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?