On Containing Oneself

I should not be surprised if our young people know no other meaning of the word “incontinence” than a failure of bladder control in the elderly. In fact it is not the only possible synonym for “lack of self-control”, but it has been an important one for a very long time, and so its disappearance has to mean a certain marginalisation of the whole concept of self-mastery. This concept was essential to Antique ethics and so not just something those “repressed Christians” dreamed up.

Although the term in Greek philosophy, akrasia, has nothing to do with excretion, the double meaning of its frequent translation, “incontinence”, may serve as a metaphor. Not being able to control or “contain” your appetites is like pissing in your pants. For Hugo, who suffers from both a hypertrophied prostate and neurological injury from a stroke, that metaphor strikes all too close to home. At the same time it is loaded, expressing the point of view of an observer who assumes that a given pleasure ought not to be indulged, that self-control invariably means self-denial, because pleasure is not the Good. That the profligate man, in Aristotle’s terminology, fails to act on his better knowledge begs the question. The assumption does not seem to do justice to the situation where a person chooses to grant himself a sensual pleasure and stands by his choice afterwards. Is that invariably a loss of self-mastery? Can the decision to have sex, for example, never be a rational choice?

On the third hand, however, it is unlikely that an informed choice of sensual pleasure covers all the bases. Can we really disbelieve that there is such a thing as weakness of will or impetuous failure to think? I would suggest that the cult of sensibility, as Austen called it, or worship of the feelings, represents an equal and opposite error to the religious assumption that all pleasure comes from a blameworthy surrender to the flesh.

C.S. Lewis once made the brilliant observation that people are forever warning each other against precisely those things from which they are actually least in danger. The idle bolster one another’s resistance to the disease of workaholia, the adulterers are terrified of the threat of sexual repression, and the heartless greedy counsel one another against the evils of compassion.

Posted on August 22, 2010 at 22:22 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: AGAINST NATURE, Against Nature, Miscellaneous

Leave a Reply