Book 7, Chapters 1-3. Aristotle turns his discussion to conditions of character to be avoided—vice, incontinence, and bestiality. He focuses particularly on incontinence, which is the opposite of self-restraint. The condition of incontinence and the vice of intemperance aren’t quite the same things, he explains. The difference is that an intemperate person always thinks it’s right “to pursue the pleasant thing at hand,” whereas the incontinent person knows it’s wrong to pursue that thing, yet does so anyway.
Book VII focuses on impediments to virtue, not all of which are simply vices. Whereas someone who’s intemperate fails to act according to reason and so doesn’t recognize that they’re being self-indulgent, an incontinent person is able to deliberate and choose to act virtuously, yet fails to follow through because of insufficient self-restraint.
Book 7, Chapters 4-9. Continence and incontinence have to do with pleasures and pains. Aristotle explains that incontinence can’t be classified with “bestial” behaviors, which often result from disease, madness, or abuse. And unlike the viciously intemperate person, who’s incurable, the incontinent person is curable. The intemperate person doesn’t even recognize his or her vice, but the incontinent person recognizes and regrets their lack of restraint. Among incontinent people, those who impetuously give themselves over to desire are better than those who reason but don’t abide by their reason, since the latter deliberate and still act against their decision.
Aristotle continues to compare incontinence to other impediments to virtue. In many ways, incontinence isn’t as grave a condition as intemperance, since, again, an intemperate person doesn’t see the need for reform. Incontinence itself shows up in better and worse forms. The impetuous person, who doesn’t take the time to reason before indulging himself, is easier to deal with than the person who knowingly acts against a deliberate choice.
Book 7, Chapter 10. Aristotle adds that an incontinent person cannot be prudent at the same time, because prudent people act on their knowledge, but incontinent people don’t; they are more like someone who is asleep or drunk. Aristotle explains that “The incontinent person is like a city that votes for all the right decrees and has excellent laws, but does not apply them.” The person who doesn’t deliberate is easier to cure through habituation than the weak person who doesn’t stick to the results of their deliberation.
Aristotle closes his discussion of incontinence by comparing an incontinent person to a city that knows how it should govern itself, but doesn’t put that knowledge into practice. As usual, broader applications of individual virtue are never far from Aristotle’s thought. Habituation can reform an incontinent person, but this is actually far easier in the case of the person who doesn’t deliberate; unlike the one who neglects to stick to their decisions, an impetuous person can more readily learn to develop prudence.
Book 7, Chapters 11-12. Aristotle briefly discusses pleasure, which he says is important because virtues have to do with pain and pleasure, and most people associate pleasure with happiness. While some argue that pleasure is not a good at all, Aristotle argues that just because something might not be good without qualification, that doesn’t mean it isn’t good for certain people on certain occasions. Clearly, even the temperate person doesn’t avoid all pleasures.
Aristotle says that most people have a superficial understanding of pleasure. Some confuse pleasure with happiness. Others claim that pleasure is bad altogether. Aristotle argues for greater nuance—a qualified good is still a good.
Book 7, Chapter 13. Aristotle further argues that because pain is evidently bad, both in an unqualified sense and because it impedes other activities, we know that pleasure, its opposite, must be good. And if pleasure is bad, it doesn’t make sense to say that a happy person, who presumably enjoys pleasures, has a better life than anyone else.
Aristotle makes a few additional observations in favor of pleasure as a qualified good. For one thing, we wouldn’t see pain as such an evil if pleasure weren’t in some sense good.
Book 7, Chapter 14. Finally, while there are more types of pleasure than bodily pleasures, human beings seem to be especially drawn to bodily pleasures because our perishable nature is attracted to change. The gods, by contrast, don’t change; they enjoy one simple, unchanging pleasure.
It’s true that people seem to conflate all pleasures with bodily pleasures; this is because, unlike the gods, we have bodies, which change and experience sensations. Pleasure is uncomplicated for divine beings.