Aristotle's Opinions of Addiction

By Friedl, Ales | Alcoholism, July 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

Aristotle's Opinions of Addiction


Friedl, Ales, Alcoholism


Summary - In his Nicomacheian Ethics Aristotle, among other things, writes about some phenomena which can be applied to the field of addiction. He mentions the pleasure principle, exaggeration, the consequences of addiction. He distinguishes between two types of addicts, namely the incontinent and the self-indulgent type. The prognosis is better for the first one. In Aristotle's opinion a favourable prognosis for addicts is in any case hard to achieve. His treatment proposal for addicts is punishment.

Key words: History, Etiology, Diagnosis

Although Aristotle didn't develop any special theory of addiction, in his Nicomachean Ethics, he gives some notions on this topic.

It is interesting that a similar principle of additional punishing of a driver for a traffic accident under the impact of alcohol was known already in antiquity: 'penalties are doubled in the case of drunkenness; for the moving principle is in the man himself, since he had the power of not getting drunk' (III, 5).1 We know today that an alcoholic can't abstain his drinking, because dependence runs him to this, although one feels tempted to concur with Aristotle's finding: ' For where it is in our power to act it is also in our power not to act...' (Ill, 5). However, Aristotle denies such rationalism and explains dependence correctly from today's point of view: ' Again, it is irrational to suppose that a man who acts unjustly does not wish to be unjust or a man who acts self-indulgently to be self-indulgent. But if without being ignorant a man does the things which will make him unjust, he will be unjust voluntarily. Yet it does not follow that if he wishes he will cease to be unjust and will be just. For neither does the man who is ill become well on those terms. We may suppose a case in which he is ill voluntarily, through living incontinently and disobeying his doctors. In that case it was then open to him not to be ill, but now, when he has thrown away his chance, just as when you have let a stone go it is too late to recover it; but yet it was in your power to throw it, since the moving principle was in you. So, too, to the unjust and to the self-indulgent men it was open at the beginning not to become men of this kind, and so they are unjust and self-indulgent voluntarily; but now that they have become so it is not possible for them not to be so' (III, 5). It is already the addict's choice that is irrational because these 'uncontrollable people... choose, instead of the things they themselves think good, things that are pleasant but hurtful...' (IX, 4). Aristotle points out the pleasure principle which prevails realty principle: '... both the brutes and children pursue pleasures...' (VII, 12) '... since children in fact live at the beck and call of appetite, and it is in them that the desire for what is pleasant is strongest. If, then, it is not going to be obedient and subject to the ruling principle, it will go to great lengths; for in an irrational being the desire for pleasure is insatiable even if it tries every source of gratification, and the exercise of appetite increases its innate force, and if appetites are strong and violent they even expel the power of calculation' (III, 12). But on the other side, the pleasure ' is thought to be most intimately connected with our human nature... ' (X, 1).

The development of dependence requires exaggeration: 'the bad man is bad by virtue of pursuing the excess, not by virtue of pursuing the necessary pleasures (for all men enjoy in some way or other both dainty foods and wines and sexual intercourse, but not all men do so as they ought)' (VII, 14). AUDIT2 is also based upon exaggerations mostly on incidence or identification, where higher values are remitting likelihood of dependence.

The development of dependence goes on via different periods: at first there is psychoactive substance enjoyment, there is enjoyment only for a short time and finally the »cure« for abstinent distress. …

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