Jan 17, 2013

Aristotle, Anger, and Akrasia

A man gets angry at lunch with several colleagues or coworkers -- a response to a perceived insult or put-down -- and before realizing it, launches into a profanity-laden diatribe.  He regrets it soon afterwards, since he crossed a line, though he didn't realize it at the time.  A couple arguing with each other find themselves unwilling to listen to the partner each of them does actually still love (though respect?  perhaps not), giving in to the temptation to construe the other person's claims in as bad a light as possible, taking digs and cheap shots -- the argument escalates into a full-blown fight, not what either of them really wanted, but what, on some level they both chose.  These are just two examples.  Just by mining one's own memories, or attentively watching other people, one could multiply these sort of cases indefinitely.  They represent a phenomenon which in moral theory we often call by its Greek term, akrasia.

Last November, I delivered a talk at Felician College specifically on akrasia -- commonly translated into English as "weakness of will," "incontinence," or "lack of self-control" -- specifically about the interconnections between akrasia and anger as Aristotle explores them in his texts -- the most important discussions appearing in his Nicomachean Ethics, but illuminating passages also popping up here and there in the Eudemian Ethics, the De Anima, and a few other texts.  For a number of years, I've been nursing, nurturing, and indulging an interest in Aristotle's views on anger, working towards eventually publishing a book on the topic (currently about 1/4 written, though such snapshot figures of progress tend to change, ironically always towards diminution, as the study progresses).  Aristotle's treatment of akrasia's connection with anger is sufficiently interesting to merit its own chapter.  But why?

Does Akrasia Exist?

To start with, akrasia constitutes a kind of puzzle for many philosophers.  How can one know what the good or right thing to do is -- or know that one shouldn't do something, realize that an object of desire is harmful or shameful -- even stiffen one's resolve, and still end up doing or choosing the worse, abandoning the better course?  Is it possible to do this consciously, knowingly?  Is one responsible for such lapses, not to mention such a state of character?

Some moral perspectives-- whether they be well-worked-out philosophical ones like those of Socrates and Plato, or whether they be more common, everyday viewpoints like those who seem bent on excusing wrongdoing, foolish decisions, bad choices -- actually went so far as to claim that there is in fact no such thing as akrasia, typically by explaining it away as a lack of knowledge on the part of the person doing wrong.  For whatever reason, people seemingly acting akratically are mixed up or mistaken about some morally relevant fact or principle.  They're therefore not to be blamed for their weakness, failure, or offense -- rather they are to be pitied, and if possible, better informed.

Since childhood, I've regarded such write-offs and excuses about akrasia as extremely suspect and likely self-serving -- though that would be a tough case to make of Socrates and Plato.  Like many, I would say that I have experienced akrasia first-hand, precisely by falling into that state at one time or another -- but also in a different mode of close though not so immediate experience, witnessing others wavering in their wills, departing from their resolves, reporting their failures, evincing recriminations and regrets. 

It didn't require any introduction to Aristotle, St. Paul, or Epictetus on my part for the concept and experience of akrasia to become part and parcel of my own moral environment.  Reading the great Apostle recount his own tendency, even while knowing the good, to do otherwise, to choose the bad, wrong, the evil -- and even more finding in the works of great moral theorists more systematic investigations and attempts at explanation -- simply solidified a conviction that the real issue was not whether akrasia exists at all, but rather what was going on in the experience of akrasia.  How does it come to be the case?  Is there just one cause, or multiple causes?  Merely one common experience or dynamic, to which ought to correspond a single notion or concept?  Where does it fit, in terms of other moral notions?  How does one identify it, and what can one do -- what should one do -- about it?

Aristotle's Discussions of Akrasia

As I noted in a previous blog entry, Aristotle provides some partial answers to these kinds of questions -- but only partial ones. In fact, you might say that there is indeed a preliminary "problem of akrasia" in Aristotle scholarship, constituted by the disagreements and divergences among scholarly interpretations attempting to reconstruct just what Aristotle's actual position on akrasia is.  My own preference is to regard Aristotle' texts as providing us only the outlines and suggestions -- strong ones, fortunately -- for a fuller account of akrasia which would locate it within the broader, more architectonic structure of his moral theory as a whole.

Although this veers off momentarily into digression, I'll indulge myself in stating two reasons I've arrived at and prefer such a viewpoint. The first is that, under a proper Aristotelian understanding of moral theory, well-developed outlines do -- and should -- suffice.  It's up to us, his readers and interpreters, to supply examples or application and carry out the work upon them, to assimilate the concepts to those added by our present day moral environment and experiences.  In fact, to have supplied a complete "system" of ethics, down to the particulars themselves would not only go contrary to Aristotle's own dicta about specificity and ethics, even worse, it would deprive us o the opportunity to seek, practice, and develop the sorely needed  intellectual (and moral) virtue of phronesis, "practical wisdom," or alternately, "moral insight".

The second is that, just as with so many topics -- including, quite significantly, anger -- as far as we can tell, Aristotle just never got around to providing a full, systematic account of akrasia.  As with any topic of particular importance within his moral theory, he does devote considerable discussion to it at a few points (most notably in book 7 of the Nicomachean Ethics), but then scatters references and repetitions, new speculations, additional considerations here and there throughout his works (if you would like to see just how many places he discusses akrasia, either directly or implicitly, take a look at this handout). There really is no treatise On Akrasia to be found as such in Aristotle's texts -- instead, it would have to be reconstructed from them. 

Anger and Akrasia

If there weren't already the interesting puzzles and problems about akrasia already mentioned -- enough to scare off those nervous souls who demand of philosophical authors definitive prooftexts and easily mapped-out arguments, as well as to pique the appetites of philosophical connoisseurs -- Aristotle adds several additional wrinkles by his remarks specifically about anger during his discussions of akrasia.  There's really four things he says that turn out to be particularly provocative -- four points he makes which, upon examination, turn out to be intrinsically interconnected

First, of course -- and this one hits you right in the face even upon a first reading -- he maintains that akrasia due to anger is a morally better condition or lapse than akrasia generally, "unqualifiedly," what you might call "lack of self control" per se.  This turns out to be a failure to keep to one's resolve in the face of one's own desire for pleasures of the senses -- appetites for food, drink, and sex being the major modalities of this in Aristotle's eyes.  He also singles out other goods, about which our desires or feelings can lead us astray even when we possess knowledge about what we ought to do and what we should refrain from or reject -- "noble" or "fine" goods like honor, winning, taking care of parents and children, even wealth.  Interestingly, he doesn't lump anger -- which could be evoked in relation to any of these -- into this class, and he singles out anger as the source or mode of akrasia whose better moral status he wants to assert.

Second, and connected with this first point, anger -- as an emotional response and as a distinctive form of desire or directedness -- involves rationality (I've touched on this here and here) in a manner, to a greater extent, than do other emotions or forms of desire.  As Aristotle remarks, anger is like an over-hasty servant, who only listens to half of the orders, then rushes off to effect them -- it draws the inference that one has been insulted, slighted, treated unjustly, and then immediately rises to defend the self, by going on the attack, flushed with emotion, driven by desire down paths half-lit by reason's light.

Unlike other passions of the human soul, it does not simply suppress rationality, nor does it merely dictate to the faculty of reason, bidding it to be its slave and determine best how to gain its object.  Anger seduces our higher, rational part.  Its foot already stretch across the threshold of rationality, not because it steals in, but because it is always already there, half-way to reasonableness, and all the more dangerous, tempting, liable to lead astray as a consequence.  It is precisely because of its intimate affinity with reason that anger -- and akrasia through anger -- though still bad insofar as it does wrong or harm, and goes to excess, nevertheless exhibits something morally decent.

Third, Aristotle regards akrasia due to anger as morally better than general lack of self control for another interesting reason -- it is more open, more public, more apparent.  Anger is "above the boards" you might say.  The person who is angry, and who fails in their resolve, chooses the wrong thing, slips up, loses their temper, goes further than they mean to in their response -- that person doesn't hide the fact of being angry, but instead acts it out, as the emotion of anger sweeps them up and along.  Not so akrasia in the face of desire and pleasure -- that sort of weakness can be sneaky, concealing one's consumption, downplaying the extent, frequency, or occasions of one's indulgence.

In my view, this third point requires quite a bit of additional scrutiny, reflection, and spelling-out.  Even the second one calls out for further examination, particularly in terms of some of the other key classifications and distinctions Aristotle makes while discussing akrasia -- not least of which are his attempts to determine what senses of "knowledge" the akratic person can be said to have but fail to use or abide by.  I'll reserve those sorts of discussions, which require a lot more connecting-textual-dots to form a composite picture running through Aristotle's corpus, for the next post on anger and akrasia.

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