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The Path from Self-Restraint to Temperance and onto Happiness: A Reality or a Fallacy?

  •  Submitted: 4.04.06 


It is inhuman not to have desire.  As Aristotle says in Nicomachean Ethics, “People who fall short in things concerned with pleasures and delight in them less than one ought don’t turn up very often, for such insensitivity is not human” (1119a7-9)  We may not all desire the same things or to the same extent, but the uniting factor is we all have desire.  Now some desires may seem nobler than others, for desire for knowledge is set apart from bodily desires of touch and taste, but we thirst for understanding in the same way we thirst for drink.  It is a want, a craving, a yearning.  Is it possible to train one’s soul not to yearn for bodily desires?  We can fight a yearning, refuse to entertain the desire and push it out of our mind, but that does not ensure it will not come back again.  And what about a person whose bodily desires for food, drink, or sex are stronger than normal?  Are they doomed to live a miserable life of battle and strife or is it possible to make the choice to rebel against these desires instead of allowing them to overcome you?  Will a self-restrained life allow for happiness?   Aristotle purports that the only way for a person at odds with themselves to become happy is to move from self-restraint to temperance.  I not only question whether temperance is possible, but I also propose a conflicted person can become happy by knowingly making the choice to combat those bodily appetites.

As we go about determining if we can reach happiness through temperance, we must have a sense of the end we are looking toward.  Aristotle expresses happiness as “being-at-work in accord with virtue” (1177a12).  Being-at-work entails action.  Through being exposed to repeated opportunities to perform an action, we can begin to want to perform the action and seek out opportunities to do so without having them presented to us.  We begin to want to perform these virtuous actions because we understand that they in themselves are worthwhile; we call such a want a choice.  In order to be the happiest, we must choose these actions with our whole being.  Aristotle declares that “choice is either intellect fused with desire or desire fused with thinking” (1139b6-8).  The irrational part of our soul from which our appetites spring forth can control our reason or our reason can control our appetites.  It would seem best for our reason to control our appetites rather than the other way around, but there is an even better alternative; our soul being harmonious so our appetites are genuinely in line with our rational part and our whole soul is making the choice without any conflict.  This lack of conflict would lead to happiness because all actions would be in line with reason and therefore such actions would be most worthwhile and produce the most good.

Now that we have a goal in mind, I want to determine what it means to have a strong appetite in relation to Aristotle’s ideas of self-restraint and temperance in his Nicomachean Ethics.  Is a person with strong bodily desires able to be self-restrained as well?  Can a temperate person have strong bodily desires?  To determine these questions, let us examine the characteristics of a self-restrained person and those of a temperate person and observe how they correspond to our example of someone with a strong appetite for food and drink and things of a sexual nature.

Aristotle presents the self-restrained person as a mean between two unsatisfactory conditions; one condition in which a person will always deny their appetites and the other in which a person will never deny their appetites but instead allow them to be indulged.  Aristotle writes:

“But since it is also possible for there to be someone of a sort that enjoys bodily pleasures less than one ought, and who does not stand firm in a rational understanding, a self-restrained person is a mean between this sort of person and one who is unrestrained.  For the unrestrained person fails to stand firm in his understanding for something more, but this person does so for something less, while the self-restrained person stands firm and does not change for either reason.  And if self-restraint is something of serious worth, both of the opposite active conditions must be bad, as they obviously are” (1151b25-30).

An essential part of the self-restrained person is having base desires and appetites, for what else would one need to restrain one’s self from?   Aristotle describes these appetites as “something in the soul contrary to reason, which opposes it and stands in its way, though it makes no difference in what way it is distinct” (1102b24-26).  It is okay to possess these base desires as long as the self-restrained person recognizes them as such for “the self-restrained person, when he knows that his desires are base, does not follow them, on account of reason” (1145b14-16).  This assumes of course that appetites are a sort of passive feeling required to be acted upon and do not merely take control of one’s reason and force a person to follow them and nothing else.  I believe Aristotle supposes the former but allows for the latter, for he says “it is not to be wondered at if someone gives way to pleasures and or pains that are strong and excessive, but it is forgivable if he does so with resistance” (1150b7-9).  The person himself must actively choose how they will respond to an appetite using reason, but what does it mean if after making that conscious choice they are still unable to overcome the appetite?  Is that person unrestrained?  Aristotle portrays an unrestrained person as one who “does things on account of passion while knowing that they are base” (1145b 13-14).  He also says that “the unrestrained person does not believe that [he always ought to pursue pleasant things that are at hand] but still pursues it” (1146b24-26).  The unrestrained person knows he should be moderate and follow reason but is simply unable to do so.  What part of the person is pursuing these pleasures, the body or the reason in the soul?  There are some parts of the soul that cannot be controlled by self-restraint alone, and that is the limitation of trying to combat strong appetites with self-restraint.  For example, I know I should not eat that second brownie for many reasons – too much sugar is bad, I am already full, I could be eating something healthier, etc. – but it still goes into my mouth.  If such desires are occurring, there is some conflict within the soul.  A self-restrained person can reason that the strong appetite needs to be checked and can even check it most of the time, but as long as part of the soul is in conflict with that reason, Aristotle says the self-restrained person won’t be as happy as the temperate person. 

Who is this temperate person that is more preferable than a self-restrained person?    Aristotle outlines the temperate person as someone who

“is not pleased by the things that a dissipated person takes most pleasure in, but instead has disdain for them, and in general is not pleased by things one ought not to take pleasure in, and is not greatly pleased by anything of the sort, and feels neither pain nor desire when they are absent, or only moderately so, and not more than one ought or when one ought not, or anything at all of that sort.  But those things that are pleasant and lead to health and to being in good condition, the temperate person will desire moderately and in the way one ought, as he will desire the other pleasant things that are not impediments to health and good condition, and are not contrary to what is beautiful, and not beyond his resources…and [he] is one who loves them [pleasures] in the way right reason judges” (1119a13-21).

The temperate person does not have desires forced upon them from their unconscious such as appetites but chooses what they wish to desire.  If that is really true, the temperate person would be someone who is free from appetite because the entire soul is in harmony and therefore all of the desires are results of reason.  In the case of the temperate person, I would not even want the brownie from the previous example in the first place.   The temperate person, consequently, would be the happiest because of this lack of potentially harmful desires and harmony. 

How though does one become temperate?  One might be naturally temperate from birth, but that seems unlikely.  As Aristotle puts it, “But for what is greatest and most beautiful to be left to chance would be too discordant” (1099b26).  A person might have natural inclinations toward being temperate from birth but not actually be temperate; just as one might have a natural inclination toward being athletic but not know how to play the game of basketball.  Temperance needs to be developed over a period of time after having many opportunities to “practice” it.  Aristotle writes, “We do take on virtues by first being at work in them…we become just by doing things that are just, temperate by doing things that are temperate” (1103a31-31, 1103b1-2).  It is important to start acting according to temperance as soon as possible so that it will become ingrained in our character.  In fact, Aristotle warns that if you do not habituate a child from childhood, there is the possibility that desire will overwhelm and take over reason;

“For children too live in accordance with desire, and the desire for what is pleasant is greatest in them.  If, then, the desire will not be obedient and come under a ruler, it will have come to great strength, for in someone without understanding, the desire for pleasure is insatiable and comes from all sides, and the being-at-work of desire makes its innate strength grow; if desires are great and vehement they even knock the reasoning power out of commission.  Hence it is necessary for desires to be moderate and few, and not opposed to reason—such a condition as we call obedient and disciplined—and just as a child needs to live by the instructions of a tutor, so too is the desiring part of the soul related to reason” (1119b6-14). 

A child may not initially want to listen to their parents or a tutor – as they do not have the foresight to see how their actions will affect them or understand why it is sometimes necessary to delay gratification.  In fact, such discipline will more than likely cause pain in them because they have no concept of delayed gratification, and thus, to them, denying themselves of pleasure is painful.  But the pain is only momentary until they can begin to see the benefits of being temperate for themselves.   In effect, they have to progress from being restrained by others to temperance.  Aristotle says “Hence it is necessary to make our ways of being at work be of certain sorts, for our active states follow in accordance with the distinction among these.  It makes no small difference, then, to be habituated in this way or that straight from childhood, but an enormous difference, or rather all the difference” (1103b23-27).  If one is not habituated from childhood to be temperate, they are inadvertently being habituated to be spoiled.  Therefore, as an adult trying to become temperate, they are not starting from the neutral position where desires are present that everyone is born into, but instead must fight against a condition where their desires have been strengthened.

If one was not habituated from childhood to be temperate, that does not mean that it is never possible for them to attain temperance; but only that it will be much more difficult because they have become accustomed to giving in to their desires.  Such a person will first have to recognize that their desires are base and force themselves to not give in under any circumstances.  Now such restraint might not be possible for everyone, and in any case, it will most certainly cause pain before it gives way to pleasure, but restraining oneself is a viable solution.  A drug addict will go through excruciating pain, physically and mentally, when he quits for the first time, but eventually, if he is self-restrained and does not give in to his cravings, he will not struggle with the choice of whether or not to yield to that craving.  Just as the addiction was created, it can be destroyed and peace can come to a person because they are able to perceive how such a thing will harm them.

But what if there are some desires that are simply too powerful for one to control?  In society, it becomes necessary for one either to control their desires or be cast out.  Such a person might not be happy while having to control their desires if they are only self-restrained and not truly temperate, but the well being of the city is placed before the well being of the individual.  Ideally, citizens will become temperate through the use of laws.  However, such a kind of temperance is based on a negative reinforcement of penalty as the basis for choosing not to do something instead of a positive reinforcement of knowing what is best for one’s self as the motive to choose to do something.  Temperance created by law might not be able to be regarded as true temperance because of this difference in why the choice to do something was being made.  Nevertheless, Aristotle avows the role of the city in making one’s self temperate,

“Hence it is necessary to arrange for rearing and exercises by laws, since they will not be painful when they have become habitual.  And no doubt it is not enough for people to hit upon the right rearing and discipline when they are young, but also afterward, when they have reached adulthood, they must practice these things and habituate themselves, and we would need laws about these things as well and so, generally, about the whole of life; for most people are more obedient to compulsion than to argument, and are persuaded more by penalties than by what is beautiful” (1179b36, 1180a1-8).

 When all else fails, law is used to lead citizens to temperance, or at least to self-restraint.

Aristotle presents self-restraint as a means to temperance which is a necessary precursor to happiness.  I agree with Aristotle if, in fact, temperance is actually possible to achieve as he conjectures.  However, I have a hard time viewing appetites as something I have any control over.  Rather, I consider them to be something the irrational part of my mind creates independent of reason.  Aristotle says “the desiring part of a temperate person needs to be in harmony with reason, for the aim to which both look is the beautiful, and the temperate person desires what one ought, as one ought, when one ought, which is what reason also prescribes” (1119b14-16), but I am still skeptical of Aristotle’s view that the soul has the potential to be regarded as a whole where reason chooses the appetites.  I can see a temperate person purposely desiring things such as knowledge but only in addition to the bodily desires, not in place of them.  Appetites arise naturally in the same manner of feelings and emotion.  If someone’s son or daughter were to die, that person would inevitably feel grief and sadness.  Now they can decide how they are going to deal with that grief, but they cannot choose whether or not they feel grief in the first place.   I say that appetites act the same way; one cannot control the fact that one feels hunger.  A person can reason whether or not what they perceive as hunger is truly hunger or boredom and can decide whether or not to feed that hunger if they believe they truly are hungry, but cannot prevent that feeling of hunger.  A false sense of hunger can be created, but a real hunger cannot be destroyed, only deliberately ignored. 

Aristotle himself says,

“Now neither virtue nor vices are feelings, because we are not said to be of serious or trifling moral stature as a result of our feelings, but we are said to be so as a result of our virtues and vices, and because we are neither praised nor blamed as a result of our feelings (for one is not praised for being afraid or for being angry, nor is one blamed simply for being angry, but for being so in a certain way), but we are praised or blamed as a result of our virtues and vices.  Also, we are angry and frightened without choice, but the virtues are certain kinds of choices, or not present without choice” (1105b29-1106a4). 

If we are said to be virtuous in response to a feeling, not the feeling itself, is not our response more important than whether or not that desire is there in the first place?  Now while the temperate person may be able to not have these feelings of anger or desire for food or sex, Aristotle seems to be acknowledging that the virtue lies in making the choice to go against such a desire. 

            Thus, the question to be determined is whether a person is happier if such a choice is made knowingly, as when one fights against appetites, or when the choice never has to be made because the soul is whole, as in a temperate person whose appetites are decided by reason and whose entire soul acts according to that reason.  In a temperate person, the awareness of choice is absent.

It was determined by Aristotle that the happiest person would be the most harmonious, i.e., the most temperate.  I propose that one would be happier by having the satisfaction of struggling against appetites, but nevertheless choosing to act the right way while being aware of how difficult it was to choose to act the right way.  A similar idea is a person appreciating something more because they have been in the opposite situation as well, such as someone who appreciates freedom more because they know what it is to be oppressed.  Such a definition of happiness would still involve being able to reason, but would not have the criteria of not having appetites contrary to this reason.  The self-restrained person uses reason to choose whether or not to give in to appetites and then struggles against them, but the temperate person never has to struggle on a recurring basis.  But one needs to experience the pain of saying no to appetites in order to better understand the pleasure that will eventually come from their having denied their appetites.  The temperate person might initially experience pain as a self-restrained person as they are becoming temperate but once they become temperate, they no longer experience pain.  Nevertheless, being in a constant state of flux allows you to move from pain to pleasure and become happy.  If we were without this gauge of pain, it would be no different than having no pleasure at all, because there would be nothing directly to which we could compare it.  One might say that we have an image of that pain from when we were originally becoming temperate, but recalling an image is not the same as actively moving from one condition to another.    The temperate person does not get the satisfaction that comes from being aware that you have the power in yourself to choose to control appetites.

While Aristotle prescribed the soul as being whole and acting fully according to reason as being the way to happiness, I suggest that true happiness comes from being aware of the decisions we have made and knowing what we may have had to give up in the short run for the benefit of the long run.   It may be possible to condition oneself to act in certain ways to certain situations such as always acting in accordance with reason when appetites arise in one’s self, but I do not accept the notion that one’s soul can choose these appetites.  There are some desires that are simply beyond our control; the only influence we have is how we choose to respond to these desires.  Our concept of happiness has to change from Aristotle’s when we accept that we are never able to have complete jurisdiction over our entire souls.  Happiness is then to be found in the choice one makes to overcome appetite, for it is in making and knowing we have made that choice that we experience the ultimate happiness.