Aristotelian “Weakness of Will”


It is sometimes said that Aristotle’s answer to weakness of will is building good habits. Socrates said that to know the good is to do the good. Aristotle objected that people might fail to do the good simply out of weakness of will (laziness, cowardice, etc.). Building good habits, says Aristotle is the key to overcoming weakness of will.  But I wonder if building good habits really is a prescription that works.
Imagine a couch potato who doesn’t have a very strong will. Suppose the couch potato knows that he ought to get off the couch and that its in his best interest to do so. Presumably, Aristotle would advise such a person to start building good habits in order to overcome the problem. He might start by getting up early, turning off the television, creating a schedule and working with a day planner, etc. He might even get off the couch and exercise in his living room. Over time, these habits would become more and more a part of his routine and over time he would become more productive.
But there is what Quine would call “an air of circularity” about this: doesn’t he need more strength of will to start a day planner and exercise and get up early in the first place? If the problem was weakness of will to begin with, won’t that become an obstacle to developing good habits? In short, Aristotle seems to be assuming the the solution to the problem lies in the premises that were introduced to solve it.
How then do you deal with weakness of will itself? Is there any one prescription that actually would work as the core to any w.o.w. problem? We could try pressing further with Aristotle’s solution: perhaps one could engage in will-building exercises. Perhaps one could chart one’s progress in incremental steps. Something tells me this wouldn’t get very far with an entrenched couch potato. But is Aristotle nevertheless right?

17 thoughts on “Aristotelian “Weakness of Will”

  1. I admit to not being much of a fan of Plato, nor Socrates. But I do think Aristotle was onto something real. I personally have worked my entire life to craft my will (my willfulness?) into something strong and adamantine so that it does not fail me in the depths of life.

    Of course, there are other reasons that lack of knowledge for not doing “good” — much less exalted sounding reasons, like greed, intemperance, hatred. I’m not sure what the “cure” to that sort of thing would be.

  2. My immediate inclination is to say that problems of will are often rooted in problems of alienation. When someone feels estranged from society, from friends, even from the world as a whole, a feeling of pointlessness and purposelessness often follows. On the other hand, connecting is often a catalyst for finding purpose and motivation. In short, weakness of will might in many cases be related to isolation or alienation of some kind. Connecting to something beyond oneself, whether a person, an idea or a movement, might be a good way to get the ball rolling.

  3. It feels like whenever a person has a purpose which is fully nourishing the will is therefore strengthened, making the idea of blanking out on the sofa comparable to that of living in a locked away castle overlooking the sea but never able to cleanse oneself with its healing waters.

      1. My apologies: when it comes up on my dashboard it reads “polldaddy” with a link. But I see that it does not show up on the actual site. Please disregard and thanks for your comments.

  4. i would question the premise of couch potato as a weakness of will. in many ways, could be deemed a strength of will to oppose conventional wisdom regarding activity. plus one assumption is always made: we are all after the same prize. no i would say that human beings will undermine themselves when something seems not quite right with the directives. and that wrongness might simply be a need to discover for oneself an optimum state or stasis. not everyone is born to be a follower, and despondency can be a natural reaction to limited choices and predictive outcomes.

    1. An Aristotelian response to the reason why it might be important to talk about weakness of will might run like this: virtue is the core of ethics. One does not develop a virtuous character simply by accident although one might accidently do virtuous things without a virtuous character. Having a virtuous character has an important social value because it is ultimately virtue that sustains the good in a good a society. Consider a soldier in war. A soldier might be either cowardly or courageous. If cowardly, we might lose the war; if courageous, we might win it. If a scholar has scholarly virtues, scholarship may advance; if not, perhaps it wont. Moreover, we, as members of a society, owe something to society. We must work for the greater good of society and not just for our personal pleasure (it may be more pleasant not to face the enemy in war, for example). I think you are right to think that it assigns blame and finds fault. It is a warrior kind of ethos. Being cowardly or miserly or dishonest or unscrupulous are all considered vices by Aristotle if they are actual character traits and not just one-off events. Moreover, it does seem to me that Aristotle puts the responsibility on the individual to overcome whatever forces there may be against their becoming virtuous rather than vicious. I suppose the question must be whether he is right about that. In other words, isn’t there a point at which society leaves off its responsibility for shaping an individual and individual will and individual responsibilty must take the reigns? But perhaps you are saying that assigning blame a clinical context is not helpful. But then I wonder, is Aristotle not right in calling individual vices what they are?

      1. well, you’re looking at traditional versus current. the whole dynamic of definition via opposite is house of cards. if you want to be virtuous, you must not be non virtuous. and then the definitions of what constitutes not virtuous are given. and one must assume, that within the course of our history, that what has been given is geared to profit the few at the top, rather than the many at the bottom. so i look at the dictates within that light. i don’t think you can divorce them from it. there is a reason “couch potato” became a household word, and perhaps there is a type of corrective mechanism for societal push, industriousness… that does not need the the tight strictures of direction within a course of what is and is not virtuous. cowardice and courage, where the innocent are always courageous? send the babes to war.

        duty to society…. that is the larger question. and that itself is all colored with our monetary system within designations of “owe.” because i see a man with a new arm, with how much in monetary resources to fix one man’s arm, when that same cost could fund how many college educations? but that’s not how economics work. and not a single human being owes its collective an ounce of effort. but the collective owes the individual a reasoning or need for effort. and that is then given a value (of the person, they are valued) and that is dependent upon that person’s virtue that only occurs once they are already making themselves valuable through effort.

        is a merry go round. once you’re on, you’re on. once you’re off, you’re off. now in the past, public shaming, was an integral part of keeping men on that merry go round. and it still goes on, with the shaming of the homeless. no-counts. but society did not value them first. and that’s what i’m looking at.

        virtue is a one size fits all, where it actually does. my personal belief on what constitutes virtue, is the personal virtue i will work to fulfill. what is rebellion?

        can a man simply be born bad? how do we know our virtuous action is actually the correct action? maybe the correct action is to NOT help the elderly cross the street. therefore, it is imperative to allow the individual the freedom to determine their own idea of necessary action, and by this way create the natural actions (dictates?) that are more beneficial to all. it’s like taking a vote on morality.

        what is laziness? really. lack of motivation? or is it a physical halt of function? mind over matter, the mental whip. or is there any such thing as laziness. definition is men or women that don’t work hard. but that is perspective to the person working hard. the one lying about looks “lazy.” it is a relative state. therefore laziness is not an absolute, to attach to a universal condemnation. you go to mexico at high noon, you will think they are all lazy bums….. they don’t see themselves as lazy, because they are all taking a break at the same time.

        so what is it that makes a valuable citizen? what is duty, what is tribute or tax. all ties in to how the individual sees themselves in relationship to how they are perceived by others.

        the reason i know the “virtuous” system is false, is because women have virtue if they are beautiful, and given that status for beauty alone, minus actions. it’s interesting. but there is no doubt it is false, since has differing sets of strictures for differing types of individuals. and i quite frankly am tired of the world of man determining how virtuous i am as a human being according to what type of high heals i wear. and i’m pretty sure most men are fed up with the perception that a man in a suit is automatically more virtuous. i’m in lds country, and they play on that hard.

        so in conclusion, i believe that if anyone is deciding that not enough people in their community are working hard enough, they should go work with those that are donating their time rather than being paid. because why? is it a paycheck that spells value?

        self esteem versus community esteem. am i myself a virtuous person? no. because if i were, i would have shut up, and said yes of course, you are right. or some gracious platitude. but for me, my personal version of virtue, is i speak my mind even if it makes me look like an idiot. because you don’t get a second chance.

        what is rebellion? i’ve watched it. what is a mule. what is a whip. the assumption that is made, is that more work by all equals better living for all. is that true? is that true?

        how are we even defining work? i think man must see his place in the world as something flexible.

        if the problem is too many people are too lazy these days, i would look at the chain of causality before deciding a good shaming is the answer. that’s all.

        i have seen the livid hatred from males against those they believe are not working their fair share. and it’s the ones with the livid hatred that i think have bigger problems.

  5. Thought provoking. From my own experience and I am as far from a couch potato as it is possible to be, unless it’s after leg day and then I’m mostly horizontal for at least 2 hours. Possibly gritted teeth, determination and a whole heap of spunk because sometimes, we just have to give it a go. This morning was the perfect example; at 5.45, I did not wish to be exercising at 8am but I did and it was awesome and afterwards, I remembered why I did it all in the first place. Bit of a chicken n egg thing going on though.

    1. Yeah-it could be that Aristotle is right and that there is nothing prior to the will to get the will going. It has to start with an act of will in that case. Is difficult to come up with a simple solution.

  6. balance of what is good for the self versus what is good for others. the will to be good to the self. if you feel better after doing something, why isn’t there a natural push to do it? i don’t know. some call it demons trying to keep you from doing what is good for you. but might be a simple aversion to ritual?

    i think the biggest obstacle to happiness is believing our decisions are so very very important. that they must be something everyone can do with the same results

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s