Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics

Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics Summary and Analysis of Book Seven

Section 1:

The things which should be avoided with regard to character are vice, incontinence and brutality. To be brutal is rare, since it means to exceed so much in vice that one is hardly even human.

Section 2:

The incontinent man is disposed to do what he knows is bad because of his passions. The continent man knows that his desires are bad but does not follow them because of reason.

Section 3:

Socrates thought that incontinence as it is defined here is impossible, because he thought that if one knew how to act rightly one would necessarily do so. Yet this view is contrary to experience. An incontinent man is worse than one who acts badly deliberately because the latter may at least be persuaded to change his mind, while the incontinent man already knows what is good but is simply not doing it because he is ruled by his passions.

Section 4:

The incontinent man is disposed toward the objects toward which an intemperate man is disposed. The difference between the incontinent man and the temperate man is that the intemperate man deliberately chooses to pursue all pleasures, while the incontinent man thinks he should not seek after pleasure but does so anyway.

Section 5:

Those under the influence of their passions are somewhat like those who are mad or drunk, for they do not act according to the knowledge that they have. Incontinent men are like this. In an incontinent man the desire, not the knowledge of what is right, is contrary to right reason.

Section 6:

Is anyone incontinent without qualification or are people incontinent with respect to specific things? Those who are incontinent by excessively seeking victory, wealth, honor, or other such things are only incontinent with respect to those things. But those who are incontinent with respect to bodily enjoyments are incontinent in the unqualified sense. Incontinence in an unqualified way is that which parallels human intemperance.

Section 7:

Incontinence with regard to desire is worse than incontinence with regard to temper, since desire does not follow reason while temper does.

Some dispositions are human and natural, others are brutal, and others are caused by injury or disease. Temperance and intemperance are concerned only with the first of these.

Section 8:

The man who pursues the excesses of pleasurable things through intention is intemperate. Such a man is not disposed to regret and is incurable. The intemperate man is worse than the incontinent, since incontinence is a kind of softness while intemperance is deliberately disgraceful.

Section 9:

The incontinent man is disposed to regret, and as such the incontinent man is curable. Incontinence is not really a vice since it is contrary to one's deliberate choice while vice is in accordance with one's deliberate choice. Incontinent men are not unjust but they do unjust things.

Section 10:

Those who are obstinate are hard to persuade. They are somewhat similar to the incontinent man, except that the reason the incontinent man will not change is his passion, while the reason the obstinate man will not change his reasoning. Those who are obstinate may be opinionated, ignorant or boorish. Only those who do things for the sake of disgraceful pleasures are intemperate or incontinent, not those who do things for the sake of noble pleasures.

Section 11:

The difference between a continent man and a temperate man is that a continent man has bad desires. A temperate man is not pleased by acting contrary to reason while a continent man would be. A man cannot be prudent and incontinent at the same time, because a prudent man not only knows what the good is but acts accordingly.

Section 12:

The study of pleasure and pain belongs to the political philosopher, for the political philosopher directs the end of man. Some think that no pleasure is good, others think that most pleasures are bad, and others think that even if all pleasures are good the highest good cannot be pleasure.

Section 13:

It is incorrect correct to say that no pleasures are good, since there are some pleasures which are good. The temperate man avoids excessive bodily pleasures but pursues pleasures in moderation.

Section 14:

It is generally agreed that pain is bad, and so pleasure must be some sort of a good. The highest good must involve a certain pleasure. A good man who suffers great misfortunes cannot be completely happy. Even bodily pleasures are not bad, but it is bad to pursue them in excess.

Section 15:

People pursue bodily pleasures to drive out pains. As long as these pleasures are harmless they are not subject to censure. Because our nature is not simple [that is, human beings are a composite of many metaphysical and physical parts] the same thing is not always pleasurable, or may be pleasurable to a certain part of us but not to another part. For a simple being, like God, the same action would always be the most pleasant.


In this chapter Aristotle has added some complications to the simple distinction between virtue and vice. Virtue and vice require that a person act deliberately, yet there are many instances when people do not really act deliberately because they act according to passion rather than according to reason. Virtue requires that a person not only do the right thing but also that he act for the right reason and that his desire should also be correct. Incontinence is knowing the better and not acting according but rather succumbing to one's passions. Thus it is not vice because the person does not do what is wrong deliberately. With incontinence, a person has both the wrong desire and the wrong action even though he has the right reason. A continent person acts according to virtue and does so for the right reason but his desires are bad. Therefore he is not as good as the temperate person. If one were to rank them from best to worst, temperance would be the best, then continence, then incontinence, and finally intemperance. Intemperance is the worst because the person has both bad desires and bad reasoning. The reason for this lengthy discussion distinguishing continence and incontinence from virtue and vice is that most people are somewhere between virtue and vice, and these extra categories are necessary in order to make sure that all human actions are included in the discussion, since they are all a part of ethics.

Aristotle is far from a hedonist, but he also does not consider pleasure to be a bad thing. In fact, Aristotle thinks that one of the necessary conditions for a person to be virtuous is that he take pleasure in acting virtuously. A virtuous person' s desires should be in line with right reason so that virtuous action is pleasant. Further, since acting in accordance with right reason‹that is, virtuously‹is supposed to lead to happiness, it is fitting that that acting virtuously should also be pleasant at least in some sense, even if not in the physical sense. Pleasure is not in itself the highest good or even an end in itself, but it accompanies the highest good as well as most lesser goods.