be incapable of remorse—must be incurable therefore; for he who feels no remorse is incurable. In the opposite extreme is he who falls short of the mean (while he who observes the mean is temperate). So with the man who avoids bodily pains, not because he is momentarily overcome, but of deliberate purpose.

But those who act thus without deliberate purpose may do so either to gain pleasure or to escape the pain of desire, and we must accordingly distinguish these from one another.

But all would allow that a man who does something disgraceful without desire, or with only a moderate desire, is worse than if he had a violent desire; and that if a man strike another in cool blood he is worse than if he does it in anger; for what would he do if he were in a passion? The profligate man, therefore, is worse than the incontinent.

Of the characters mentioned, then, we must distinguish softness from profligacy.

The continent character is opposed to the incontinent, and the hardy to the soft; for hardiness implies that you endure, while continence implies that you overcome, and enduring is different from overcoming, just as escaping a defeat is different from winning a victory; so continence is better than hardiness.

But he that gives way to what the generality of men can and do resist is soft and luxurious (for luxury, too, is a kind of softness),—the sort of man that suffers his cloak to trail along the ground rather than be at the pains to pull it up; that plays the invalid, and yet does not consider himself wretched, though it is a wretched man that he imitates.

Similarly with continence and incontinence. If a man give way to violent and excessive pleasures or pains, we do not marvel, but are ready to pardon him if he struggled, like Philoctetes when bitten by the viper in the play of Theodectes, or Cercyon in the Alope of Carcinus; or like people who, in trying to restrain their laughter, burst out into a violent explosion, as happened to Xenophantus. But we do marvel when a man succumbs to and cannot resist what the generality of men are able to hold out against, unless the cause be hereditary disposition or disease (e.g. softness is hereditary in the Scythian kings, and the female is naturally softer than the male).

The man that is given up to amusement is generally thought to be profligate, but in fact he is soft; for amusement is relaxation, since it is a rest from labour; and among those who take too much relaxation are those who are given up to amusement.

There are two kinds of incontinence, the hasty and the weak. Some men deliberate, but, under the influence of passion, do not abide by the result of their deliberations; others are swayed by passion because they do not deliberate; for as it is not easy to tickle a man who has just been tickling you, so there are people who when they see what is coming, and are forewarned and rouse themselves and their reason, are able to resist the impulse, whether it be pleasant or painful. People of quick sensibility or of a melancholic temperament are most liable to incontinence of the hasty sort; such people do not wait to hear the voice of reason, because, in the former case through the rapidity, in the latter case through the intensity of their impressions, they are apt to follow their imagination.


Icon for the Public Domain license

This work (The Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle) is free of known copyright restrictions.