Aristotle and Self-Control

Self-control/self-discipline is the inner force that allows us to consistently work toward our goals in the face of temptations and distractions. Self-control is the ability to direct your actions toward your own chosen ends, despite experiencing interference from both outside and within you. To Aristotle, self-control involves such aspects as endurance, stubbornness, temperance, and virtuousness.

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Aristotle and Self-Control

Aristotle believed that temptations and distractions will always exist, but we need to be prepared to resist them with good habits.
We can find improvement in every situation by seeking the “golden mean”—perfect moderation.
We’ve looked at two important factors of human motivation in the previous chapters, namely a) our innate and malleable drive that Nietzsche called the will to power, and b) that pesky phenomenon called akrasia that threatens to derail our will to power and take us off the path that leads to our goals.
It’s a fundamental truth that any deliberate transformation requires energy and effort.
If we wish to change and develop as people, we need to move from where we are to where we want to be—and that means we have to push against the momentum that keeps us as we are, and pull toward what we want but doesn’t exist yet.
Improvement is seldom easy! When you are learning something new, working hard toward a goal, or trying to gain mastery over something, you need self- control to consistently steer you in the right direction.
Like a sailboat on the ocean, every gust of wind and wave threatens to push it off course, but it’s up to your self- discipline and control to steer it where you want it to go.
We already briefly discussed Aristotle’s view on self-discipline in a previous chapter.
For him, as it was for many of his contemporaries, rationality and willpower could be undermined by laziness, uncontrolled emotions, and poor judgment.
In the same way as a heavy object can be moved if one has strengthened their muscles adequately enough to lift it, Aristotle fundamentally believed that a sufficiently strong will could achieve other, more abstract goals.
Self-control as Aristotle defined it is not very different from what we mean by self- discipline: the ability to direct your actions toward your own ends and your own chosen course of action.
Now, it’s easy to stay on the right path when everything is going smoothly, but the real test of self- discipline is how it operates when temptations and distractions arise.
If you never have any temptations, there’s no need for self-control; likewise, if you haven’t bothered to set up any goals, you can’t really tell when you’re being tempted away from them.
No, self-control is necessary and inescapable for anyone who wants to be better than they currently are.
It’s not very different from the control we exhibit over the muscles of our body.
If we want to learn to dance, sing, manipulate delicate machinery, or play an instrument, we must master control over all the relevant bodily muscles and tendons until they behave according to our will.
In precisely the same way, our will itself is like a muscle that can grow either stronger or weaker according to the degree it is exercised.
Aristotle focused on different aspects of self-control—for example, the role of endurance, stubbornness, temperance, and virtuousness.
But whatever terms and concepts we use, there is an underlying concept of purposeful control of the self with the will to achieve one’s chosen ends, despite temptation and distraction.
Aristotle was concerned with “practical wisdom” and all the things necessary to live a life that was virtuous and ethical.
Aristotle believed that philosophy was about determining man’s true purpose, and set about outlining ways that people could use reason and rationality to live good lives.
He took pains to divide lack of self-control into different types.
For example, some temptations are actually necessary to life in moderate amounts, but could be overindulged in, such as food, money, or sex.
Failure to partake in these things modestly was a sign that someone placed too much importance in fleeting pleasure, and had an excess of things that were not bad in themselves, but could become problematic if taken to extremes.
The solution here would be to find a more appropriate way to enjoy these things without going too far.
On the other hand, certain distractions and pleasures are not necessary for life and can actually harm it—these are the things we typically form unhealthy addictions to, like smoking or alcohol.
Some “passions” are paradoxically not all that pleasurable and are bad for us on top of it.
For example, strange and bizarre obsessions, or mental disorders that cause behavior that isn’t necessarily enjoyed but can’t be resisted.
Aristotle also noted the special case of temptations driven by anger and rage rather than pleasure, although he seemed to think that this was less egregious than acting purely for pleasure’s sake.
Ultimately, however, Aristotle hails from a very particular cultural and historical context, and presents a view of human nature that in many ways is not applicable to our own modern personal development agenda.
While Aristotle tried to tease apart human motivations in what can be understood as a primitive psychology, you needn’t spend too long unravelling whether your distractions are due to vice, impetuosity, weakness of will, and so on.
Rather, there are at most two main ways that self-control can be lacking: 1) You never make a goal in the first place and allow irrational parts of yourself to dominate your reason and will, or 2) You make a goal but fail to stick to it because irrational parts of yourself have carried you away from the path you need to be on.
Either problem may be fixable to a greater or lesser degree depending on the goals in question and your own innate ability to summon your will with conviction.
You could spend a lot of time deliberating over how serious any one distraction is, how culpable you are for being steered off course, and who’s really to blame for you not having better self-control …
but none of this will significantly bring you any closer to where you want to be! What is most important is understanding that to achieve anything of value, you need to clarify your goals, strengthen your will so it focuses on the actions needed to achieve that goal, and persist with it.
No matter what.
Aristotle’s vision of human nature is somewhat old-fashioned, but in many ways, his attitude is a perfect antidote for some of our modern passivity, laziness, and avoidance.
How many of us use weak psychological excuses to justify bad behavior (“Oh, I just have commitment issues …”) or blame anyone but ourselves for our inaction? Aristotle had a surprisingly practical and no-nonsense view: if we want a good life, we have to work for it, and this takes practice, just like any other thing worth doing.
What Aristotle called “virtue” and “morality” and “ethics” we may call by different names today, but the underlying principles are not so different.
Aristotle recognized, hundreds of years ago, that self- discipline and control were unavoidable if we wanted to achieve mastery over ourselves and reach the goals we desired.
Let’s try to condense down some of Aristotle’s (considerable) writings and distil their essence so we can apply those principles to our modern lives.