Throughout his philosophical career, Aristotle emphasized the importance of the fundamental elements that play a role in the way we navigate our lives and moral ability. He observes two key components that define the degree of one’s moral compass; one being virtue, and the other, continence. In Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle establishes and distinguishes these concepts by considering developed habits, one’s inner drive and values that dictate their actions, and how one has the ability to mindfully assess and reflect upon what one truly desires. Because of this, we are able to understand the difference between whether or not an individual is performing an action for the sake of others or for the sake of moral good. In this essay, it will be argued that Aristotle’s evaluation and distinguishment between continence and virtue is one that is defined by the ability of habitual development and is vital to understanding true morality, through how each principle dictates action.
Aristotle first defines virtue as the internal desire to do the right thing, with a genuine and moral passion for it. Aristotle defines ethical virtue as necessary to behave in the correct manner and as a mean between extremes of deficiency and excess, which are considered vices. We begin to understand moral virtue primarily through habit and practice rather than through reasoning and instruction. Aristotle examines and supports this notion by stating that, “And so the virtues arise in us neither by nature nor against nature. Rather, we are by nature able to acquire them, and we are completed through habit.” (II, 1, 1103a24). Furthermore, it becomes known that the virtuous man is not one who struggles with moral actions; his emotions and reason are aligned and there is no internal conflict to act morally correct. Holding virtue is a state, not an inclination or potential, it is the awareness of reality intertwined with both emotion and ration, developed by habit. A virtuous man is aware of what is right, chooses to act virtuously, and refrains from ‘contrary desires’.
Aristotle introduces the concept of continence as doing the right thing because of external factors, and therefore lacking the passion for the virtuous action. The continent man is similar to the virtuous man in that his reasoning respects the moral good; and furthermore he decides to and does act appropriately. However, he is clouded by contrary desires; he would rather flee than fight, he would rather be cheap than pay honestly and so on. In other words, the continent man is thriving through self mastery and persistence. Aristotle elaborates upon this by stating that, “The continent person knows that his appetites are base, but because of reason does not follow them.” (VII, 1, 1145b13) By fully understanding the concepts of the moral good, he can conquer emotional resistance and carry out the appropriate moral actions. Lacking self mastery and the alignment of one’s emotions with reason can cause the continent to become incontinent. Unlike the virtuous, the continent seem to be distracted by amusement and internal conflict due to the desires of external sources. There are many faults at being continent, such as, “Further, if continence makes someone prone to abide by every belief, it is bad, for instance, it makes him abide by a false as well [as true] belief.” (VII, 2, 1146a18). Although he has obtained self-mastery, his true desires oppose the virtuous action and therefore he is being untruthful to himself and the world, ultimately causing him to lose sight of true virtue.
Aristotle deems happiness in accord with virtue, as the continent man is consistently conflicted and seeking to achieve something he is not passionate about, “But the happy life seems to be a life in accord with virtue, which is a life involving serious actions, and not consisting in amusement.” (X, 6, 1177a1). He defines eudaimonia, the concept of happiness, as a state of calm and lasting happiness, rather than just the brief exhilaration of the senses. Through this, our actions will be defined as virtuous or invirtuous depending on the eventual goal. If an individual carries out an action, this action will be deemed positive if it allows for happiness. Because continent individuals are constantly distracted by contrary desires and are unable to perform the actions that they truly desire and believe in, they are left unsatisfied, unhappy, and ultimately invirtuous. Continence allows one to lose sight of virtue due to the presence of external forces that are, in essence, making their decisions for them.
Ultimately, Aristotle’s notions of continence and virtue differ from each other in that virtue requires habit, and continence only requires a degree of self-mastery. Moreover, continence strives to please what the external world deems as virtuous, whereas virtue is fuelled by inner desires and a strong moral compass. One may critique this conclusion by referring to how action is dictated by inner motivation and thoughts, and if actions are virtuous, then the individual must be virtuous himself. However, this can be argued against through the points that Aristotle makes when referring to how a virtue of character is acquired through habit. Aristotle establishes the notion that when one strategically makes poor decisions about his lifestyle, his faults are fuelled by inner psychological desires that simply lack rationality. His needs for gratification, strength or some other external activities have become so powerful that they in turn, allow for him to be inconsiderate towards acting truthfully and ethically. To keep such inner detrimental forces suppressed, we are required to build the appropriate habits and emotional abilities from a young and vulnerable age, and to reflect intellectually on our goals when we grow older, “That is why we must perform the right activities, since differences in these imply corresponding differences in the states. It is not unimportant, then, to acquire one sort of habit or another, right from our youth.” (II, 3, 1103b22) However, some susceptibility to these damaging forces is prevalent in people who are not necessarily considered virtuous; which explains the existence and processes of the continent man. Straightforward thinking about the ideal achievements of human existence and the acceptable way to apply them into habit is rare to accomplish, because the human mind is not particularly a vulnerable nor ideal circumstance for the maturing of these intuitions.