Aristotle’s Negligence of Irrationality

What does it mean to say “I feel like not controlling myself”? This statement’s content is ambiguous: it reflects rationality based on irrationality (agreeing on the as-sumption that feeling is irrational and thinking, rational). In the article Why Does Will-power Often Seem to Fail Us, Just When We Need it Most?, Maia Szalavitz presents three perspectives on human willpower: 1) “willpower is a finite resource” which is grad-ually depleted 2) capacity of willpower depends on one’s mindset: finite if believed to be finite and infinite if believed to be infinite 3) willpower is “analogous to physical tired-ness” although partially influenced by the mindset.

The statement “feeling like controlling oneself” is inherently dualistic. Rationality and irrationality, or simply put, reason and emotion, are closely interlocked to each other. To unpack and analyze the obscure statement one must take the “physical”, “irrational”, and “involuntary” notionsthat are easily neglected by Aristotle. In support of the third perspective- namely, that willpower is “analogous to physi-cal tiredness”- Michael Inzlicht claims that “people just don’t feel like controlling them-selves anymore.” The phrase “[to] feel like” is universally understood as an emotional, whim or impulse that does not depend on human reason.

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Careful and rational delibera-tion is not a prerequisite. For example, just as someone feels like sleeping in on Sunday or feels like taking a break, “feeling like doing something” is not contingent on rationality. People tend to not ponder over or give reasonable grounds or justifications to “feel like -“. The verb “to feel” mainly concerns emotions and certain desires: informally speaking, the sensation is equivalent to a so-called “gut feeling”. Once the action of “controlling oneself” is added to the equation, the phrase becomes ambiguous. Technically speak-ing, the statement presented earlier – “I feel like not controlling myself” – is equivalent to “I feel like not controlling my willpower”; and willpower is, without a doubt, a rational ac-tivity.

The attribute of self-control is not an unfamiliar topic in Aristotle’s works. In his discourse on virtue in Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle categorizes the human soul into two parts -rational and irrational. He points out that the teleology (or ultimate purpose) of humans is to exercise the rational part of the soul and reach an intermediate state of character according to virtue (Nicomachean Ethics, 1098a1-7). The appetitive part of the soul is seen to share a rational element directly controlled by the rational soul: logon echion. Self-control or control of willpower is hence the activity of the rational soul. The question presents itself as the following: is the feeling of (not) controlling oneself rational or irra-tional? Through the perspective of Aristotle, the seemingly irrational activity of “feeling like not controlling oneself” is in fact a “deliberate” choice based on rationality.

Inzlicht makes a distinction between potentiality and actuality, synonymous to dunamis and en-ergeia in Aristotelian philosophy (Cohen): “It’s not that they can’t, but they just don’t feel like it”. When one ruminates over the potential options and finally decides to act in a cer-tain manner, this decision and according action are both reached rationally. As noted by Aristotle, individuals deliberate about possible affairs which lie within one’s power of control. As a deliberate choice, “feeling like not controlling oneself” is indubitably a ra-tional one. However, according to Szalavitz in her article as to how one ends up “feeling like not controlling oneself,” the rational aspect of the statement ironically loses its legitima-cy. There grounds for deciding to not control oneself is two-folded: “need” for and “want” of, for instance, a break.

The need is further explicated through the analogy of a mara-thon. Dr. Roy Baumeister, a professor at Florida State University, points out how we cannot completely ignore “physical tiredness…

[although it] can help you continue to perform well… at some point, it really does catch up with you.” In other words, when physically depleted as a result of overly controlling oneself, one needs a break. Baumeister emphasizes the necessity of pacing oneself in practicing self-control to avoid physical weariness too early in the race, metaphorically and generally speaking.

This physical depletion of energy is an aspect incomparably more closely related to the body rather than the mind. For example, when someone spends two consecutive nights conjuring a philosophy paper, due to the failure to pace oneself academically and physi-cally, one will inevitably fall asleep on an unfinished paper. Physical depletion, simply put, is not a subject that can be completely dismissed regarding willpower. Another motivation behind the unwillingness to control one’s willpower is “feel[ing] like [one] deserves a reward” after having exercised a large extent of self-control. This sense of wanting a reward or a break “looks like [physical] depletion.

.. [but] [is] actually shifts in motivation and attention”, as argued by researchers at the Universi-ty of Toronto. This aspect echoes in Aristotle’s discourse on the appetitive element of the irrational soul (Nic Ethics, 1102b13-36). A desire for respite from mentally draining self-control is seen as a purely selfish desire.

The appetite for relaxation originates as a justified reward. Nonetheless, it is confusing as to whether this appetite is rational or ir-rational. Although commonly understood as an irrational desire, the thought process through which one justifies a break or a reward is a rational one. After having accom-plished X, running a marathon for instance, one reasonably expects a break from X to do Y, take a break. This justification for a break, in other words, is a conclusion rational-ly reached.

Can desires be rational and irrational? This question is indubitably related to the statement posed in the beginning of this essay: how can one unpack and under-stand a rational action that is dependent on irrational elements? The dilemma can be explained by a rather specific sphere of “involuntary action” Aristotle does not touch upon in his works. Aristotle defines voluntary actions to take place not by force or with the knowledge of the circumstances on the one hand; involun-tary actions, on the other hand, are taken out of reason of ignorance (Nic Eth-ics,1109b30-1110a3). The borderline between voluntary and involuntary actions is where the moving principle, arch?, lies. For an action to be categorized as involuntary, Aristotle argues that the arch? must “be outside, being a principle in which nothing is contributed by the person who acts (Nic Ethics,1110a36-8)”. The problem with willpower is that it contains elements that are both voluntary and involuntary. The rational aspect of voluntarily – not controlling oneself – and the irrational aspect – forcibly feeling like not engaging oneself in self-restraint – both lie in the agent.

For such problematic cases, Ar-istotle does provide readers with examples where voluntary and involuntary aspects co-exist. An exemplary case is presented in Nicomachean Ethics: a seaman “throws goods away voluntarily, but on the condition of its securing the safety of himself and his crew (Nic Ethics, 1110a8-13)”.This example is not ambiguous since the agent is intentionally acting in an irrational way, i.e. throwing away goods.

For cases regarding willpower, it is not as simple as the example of the seaman. Aristotle’s concept of involuntary action is limited to a certain degree in that it deals only with what originates from the mind and experience. He does not asses bodily necessities or impulses that are inherently physi-cal. He neglects the role irrational, physical elements play in an individual’s achievement of eudaimonia. All motivations, according to Aristotle, can be derived from the mind. Eu-daimonia is achieved through acting in relation to virtue which is a state of character.

This is only to be achieved through the mind, not the body: “by human virtue we mean not that of a body but that of the soul; and happiness also we call an activity of soul (Nic Ethics, 1102a15-7)”. The final question that can be addressed is: how should physical, irrational ele-ments be treated and taken into consideration in one’s journey in reaching eudaimonia? In fact, a possible answer is indirectly presented by Aristotle when he discusses the conditions one must have in order to be a virtuous person. The three conditions are the following: 1) knowledge 2) choosing of acts for their own sakes and 3) action proceeding from a firm, unchangeable character (Nic Ethics, 1105a31-4). Unlike Plato, Aristotle does not prioritize knowledge above all: “as a condition of the possession of the virtues knowledge has little or no weight (Nic Ethics, 1105b1-2)”. He argues that knowledge alone cannot lead an individual to virtue. Knowledge is, simply put, necessary but not sufficient.

The same applies for bodily, irrational aspects. As shown in the article, alt-hough the matter of an individual’s belief in willpower does have an influence on its ca-pacity, the aspect of physical tiredness cannot be completely neglected. The “need” and “want” that lead an individual to “feel like not controlling oneself”, although irrational, should not be ignored. Physical conditions, necessary but not sufficient, play a crucial role in one’s achievement of eudaimonia. They are unavoidable and necessary ele-ments in an individual and should not be ignored but well-tamed and taken into consid-eration in one’s path towards happiness: eudaimonia. Bibliography Aristotle.

Nicomachean Ethics. Trans. David Ross. New York: Oxford’s University Press, 2009. Print. Cohen, S.

Marc, “Aristotle’s Metaphysics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2012 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = . Szalavitz, Maia. “Improving Willpower: How to Keep Self-Control from Flagging.” Time Healthland, 19 Sep.

2012. Web. 8 Oct. 2012.