January 7th, 2024
Have you ever found yourself ordering an entire pizza with the intention of saving some for later, only to devour the whole thing in one sitting? Or, in the heat of an argument, have you ever uttered words you later regretted? This lack of self-control can be attributed to a phenomenon known as akrasia, extensively studied by ancient Greek philosophers in their pursuit of solutions. In today’s blog, we will explore the concept of akrasia in depth and examine how its ancient wisdom can be applied to tackle modern-day addictions.
What is akrasia?
Akrasia refers to the state of acting against your better judgement or going against your values and intentions. It is often described as a lack of self-control or the inability to resist impulses, even when you are fully aware that your actions may be detrimental to your long-term goals or well-being.
In philosophy, akrasia has been a topic of discussion for centuries. Ancient Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle explored the concept, trying to understand why people sometimes act against their best interests.
In modern psychology and behavioural economics, akrasia is often associated with self-control problems and the struggle between immediate gratification and long-term goals. Understanding and addressing akrasia can be important in fields such as psychology, economics, and personal development, as it involves exploring the factors that contribute to decision-making and behaviour.
Plato’s perspective on akrasia
The ancient Greek philosopher Plato discussed the concept of akrasia in some of his dialogues, notably in ‘Protagoras’ and ‘Republic’.
In Protagoras, Socrates dialogues with the sophist Protagoras about the nature of virtue and whether virtue can be taught. The discussion leads to exploring akrasia, where some seem to act against their best interests or knowledge. Socrates challenges the idea that people knowingly act in ways that harm them and explores the complexities of human behaviour.
In Republic, Plato introduces the tripartite theory of the soul, which consists of three parts: reason (logos), spirit or passion (thumos), and desire (epithumia). According to Plato, akrasia occurs when the rational part of the soul, which understands what is good, is overruled by the appetitive part, which is driven by desires and pleasures. In akratic situations, people act against their better judgement because the irrational and desirous part of the soul gains control.
Aristotle’s perspective on akrasia
Aristotle, another ancient Greek philosopher and a student of Plato, also explored the concept of akrasia in his ethical works, particularly in ‘Nicomachean Ethics’. In Aristotle’s philosophy, akrasia refers to the weakness of will or acting against one’s better judgement.
Aristotle’s perspective on akrasia differs from Plato’s, as he sought to explain it within the framework of his ethical theory. In Aristotle’s view, virtue is crucial to a well-lived life. Virtue involves finding the mean between excess and deficiency in actions and emotions. Akrasia occurs when someone knows what is virtuous but fails to act accordingly due to a weakness of will.
Aristotle identifies two types of akrasia: intellectual akrasia and moral akrasia. Intellectual akrasia occurs when someone has incorrect beliefs about what is good or bad. In contrast, moral akrasia occurs when someone knows the right course of action but fails to act on that knowledge.
Plato and Aristotle’s solution to akrasia
While Plato and Aristotle both acknowledge the concept of akrasia, both had different ideas when it came to solutions for combating akraisa.
Plato’s solution to akrasia revolves around the idea that ignorance is the root cause of weakness of will. He argued that people act against their better judgement when they lack true knowledge and understanding. In Plato’s philosophical framework, knowledge is closely tied to virtue, and he believed that acquiring genuine wisdom leads to moral excellence. To overcome akrasia, Plato advocated for a commitment to intellectual pursuits and the pursuit of true knowledge.
In Plato’s ideal world, the emphasis on education and the pursuit of truth was a fundamental aspect of shaping people with the moral fortitude to resist the temptations associated with akrasia. Plato’s solution, therefore, involves the transformative power of knowledge in guiding people towards virtuous actions and decisions.
Aristotle’s solution to akrasia differs significantly from Plato’s and centres on cultivating virtuous habits. Aristotle argued that true virtue is a product of repeated virtuous actions, forming a habitual pattern ingrained in a person’s character. He proposed that people can overcome the weakness of will by consciously engaging in morally upright activities until these actions become second nature.
For Aristotle, the key lies in developing a virtuous character through consistent practice. By habituating oneself to virtuous behaviour, people strengthen their moral compass and build resilience against the allure of akrasia. Aristotle’s emphasis on habituation underscores the importance of practical, everyday ethics in shaping one’s character and achieving lasting moral excellence.
Applying akrasia solutions to modern-day addiction issues
In this section, we’ll explore daily scenarios that many people face and then apply both Platonic and Aristotelian solutions to them, aiming to fully understand how these philosophical perspectives can be translated into modern-day situations.
John is a successful professional but is struggling with a cocaine addiction that is affecting his work and personal life.
John could benefit from engaging in counselling or therapy to explore the deeper reasons behind his drug addiction. By understanding and addressing the root causes, he may strengthen the rational part of his soul. Plato’s emphasis on self-knowledge and wisdom would encourage John to reflect on the consequences of his actions and seek a more balanced and fulfilling life.
Aristotle’s solution involves habituation and the development of virtuous habits. In John’s case, replacing the cocaine addiction with healthier alternatives, such as regular exercise or engaging in fulfilling hobbies, can contribute to the formation of virtuous habits. Over time, this could help him build a more virtuous and self-controlled character.
Sarah, usually a social drinker, finds herself increasingly dependent on alcohol to cope with stress and social situations.
Plato’s approach suggests that Sarah should engage in self-reflection and philosophical contemplation to strengthen her rational part of the soul. Seeking therapy that explores the underlying reasons for her reliance on alcohol and encourages critical self-examination can be a modern application of Plato’s solution.
To address her alcohol addiction, Sarah could work on habituating virtuous behaviours. This might involve gradually reducing alcohol consumption while simultaneously cultivating healthier habits, such as practicing mindfulness, engaging in social activities that don’t involve alcohol, and building a support network.
Mark is a university student struggling with a compulsive and detrimental pornography consumption habit.
Plato’s solution involves intellectual development and understanding. In modern terms, Mark might benefit from cognitive-behavioural therapy that addresses distorted thought patterns related to his porn addiction. Reflecting on the philosophical implications of his behaviour and seeking knowledge about healthy relationships could also contribute to overcoming the addiction.
Aristotle’s focus on habituation suggests that Mark should work on replacing his destructive habit with virtuous ones. This might involve establishing a daily routine that includes activities promoting personal growth, such as exercise, reading, or pursuing creative hobbies. Over time, these virtuous habits can help Mark break free from his porn addiction.
Emily is struggling with a gambling addiction that is jeopardising her financial stability.
Plato’s solution involves understanding and strengthening the rational part of the soul. In Emily’s case, seeking therapy to explore the psychological and emotional factors contributing to her gambling addiction can be a modern application of Plato’s approach. Developing self-awareness and philosophical insights may assist her in making more reasoned choices.
To address her gambling addiction, Emily could work on habituating virtuous financial behaviours. This might involve creating a budget, seeking financial counselling, and gradually replacing gambling addiction with saving or investing. Through the cultivation of virtuous financial habits, she can regain control over her life.
Alex, a married individual, is grappling with a sex addiction that is straining their relationship and impacting their overall well-being.
Plato’s solution involves intellectual and moral development. Alex might benefit from engaging in philosophical counselling or therapy that explores the deeper psychological and emotional aspects of their sex addiction. Reflecting on the philosophical dimensions of love, relationships, and personal values can contribute to strengthening the rational part of the soul and guiding healthier choices.
Aristotle’s solution emphasises habituation and the development of virtuous behaviours. In the case of sex addiction, Alex could work on gradually replacing compulsive behaviours with virtuous alternatives. This might involve building emotional intimacy with their partner, practising communication skills, and investing time in shared activities that strengthen their bond. Over time, these virtuous habits can help Alex break free from the destructive patterns of sex addiction.
A modern-day look into self control and addiction
Plato and Aristotle offered profound insights into human behaviour and ethics. While their teachings on self-control provide a valuable foundation, it’s essential to acknowledge that the complexities of modern life and our understanding of addiction require a more nuanced approach. Applying their teachings exclusively may not be the comprehensive solution to the complicated challenges associated with self-control and addiction.
Below, we take a further look at elements that could cause people to lose self control and resort to feeding their addiction.
- Stressful situations: High-stress situations activate the body’s “fight or flight” response, releasing stress hormones like cortisol. This physiological reaction can impair cognitive functions and lead to impulsive reactions, undermining self-control.
- Anger and frustration: Intense emotions such as anger or frustration can override rational thinking. The emotional part of the brain (the amygdala) tends to take control, leading to impulsive actions that may be regretted later.
- Peer pressure: The desire to be accepted by peers can sometimes override personal values and self-control. People may engage in behaviours they would normally avoid to fit in or gain approval from their social group.
- Cravings: Strong desires for certain drugs or habits can create a sense of urgency that overwhelms self-control mechanisms. Cravings often activate reward pathways in the brain, making it challenging to resist immediate gratification.
- Fear and anxiety: High levels of fear or anxiety can cloud judgement and lead to impulsive actions driven by a desire to alleviate or escape the perceived threat. In such situations, the focus shifts from long-term consequences to immediate relief.
- Lack of planning: Failing to plan or set clear goals leaves people vulnerable to impulsive decision-making. Without a structured approach, people may act on whims or immediate desires rather than considering the broader implications of their actions.
- Instant gratification: The allure of immediate rewards, even when the long-term consequences are known, can be a powerful force. The brain’s preference for instant gratification can lead to impulsive behaviour, as people seek immediate pleasure or relief.
While acknowledging the insightful perspectives on akrasia from philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, it’s crucial to integrate modern understandings of addiction. Today, comprehensive rehab programmes, including detox and ongoing therapy, address the multifaceted nature of addiction. Through these forms of treatment, we can incorporate philosophical insights, psychological insights and evidence-based approaches for a more holistic and effective form of treatment.
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