A PS to today's sententia

A Challenge and Alternative to the Socratic Denial of the Weakness of Will


In his Nichomachean Ethics (1145b), Aristotle rigorously scrutinises Socrates’ famous denial. He also refutes the watered down version, which states that those with knowledge, can act contrary to their better opinion, but not actual knowledge, as opinion is weaker than knowledge (tedious hair-splitting if you ask me). After dealing with several other theories about knowledge and weakness of will and finding them all wanting (actually, with good reason, his disarming of the Sophists’ argument is particularly neat), he asks the question again:


Do men knowingly do wrong? If they do, in what sense of knowing? Is he consciously acting

wrongly, or just not thinking carefully enough?

He then goes on to highlight the complexities of the power of the passions and drunkenness. A man would not exercise knowledge he has in the same way when under the influence of one of these. He later makes the point that animals cannot be called unrestrained as they do not have the reason required to form universal concepts.


Essentially, Aristotle concedes Socrates some ground. Knowledge is the key to battling lack of self-restraint, but where Aristotle qualifies Socrates is that certain factors can hamper or prevent its application all the time and, thus, some can go against their better judgement.


Another alternative view to Socrates is whether making the ‘wrong’ choice is for some people a conscious desire. He would argue this to be impossible. If human reason is what leads to the emergence of value such as gratitude and duty from a natural revulsion at those who lack them, then a recognition of values is a corollary of recognising behaviour that is unpalatable. Does not this imply the reason enables us not only to recognise the right from the wrong and choose either? This possible twist came to me after reading Polybius’ account (from book 6) of the developments of societies and their evolution from valuing leaders who provided physical protection to choosing those who safeguarded the values of gratitude and duty, key to the politeia and social relations for Polybius. I am not saying I necessarily agree with this, but Polybius I think offers a view that provided an interesting thinking point alongside Socrates’ argument. (Polybius, is admittedly, not dealing directly with issues of knowledge and morality, or even trying to refute Socrates - his comment just struck me as relevant).


Do we knowingly do wrong?


I throw the discussion open.

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