Incontinence (philosophy)

For other uses, see Incontinence (disambiguation).

Incontinence ("a want of continence or self-restraint") is often used by philosophers to translate the Greek term Akrasia (ἀκρασία). Used to refer to a lacking in moderation or self-control, especially related to sexual desire,[1] incontinence may also be called wantonness.


Aristotle devoted book VII of the Nicomachean Ethics to the discussion of continence and incontinence, having previously linked the latter both to prodigality in its effects, and to those dominated by irrational feeling in its failure to obey knowledge of the good:[2] a case of knowing virtue, but not having habituated it to control passion.

Aristotle considered one could be incontinent with respect to money or temper or glory, but that its core relation was to bodily enjoyment.[3] Its causes could be weakness of will, or an impetuous refusal to think.[4] At the same time, he did not consider it a vice, because it is not so much a product of moral choice, but instead, a failure to act on one's better knowledge.[5]

Later developments

For Augustine, incontinence was not so much a problem of knowledge (knowing but not acting) but of the will: he considered it a matter of everyday experience that men incontinently choose lesser over greater goods.[6]

In the structural division of Dante's Inferno, incontinence is the sin punished in the second through fifth circles.[7] The mutual incontinence of lust was for Dante the lightest of the deadly sins,[8] even if its lack of self-control would open the road to deeper layers of Hell.

Akrasia appeared later as a character in Spenser's The Faerie Queene, representing the incontinence of lust, followed in the next canto by a study of that of anger;[9] and as late as Jane Austen the sensibility of such figures as Marianne Dashwood would be treated as a form of (spiritual) incontinence.[10]

With the triumph of Romanticism, however, the incontinent choice of feeling over reason became increasingly valorised in Western culture.[11] Blake wrote that "those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained".[12] Encouraged by Rousseau, there was a rise of what Arnold J. Toynbee would describe as "an abandon (ακρατεια)...a state of mind in which antinomianism is accepted – consciously or unconsciously, in theory or in practice – as a substitute for creativeness".[13]

A peak of such acrasia was perhaps reached in the 1960s cult of letting it all hang out – of breakdown, acting out and emotional self-indulgence and drama.[14] Partly in reaction, the proponents of emotional intelligence would look back to Aristotle in the search for impulse control and delayed gratification[15] – to his dictum that "a person is called continent or incontinent according as his reason is or is not in control".[16]

See also


  1. – incontinence
  2. J. A. K. Thompson trans, The Ethics of Aristotle (1976) pp. 142, 66, and 89
  3. Thompson, p. 235-9
  4. Thompson, p. 244
  5. Thompson, p. 244-6
  6. Carl Mitcham, Thinking Through Technology (1994) p. 263-4
  7. Durling, Robert M.; Martinez, Ronald L. (1996). Inferno. The Divine Comedy of Dante Alighieri. 1. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 178. ISBN 9780195087444.
  8. Dante, p. 101-2
  9. Edmund Spenser, The Fairie Queen (1978) p. lxiv
  10. Claire Harman, Jane's Fame (2007) p. 126
  11. Mitcham, p. 265–56
  12. Quoted in M. H. Abrams, The Mirror and the Lamp (1971) p. 251
  13. Arnold J. Toynbee, A Study of History (1939) v5 p. 377 and p. 399
  14. Jenny Diski, The Sixties (2009) p. 120-1
  15. Daniel Goleman, Emotional Intelligence (1996) pp. 80–83 and p. xiv
  16. Thompson, p. 302

Further reading

External links

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