Aristotle the Philosopher: Wisdom, prudence, and continence


THE ensuing discussion of intellectual virtue requires some remarks on the soul. We distinguish in the rational part, that which knows, concerned with the unchanging; and that which reasons, concerned with the changing. Our intellects and our propensions--not our sense-perceptions, which are shared with animals--guide our actions and our apprehension of truth. Attraction and repulsion, in correspondence with affirmation and denial, combine to form right choice; the practical--as opposed to the pure--reason having an external object and being a motive power.

There are five modes of attaining truth: (1) Concerning things unalterable, defined as demonstrative science; (2) concerning the making of things changeable, art; (3) concerning the doing--not making--of things changeable, prudence; (4) intuitive reason, the basis of demonstrative science; (5) wisdom, the union of intuitive reason and science.

Wisdom and prudence are the two virtues of the intellect. Wisdom implies intuitive reason, which grasps undemonstrable first principles; it is concerned with the interests not of the moment, the individual, or the locality. Whereas prudence is concerned precisely with these; it is essentially practical. Wisdom cannot be identified with statesmanship; which, again, is not the same as prudence--which applies to the self and to the family as well as to the State; it differs from wisdom as requiring experience.

Wisdom, knowledge of the ultimate bases, is equally without practical bearing for those who have acquired a right habit and for those who have not; just as a knowledge of medical theory is of no use to the average man. But being an activity of the soul, ipso facto, it conduces to happiness. The general conclusion is that what we have called 'prudence' shows the means to the end which the moral virtues aim at. It is not a moral virtue, but the moral virtues accord with it. Both are necessary to the achievement of goodness.

We come now to a second group of qualities, concerned with conduct. We have dealt with the virtues and their opposing vices. We pass by the infra-human and the supra-human bestiality and holiness; but have still to deal with continence and its contrasted qualities, which are concerned with the passions.

In the popular view, continence, self-control, is adherence to our formed judgement. Incontinence is yielding to passion where we know it to be wrong, and may be indulged in the pursuit of vengeance, honour, or gain.

A number of prima facie contradictions are started out of the popular views. We find that a man does not act against complete knowledge or knowledge of which he is fully conscious. The knowledge may, so to speak, be there, but is in abeyance, a condition which is palpably exemplified in a drunken man.

Now, incontinence is concerned with pleasures, which are necessary--as for sustenance of life--and unnecessary but, per se, desirable, as honour. Incontinence is a term applied only by analogy in the case of the latter; its proper concern--as with the moral vice, which we called intemperance--is with the former. It implies, however, violent desire, which intemperance does not. We have examples of such desires in a morbid or diseased form, species of mania; but here again the term incontinence is only applied by analogy. Its legitimate application, in short, is restricted to the normal.

Incontinence in respect of anger is not so bad as in respect of desire. It is often constitutional, it is in itself painful, and it is not wanton, being in all three points unlike the other. What we spoke of as bestiality is more horrible than vice or incontinence, as being inhuman; but it does less harm. Incontinence means transgressing the ordinary standards in respect of pleasure and pain. Such transgression, when of set purpose, and not followed by repentance--consequently, incurable--is the moral vice of intemperance; which, being characterised by the absence of violent desire, is worse than incontinence. The latter is open, and is curable. The confusion between the two is due to their issuing in like acts; the passionate impulse is temporary; it is not a formed habit of wrong choice.

Continence is acting on conviction in resistance to passion; not merely sticking to any and every opinion, which is really rather more like incontinence. The other extreme, of actual apathy, is rare. Continence differs from temperance, as implying resistance to strong desires; whereas temperance implies that such desires are not active. Prudence--but not the acuteness which is sometimes confused with prudence--is incompatible with incontinence, which is least curable when the outcome of weakness.

HERE it becomes necessary to make some inquiry as to pleasure and pain. Some maintain that pleasure is never good, some that it is partly good and partly not; some that it is good, but not the best. But it cannot be bad per se, since it may be defined as the unimpeded activity of a formed faculty. Pleasure, as such, is not a hindrance to any activity, but its fulfillment; e.g. the pleasure of speculative inquiry does not hinder it.

As a matter of fact, everyone does pursue pleasure; the denial that it is good results from thinking of it as meaning only bodily pleasures. And even they are not evil, but only the excessive pursuit of them. As to pleasure being fleeting, that is only because circumstances vary. The pleasure of the unchanging would be permanent.

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