Nicomachean Ethics - Book VII Summary & Analysis

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Book VII Summary and Analysis

Aristotle now looks at virtue from another angle by looking at the states of character that should be avoided. These are vice, incontinence and bestiality. The opposites of vice and incontinence are virtue and continence. Bestiality, as Aristotle defines it, is a state where a person behaves no better than a beast. It is possibly the lowest state of human existence, and its opposite is something that is even higher than virtue, perhaps what would be called "divine." He promises to address this in a later section and begins to discuss incontinence.

Incontinence, as meant by Aristotle, is a lack of self-control. To examine it, Aristotle takes up the same method he has used before. He first speaks about what is said about people who are incontinent. He next addresses some of the "puzzles" that exist about these commonly held notions as they relate to his own definitions, and then seeks to show that his theories both explain the correct action and do not contradict any currently held ideas, which he offers as proof of their applicability.

Incontinence is similar to intemperance, which Aristotle has already defined as being concerned with the pleasures of the body. It is different that intemperance, however, in that the intemperate person acts according to what he believes is the best thing to do but he is wrong in his assessment of what is best. The incontinent person has a correct knowledge of what is best, but does not do it. An intemperate person might eat to excess thinking that he needs more food than he actually does, for instance. An incontinent person knows how much he should eat, but still eats to excess.

Intemperance and incontinence would seem to be different in another way, Aristotle writes, in that the term incontinence seems to be applied in common usage as a general state of being, whereas intemperance is only applied to refer to the bodily pleasures. He goes on to show that incontinence is actually about the same pleasures as intemperance. The other kinds of incontinence that people refer to are "particular" types of incontinence, not a general type.

Having shown that incontinence and continence are concerned with the same appetites and desires as intemperance and temperance, Aristotle turns to a discussion of these appetites and desires. They have to do with the senses of touch and taste and the pleasures and pains associated with them. Continence is the ability to overcome the desire for pleasure, incontinence the tendency to let pleasures overwhelm oneself.

Aristotle returns to his definitions of intemperate and incontinent people. Intemperate people act out of a wrong supposition of what is the best thing to do. This is a defect in reason, and if ones reason is defective, then one cannot become virtuous. Incontinent people have good reason. They know what they should do, but choose not to do it. Because their reason knows that they should do differently, however, they retain the ability to mend their ways and cure their incontinence. It is not enough to simply abide by reason to be called continent. The reasoning must be correct and true. Prudent people act on this correct reasoning, as Aristotle has shown, and so, he concludes, prudence and incontinence are incompatible and cannot be found within the same person.

Aristotle now turns to the subject of pleasure, and to the common objections to pleasure being good. He brings up three common but different beliefs about pleasure. The first is that no pleasure is good, the second that some pleasures are good, and the third that all pleasures are good, but that pleasure is not the highest good. Aristotle dismisses these beliefs. His argument is based in part on the fact that pain is always thought to be bad, and that pleasure is the opposite of pain. Since pleasure is the opposite of something bad, it must be good. It is not the pleasure itself that should be called bad or good, he implies, but the way in which a person seeks it and the reasons he seeks it. He leaves open the possibility that a kind of pleasure may be the highest good, although he does not say so explicitly. Aristotle then describes some of the ways in which people relate to pleasure before announcing the topic of the next section, friendship.

This section contains 732 words
(approx. 2 pages at 400 words per page)
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