Aristotle thinks that virtue depends upon the right relations between the rational and nonrational parts of the soul.
How do the possible relations among the two parts of the soul give rise to the four main kinds of moral character?

The two parts of the soul that Aristotle employs when speaking about the "right relations" between them, are the rational part that evaluates the circumstances, predicts consequences, and deliberates about which courses of action are in the best interests of one's own eudaimonia; and the irrational, emotional, or appetitive part that responds to the prospects of pleasure and pain.

"Now the soul of man is divided into two parts, one of which has a rational principle in itself, and the other, not having a rational principle in itself, is able to obey such a principle. And we call a man in any way good because he has the virtues of these two parts." (Politics 7.xiv)

"[A]s the soul and body are two, we see also that there are two parts of the soul, the rational and the irrational, and two corresponding states -- reason and appetite. And as the body is prior in order of generation to the soul, so the irrational is prior to the rational. The proof is that anger and wishing and desire are implanted in children from their very birth, but reason and understanding are developed as they grow older." (Politics 7.xv)

The pleasures to which the appetitive part of the soul responds Aristotle divided into two classes.  The "proper pleasures" are those that he describes as being the supervening partner of temperate behaviour.  The "alien pleasures" are those that he describes as being the supervening partner of excesses or deficiencies.  This is part of his "Doctrine of the Mean".  Those pleasures that correspond with the mean are "proper".  Those pleasures that correspond with the excesses or deficiencies of vice are "alien".

When an activity has a proper pleasure associated with it, and that pleasure is present, that pleasure will improve the proper function of the activity.  But alien pleasures are those that interfere with the proper function of an activity.

"For an activity is intensified by its proper pleasure, since each class of things is better judged of and brought to precision by those who engage in the activity with pleasure;  . . .  For alien pleasures do pretty much what proper pains do, since activities are destroyed by their proper pains;  . . .  So an activity suffers contrary effects from its proper pleasures and pains, i.e. from those that supervene on it in virtue of its own nature. And alien pleasures have been stated to do much the same as pain; they destroy the activity, only not to the same degree." (NE 5.1)

If, for example, the proper function of drinking red wine is to reap the medicinal benefits of the chemical content of the wine, and the social benefits of relaxed inhibitions in a social context, then the pleasures to be derived from moderate consumption in a social context are the "proper pleasures" of imbibing.  But both over indulging and abstention are injurious to one's health, and injurious to one's social relations.  So the pleasures that one might derive from either over indulgence or abstention are the "alien pleasures" of drinking red wine. 

Given the two parts of the soul (rational and appetitive), and the two kinds of pleasures (proper and alien), there then can be said to be a four-fold division of moral character -- Aristotle labels them as virtue, continence, incontinence, and vice.  To elucidate the moral distinction between the four main divisions of character, and explain how the relations between the two parts of the soul and the distinction between the two kinds of pleasure interact to give rise to the four main kinds of moral character, Aristotle describes four different kinds of man.  Virtue is represented by the virtuous or temperate (sophrosyne) man.  Continence is represented by the continent or self-controlled (enkrateia) man.  Vice is represented by the vicious or intemperate or self-indulgent (akolsia) man.  And incontinence is represented by the incontinent or morally weak (akrasia) man.

The virtuous or temperate man "craves only what he ought, as he ought, when he ought" (NE 6.2).  The virtuous man has had proper moral training, so his appetites are in sync with the deliberations of his rational soul as to the best route to his own eudaimonia.  His appetitive soul has learned to appreciate the "proper pleasures" of temperance.  He is therefore not routinely tempted by "evil pleasures".  He experiences no internal conflict between the two parts of his soul.  The appetitive soul follows the guidance of the rational soul.  This is the "right relation" between the rational and nonrational parts of the soul.

The vicious, intemperate, or self-indulgent man believes that it is not wrong to pursue the pleasures he pursues.  In Aristotle's evaluation, he loves or craves pleasure more than it is worth (NE 7.7).  He routinely pursues the alien pleasures.  And like the virtuous man, he is not conflicted in this.  His appetites are in sync with his rational deliberations of the best route to his own eudaimonia.  Intellectually, he happens to be wrong in his beliefs (at least according to Aristotle).  But psychically he is as well balanced as is the virtuous man.  What distinguishes the vicious man from the virtuous man is the fact that for the vicious man, the appetitive soul rules the rational soul rather than the other way around.

The continent or self-controlled man routinely uses his rational appreciation of circumstances to over-ride the temptations his appetitive soul experiences from "alien pleasures".  His outward behaviour is similar to that of the virtuous man, in that routinely he actually does what his rational soul judges the best route to his own eudaimonia.  But internally, he is conflicted.  His appetites for the alien pleasures are strong, and must be combated.  (Note the emphasis on "routinely".  Aristotle is here interested in describing the normal or usual state of affairs, the "habit of character," and not in the occasional "slip".)  Psychically, his appetitive soul is in conflict with his rational soul.  Although his rational soul routinely wins the battle, it must constantly overcome the conflicting demands of his appetites.

The incontinent man routinely lets his appetitive soul rule, and so routinely yields to the temptations of those alien pleasures.  Like the continent man, the incontinent man is conflicted.  With the rational part of his soul, he knows that what he is doing is wrong.  Yet his appetitive soul overwhelms his rational soul, and he routinely yields to the temptations.  Aristotle provides two different explanations for why the rational part of the soul of the incontinent or akratic man might have such difficulties in controlling the appetitive part of his soul.  He distinguishes between "drunk akrasia" and "genuine akrasia".

Drunk-akrasia Aristotle describes as being the result of intellectual error.  He describes two different senses of how a person can "know" things.  There is the passive sense in which it can be said that the geometer "knows" the axioms of Euclid, even when he is asleep, or distracted by other interests, or drunk and incapable (hence the label "drunk"-akrasia).  And there is the active sense in which the geometer can be said to know those axioms while he is actively employing them in his labours.  So the incontinent man can be said to "know" that what he is doing is wrong in the passive sense, while it can also be said on those same occasions that he does not "know" what he is doing is wrong in the active sense. 

In the passive sense, it is possible that the incontinent man fails to consider whether his current situation falls under one of the moral principles he has learned, or misinterprets or misevaluates the likely consequences due to ignorance or inattention, or has allowed his passions to cloud his judgement as a drunk has allowed the drink to cloud his judgements.  In the passive sense, then, the drunk-akratic incontinent man is similar to the vicious or self-indulgent man in that he does not know (in the active sense) that what he is doing is wrong, and (at least at the moment) believes that what he is doing is right.  So the drunk-akratic lets his appetitive soul pursue the pleasures it will.  Only later, when his rational soul recovers, does the conflict arise with the recognition that he was mistaken and should have known better.

This explanation does not serve for the "genuine-akratic" incontinent man, however.  The genuine akratic man actively knows that what he is doing is wrong.  Yet he still routinely yields to those alien pleasures.  Aristotle's best explanation of this situation is derived from his concept of "proper pleasures," and the nature of "proper moral training".  What the genuinely-akratic incontinent man is lacking is the learned appreciation of the "proper pleasures" of temperance.  In the continent or self-controlled man, this learned appreciation of "proper pleasures" is sufficient to overcome the temptations of "alien pleasures".  For the genuinely-akratic incontinent man, it is not.  Hence the self-controlled continent man can overcome the urgings of his appetitive soul, while the genuinely-akratic incontinent man cannot.  The additional pleasures that can be had from the "proper pleasures" of temperate actions, the pleasures that are the subject of the appetites of the temperate man, are sufficient to outweigh the temptations of "evil pleasures" for the continent or self-controlled man, but not sufficient for the genuine akratic man. 

What separates the genuine-akratic from the temperate man, on this scale, is the fact that the temperate man's moral training has been sufficient (and sufficiently proper) to attune his appetitive soul with the "proper pleasures".  The virtuous man has been so trained that his appetitive soul does not "see" the pleasures to be had from alien pleasures.  So the virtuous man does not experience the conflicted urgings of his appetitive soul. 

The genuinely akratic incontinent man knows that following the dictates of his appetites is wrong, yet he follows them anyway.  He does so because he has not learned the positive proper pleasures of being temperate.  Not only does he not have the counter-balancing pull of the pleasures of temperance (or virtue) to outweigh the pleasures of being intemperate, his appetitive soul has not learned that the "pleasures" he perceives in the alien pleasures are not real.  He has not had sufficient moral training to recognize that the "alien pleasures" are no pleasures at all.

It is therefore the lack of adequate moral training of the appetitive part of the soul that generates the four kinds of moral character that Aristotle identifies.  To some extent, Aristotle follows Socrates (Plato) in maintaining that "no one knowingly does wrong".  But he departs from Plato both with his theory of the difference between "active"" and "passive" knowledge, and his theory that the appetitive soul's attraction to alien pleasures (when not properly trained) can overwhelm the rational soul's appreciation of the virtuous thing to do.


Aristotle, The Nicomachean Ethics, Translated and introduced by David Ross, revised by J.L. Ackrill and J.O. Urmson;  Oxford University Press, Oxford, England. 1980.  ISBN 0-19-283407-x

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