Akrasia

In the Aristotelian tradition, the soul is composed of three parts: the rational part, the sensitive part, and the nutritive part — each of which is responsible for a specific function. The vegetative part of the soul is responsible for growth, the taking in of nutrition, and reproduction. All living being’s, including plants, souls contain the nutritive part. Furthermore, the sensitive part of the soul is responsible for perception and emotional behavior. Animal’s souls and human’s souls both possess the sensitive part. Lastly, the rational part of the soul is responsible for the capacity to critically think and reason. Human being’s souls are the only souls that possess the rational part. A hierarchy exists among the three parts of the soul, with the rational being at the top and the vegetative part of the soul being at the bottom of the hierarchy. The main difference between the vegetative and the animal part of the soul is locomotion. The main difference between the rational and animal parts of the soul is the capacity to critically think/reason — which is a uniquely human characteristic. Meaning, what separates human beings from other animals is our rationality. This was the widely accepted view of the medieval world and because of this, many medieval thinkers tethered the notion of free will to the capacity to critically think. As a result, one can conclude that if an individual were not being rational due to an inability to control his or her emotions (the animal part of the soul), then he or she would not be fulfilling his or her natural function as a rational being. This ability to be rational is what gives humans their free will. Therefore, one can conclude that if left unchecked, an individual’s emotions are strong enough to compromise his or her free will. 

Aristotle discusses this phenomenon of the emotions overtaking the rational individual in Book VII of the Nicomachean Ethics. According to Aristotle, when this phenomenon occurs, it is due to a ‘weakness of will’, or akrasia. Aristotle distinguishes two different types of akrasia. The first type occurs when akrasia is a matter of a person’s personality. This occurs when we say that an individual is akratic, in general, not just in a few isolated occurrences. According to Aristotle, this type of behavior is typically found in immoral people. Furthermore, the second type of akrasia, according to Aristotle, occurs when a person who is usually self-controlled gives in to his or her emotions. In this scenario, the individual is not akratic all of the time; rather, he or she is just akratic in this particular occasion. These are the two models of akrasia that are described in the Aristotelian tradition. Furthermore, a later development by St. Augustine in the medieval period provided a third model of akrasia to go along with the two traditional Aristotelian models. According to the Augustinian model, all human actions are done by choice; there is no difference between an akratic individual and an immoral person. Augustine stated there is no difference between the sin of the ‘wicked’ man and the sin of the ‘akratic’ man. This shows that Augustine placed a great importance upon the moral responsibility of each individual Moreover, the underlying theme of akrasia is the eternal conflict between the passionate, emotional part of the soul and the rational part of the soul – in other words, the animal and rational parts of the soul. The question that naturally follows is whether the rational part or the animal part is in control of the individual. When the animal part is in control, the individual is not exercising his or her free will as a rational being. This is the main theme behind akrasia.

Socrates put forth the first argument denying the existence of akrasia. This proposition was introduced in Plato’s Protagoras, when Socrates states: “No one freely [does] bad things or things he believes to be bad; it’s not . . . in human nature to be prepared to go for what you think to be bad in preference to what is good” (358c6-d4). This shows that Socrates held the view that moral weakness is not possible to the knowledgeable individual. According to Socrates, human beings only act with subjectively, good intentions. Meaning, every individual acts with the intent that his or her action will ultimately bring about a greater good for his or herself. Even if this individual performs a bad action, or has a momentary lapse of judgment and lets his or her feelings get the better of themselves, he or she is doing said action with the intent that more good than bad will result from it. Thus, for Socrates, weakness of the will, or akrasia, is not possible because one cannot knowingly pursue an illrational outcome.

A response to Socrates’ objection to the existence of akrasia is given by Aristotle, who proposes a way of understanding how akrasia can occur, even to the most rational of individuals, in the terms of a practical syllogism. In a practical syllogism, like a theoretical syllogism, the major premise is a universal and the minor premise is a particular. In Weakness of the Will in Medieval Thought, by Risto Saarinen, the practical syllogism is described as:

“In a practical syllogism the major premise indicates that something ought to be done or avoided; so it is a ‘maxim of prudence.’ The minor premise is a factual premise which informs the person whether the particular relevant facts fall under the general rule of the major premise. The conclusion of the practical syllogism is the action itself. For example, if the major premise says ‘everything sweet ought to be tasted’ and the minor premise states ‘this is sweet’, the person concerned immediately tastes the food or substance that is in question.”

Aristotle’s doctrine of the practical syllogism is a way for an individual to make decisions on how he or she should act. According to Aristotle, when akrasia occurs, an individual has knowledge of the universal premise, but can still get the particular premise wrong. For instance, in the example from the quote above, an individual could grasp the universal premise that says ‘everything sweet ought to be tasted’, but not grasp the minor premise that says ‘this is sweet.’ As a result of not properly grasping the minor premise, the individual in this scenario would make the mistake of not trying the food or substance that is in question.

Albert the Great further elaborates upon Aristotle’s response to Socrates. Albert did not agree with the idea of universal knowledge put forth in Aristotle’s practical syllogism. Albert realized that the universal knowledge Aristotle was speaking of was neither absolute nor certain; it was based on probabilities. For example, using the universal premise of the practical syllogism above that states ‘everything sweet ought to be tasted’ implies that individuals ought to try anything that is sweet. But, poisons, such as arsenic, are sweet and should never be tasted because they are poisonous and will probably kill whoever tastes them. This serves to show that universal premises cannot exist, or, at least can never be properly grasped if they do exist. As a result of this realization, Albert used the term ‘cognition’, because cognition is related to perceptual knowledge (which leaves room for error), rather than demonstrative knowledge (which is absolute, leaving no room for error). Furthermore, Albert concludes that it is possible to act against the cognition, if the knowledge reached through it in some sense remains uncertain or imperfect. This shows how and why akrasia can limit human freedom: human being’s cognition is neither absolute nor universal; as a result, humans are forced to rely upon probabilities. As a result of being forced to rely upon probabilities, humans are prone to error, or akrasia. According to Albert the Great, akrasia is possible when human beings do not grasp Aristotle’s practical syllogism and/or the syllogism is not being properly used.

Thomas Aquinas does not take one clear position on the issue of akrasia limiting human freedom. Thomas Aquinas states an argument for each position stated thus far in this essay. For instance, on one occasion, Aquinas states that an akratic person comes to exist because he or she is not asserting the minor premise of Aristotle’s practical syllogism – a sentiment that echoes Albert the Great’s. Also, on another occasion, Aquinas also asserts that in some way an akratic individual makes the mental choice to perform a sinful action. This latter assertion also serves as a direct refutation of the argument Socrates put forth, which claims that no individual willingly performs a bad action. Thomas Aquinas opposes Socrates argument by saying that the akratic individual willfully engages in sinful action. Moreover, even though Thomas Aquinas’ position on akrasia seems to be ambiguous, the general consensus, as pointed out by Douglas Langston, seems to be that Aquinas believed that “the akratic person is lacking in synesis. The akratic person cannot judge particulars correctly, and this perceptual ignorance is caused by lack of training. His untrained mind can thus be overcome by passion. In this way the akratic person can be said to be lacking in synesis.( This shows that, to Aquinas, akratic behavior is caused by one’s lack of good judgment. A lack of good judgment implies the inability to reason. An individual’s inability to reason means he or she is not fulfilling his or her natural function as a rational being. Therefore, this individual is not acting in accordance with the Aristotelian notion of free will. Again, showing that akratic behavior is powerful enough to override human freedom, regardless of what is causing that akratic behavior.

Human being’s actions are governed by their intent to do something. Ideally, according to the Aristotelian tradition, human beings are governed by their reason/rationality. The problem is, though, that people are not perfect. No matter how self-controlled an individual is, he or she is still prone to error – prone to his or her emotions and/or natural reflexes. An emotion can affect the intellect in a way that it causes people to act against their better judgment. Also, an emotion can be powerful enough to trigger bodily movement devoid of an intellectual command – in other words, a natural reflex. For instance, if an individual accidently puts his or her hand onto a hot stove, he or she will immediately take his or her hand off the stove without thinking. This individual does not take the time to process the situation, assess the pain he or she is experiencing, and then decide to remove his or her hand – this individual acts without thinking. In this circumstance, the intellectual field is narrowed and confined to the animal part of the soul, which causes a natural reflexive action – the removing of the hand from the stove. This is one example where akrasia can take place, by forcing a human to act devoid of intellectual stimulus or an intellectual command to do said act. Furthermore, there are individuals that can not/will never fulfill their natural function as a rational animal because they are mentally ill. Thus, according to the Aristotelian tradition, a mentally ill individual will never be able to act according to his or her own free will, because said individual is incapable of being rational. A mentally ill individuals intellect will be confined to the animal part of the soul, without fully realizing the rational part.

Since the days of Ancient Greece, the notion of free will has been intertwined with the uniquely human characteristic of rationality. The major flaw in this assumption is not giving the power of the emotions their proper respect. Many occurrences in everyday life serve as a reminder of the awe-inspiring power of human emotion. Love, fear, pain, and happiness, among other human emotions, are some of the main driving forces of human behavior. For example, often times we find ourselves attracted to another individual to whom we know that we should not be attracted. Often times, human beings hesitate to try something new because of a fear of failure or a fear of the unknown, even if it goes against our better reason/judgment – the very definition of a phobia is an illrational fear. Lastly, human beings often act against their better judgment in an attempt to find happiness. These are just a few everyday examples of how emotions are strong enough to limit the rational part of the soul. In conclusion, given the typical medieval way of distinguishing the rational and animal part of the soul with respect to the Aristotelian tradition, the examples in everyday life that were just mentioned, the fact that they are no universal premises, or at least, if there were, humans would be incapable of grasping them, as pointed out by Albert the Great, and given the fact some individuals lack synesis, or good judgment, as pointed out by Thomas Aquinas, one can conclude that the emotions are strong enough to limit human freedom.

Works Cited

Saarinen, Risto. “Weakness of the Will in Medieval Thought.” Google Books. N.p., 1994. Web. 07 Mar. 2016.

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