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Transitory Vice: Thomas Aquinas on Incontinence BONNIE KENT Akrasia, incontinence, moral weakness, unrestraint, weakness of will: there are at least as many names for succumbing to temptation as there are theories about what the agent must be thinking when he caves in. This study presents the views of Aquinas, both as a philosopher and as an interpreter of Aristotle's teachings. In both capacities Thomas spoke of incontinentia, and for that reason we shall call our topic incontinence. Should this term be less familiar to readers than Aristotle's akrasia, so much the better. It may serve as a reminder that Thomas not only wrote in Latin but also read Aristotle in Latin translation. Some peculiarities of the Latin Aristotle will be discussed below. Here we must consider the historical Aristotle, who presents puzzles of his own. 1. Aristotle's treatment of incontinence has produced such a storm in the secondary literature that one must now look quite closely to find areas of accord.' There are, I believe, at least two of them. All scholars agree (~) that the incontinent does not choose the act he performs, and (2) that he does not believe his act to be good. Both points are firmly established by the text of the Nicomachean Ethics. Aristotle says explicitly that the incontinent acts contrary to I am indebted to John Wippel for his helpful comments on a draft of this study, to Peter Simpson for his suggestions on organization, and to Richard Patterson for his comments on a related chapter of my dissertation. ' Several interesting articles that discuss akrasia are published in Amelie O. Rorty, ed., Essays on Aristotle'sEthics (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980). See especially M. F. Burnyeat, "Aristotle on Learning to Be Good," 69-92; David Wiggins, "Weakness of Will, Commensurability , and the Objects of Deliberation and Desire," 241-65; A. O. Rorty, "Akrasia and Pleasure: Nicomachean Ethics Book 7," 267-84; Julia Annas, "Aristotle on Pleasure and Goodness," 285-99. See also James J. Waish, Aristotle's Conception of Moral Weakness (New York: Columbia University Press, 1963) and Norman O. Dahl, Practical Reason, Aristotle, and Weakness of Will (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984). [199] 200 JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF PHILOSOPHY 27:2 APRIL t98 9 his choice (prohairesis). ~ Exactly what Aristotle means by this is one question his interpreters try to answer. Aristotle also makes it clear that the incontinent acts without any false sense of moral conviction. The incontinent does not believe that he ought to act as he does.a The second point is probably implied by the first. Aristotle describes choice as the desire to do what reason asserts to be good. Since the incontinent acts contrary to his choice, he cannot be acting as he believes he ought to act.4 The usual explanation is that the incontinent suffers from a temporary but culpable ignorance. He fails to see how the sound moral principle that he holds applies to the situation in which he finds himself. An alternative explanation is that the incontinent does see how the principle applies, but appetite (epithumia ) leads him to act contrary to his knowledge.5 On either interpretation, the incontinent does not believe that his action is good. At most he fails to recognize that it is bad. How does someone come to act contrary to his principles? To answer the question, we first need an account of how someone acts in accordance with his principles. And this brings us to Aristotle's remarks on the practical syllogism, i.e., the steps in reasoning that go to explain an action. What follows is my attempt at a brief and uncontroversial exposition of some enormously controversial passages. The aim here is not to offer new insights into Aristotle, but merely to provide a basis for comparison with Thomas's teachings. The major premise of a practical syllogism is described as a universal opinion about what is good or what is to be done. (Scholars usually speak of it as a rule or principle for action.) The minor premise, which is derived from sense perception, relates the universal to one's particular situation. When the two premises are combined and desire...


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