When was the last time you clearly knew that something wasn’t right but did it anyways? Had that extra drink or cookie? Didn’t manage your temper around your kids or spouse? Wasted time online instead of completing that report? The Greek philosophers were fascinated by this experience, which they termed akrasia—weakness of the will.
How is it possible that our mighty brains would identify something as in our best interest and yet we would fail to choose it? Isn’t man the “rational animal”? The Greeks were divided in their answers.
Socrates—proclaimed the wisest of all by the Oracle at Delphi—believed that if you are doing the wrong thing, you must in some sense not truly know what the right thing is, for “no one goes willingly toward the bad.”
I have an akratic problem with lifting weights. I know it’s important for my bone and muscle health, and I’ll wake up on a given morning and tell myself that my workout that day will be weight training. I’ll have coffee, get on shorts and sneakers, and then, somehow, I really can’t explain it, end up going for a jog instead, or heading to yoga, or sitting and writing a post. Anything but going into the basement to pick up those dumbbells. When I pause to think about it, I feel tormented, but rarely is that enough to improve my choice.
I disagree with Socrates that I don’t know it would be best for me to lift weights, yet I also don’t believe I go “willingly toward the bad.” He reassures: It’s a matter of perspective. Your current temptation looms large, whereas the truth you grasp seems distant and applicable to your future self. So, to take another common example, you smoke that cigarette right now, since the truth about cancer does not appear to apply to the temptation at hand.
Socrates’ pupil, Plato, explains differently. Way before Freud, he declared that humans are comprised of three parts: 1. Reason—which identifies true and false; 2. Appetite—which concerns pleasure and pain; and 3. Spirit—or the passions such as courage and pride. These parts don’t always harmonize, and when you go against your better judgment, it’s a case of appetite overcoming reason, or of spirit failing to feel sufficient indignation. In this case, my desire to avoid the pain of weightlifting overcomes my rational judgment, and spirit fails to ally with reason and back it up with a feeling of shame at my failure to do my best.
Plato’s pupil, Aristotle, has a third idea. Socrates can’t be right because it’s common belief that akrasia exists, and we must acknowledge common experience when doing philosophy. Plato’s view is false because if we truly understand the good, we will indeed choose it; reason can’t just be shot down like that. The culprit in akrasia is faulty reasoning.
Let’s say it’s a typical morning and I fail to go downstairs and lift weights. Though I “know” it would be good for me in some sense, it’s akin to a drunk or crazy person’s way of “knowing.” That sounds harsh, but all he means is that due to the distortion caused by my appetites or current state, my knowledge of the good is compromised. The drunk guy “knows” he shouldn’t get behind the wheel, but not in the precise way the designated driver “knows” it.
When someone describes having a “eureka” moment that forever changes their behavior or path, they must mean they achieve this latter sort of knowledge. Finally, the reasoning is so faultless, and the truth is perceived so pristinely, that a cigarette never does get smoked again, or the exercise avoidance really ends, or the ex-con stops thieving. Many people describe such a moment in respect to their own particular vices, and akrasia as having been overcome.
It’s interesting to reflect upon your own akratic experiences, and to consider where the chinks in your reasoning may lie. What’s blocking your own eureka? I haven’t gotten to the bottom of my thing with weights, but as philosophy always does, it helps me understand my choices better, which is, I hope, the first step in improving them.