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Apeiron

A Journal for Ancient Philosophy and Science

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Akrasia in Epictetus: A Comparison with Aristotle

Michael Tremblay
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  • The Department of Philosophy, Queen’s University, John Watson Hall, Kingston, Ontario, Canada K7L 3N6
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Published Online: 2019-05-31 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/apeiron-2018-0071

Abstract

There has been little discussion of strict akrasia in contemporary literature on Stoicism ever since Brad Inwood (1985. Ethics and Human Action in Early Stoicism. Clarendon Press; Oxford University Press) persuasively argued that Stoic psychology has no means to account for such a phenomenon. And it is true that we find no such phenomenon in Epictetus. However, Inwood’s argument only applies to akrasia in the strict sense, which is when an agent knowingly acts contrary to a self-directed imperative. Stoicism can still allow for akrasia in the broad sense, which is defined by Inwood as any instance when “an agent fails to stand by a previous decision about what he will do or by some general plan or programme of action” (133). When we widen our conception of akrasia to include the broad sense it becomes apparent that this phenomenon is of significant importance to Epictetus. This is best made evident through analogy with Aristotle. This paper argues that Epictetus’ ethics involves three key features which are also present in Aristotle’s discussion of akrasia in the Nicomachean Ethics: 1) A major problem for agents is when they fail to render a universal premise effective at motivating a particular action in accordance with that premise. 2) There are two reasons this occurs: Precipitancy and Weakness. 3) Precipitancy and Weakness can be prevented by gaining a fuller understanding of our beliefs and commitments. This comparison should make clear that akrasia is certainly not absent from Epictetus. Rather a very Aristotelian understanding of why we fail to act in accordance with what we take to be in our own best interests remains at the center of his ethics.

Keywords: Stoicism; akrasia; moral psychology; Epictetus; Aristotle; weakness of will

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About the article

Published Online: 2019-05-31


Citation Information: Apeiron, ISSN (Online) 2156-7093, ISSN (Print) 0003-6390, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/apeiron-2018-0071.

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