Adler On

Continence and Incontinence

We cannot understand what it means to say that man is a rational animal without, at the same time, recognizing that a rational animal is a freak of nature. The nature of a rational animal is a mixture of incompatible elements.

The animal aspect of human nature motivates us to seek sensual pleasures. The rational aspect controls our conduct by counseling us to desire nothing amiss. In consequence, man is the only living organism in whose nature conflict exists, conflict between the animal and rational aspects of our nature.

Evidence of such a conflict we cannot deny. That, we all experience remorse indicates that we often do what we later recognize to be wrong. We also often fail to do what we later recognize we should have done.

Individuals who act as reason dictates and in doing so control their sensual appetites are continent. Truly virtuous persons who have cultivated habits of right desire do not for the most part need not be continent, but even they may be faced with a conflict in their desires that call upon them to be continent rather than incontinent.

Were this not so, individuals would never experience remorse for having done what they ought not to have done or for having failed to do what they ought to have done. (See Casuistry.) Only saints, persons of heroic virtue, are the exceptions but it is likewise they who know and can say that there, but for the grace of God, go I.

Wrong Desires: Pleasure, Money, Fame and Power
Desires, Right & Wrong (1991), Chapter 3
Necessary But Not Sufficient
Desires, Right & Wrong (1991), Chapter 6, especially page 100

Adapted from
Adler's Philosophical Dictionary (1995)

Revised 17 December 2000