Aristotle, Akrasia, the “Practical Syllogism” and Procrastination

The proverbial procrastinators’ dictum runs something like: Why do today what you can put off till tomorrow? Many of us struggle in various ways and at various times with procrastination. Our reasons for procrastinating vary widely. Some of us dread doing a particular task. Others of us just prefer to do the pleasant thing we are engaged in now, rather than that which we should be doing or completing. The emotions and desires motivating procrastination run the gamut. Nor does it seem that knowing these motivations, and knowing that procrastination often creates further and greater difficulties, and even knowing the good one ought to do, actually helps with these motivations. Knowledge alone doesn’t seem enough to motivate to action.

There are a variety of ways that the current self-help or time management literature use to address the issue of procrastination, many of them focusing on psychological analyses and self-awareness, with others focusing on incremental behavioral changes. But reading these works only seem to exacerbate the problem: they add to our knowledge without changing our acts.

Aristotle provides resources for us on this matter, in his account of the virtuous life in the Nicomachean Ethics, and particularly in the seventh book which deals with the character flaw of lack of self restraint. What we are fundamentally dealing with, when it comes to procrastination is the tension between rational deliberation and choice (boule and proairesis respectively) and desire (epithumia, although in a critical passage in De Anima III.10-11, Aristotle translates orexis as “desire,” which is one aspect of motion in the soul). That is to say, the procrastinator knows the good he ought to do, but doesn’t do it. If we have a coherent account of the soul, how motion in the soul relates to actual behavior, we have a much better account by which to understand how the procrastinator knows the good but fails to do it, and to formulate responses to soulish vices and lack of self-restraint.

Aristotle, in a slight but significant differentiation from Plato, notes that there are three distinguishing characteristics of the soul: the appetitive (or desiderative) and reproductive aspects (which all living things share), perceptive capacities (which all animals, including humans, have), and the intellectual potencies, such as discursive reason (which only humans have and which uniquely differentiates them from all other living things and links them to the divine). [Note: Actually, it could be argued, based on a couple of different passages in the De Anima, that there are more than just these three capacities. For example, imagination, phantasia gets a lengthy discussion in Bk III, and it is differentiated from both the perceptive and intellective capacities, serving as a bridge or, more accurately, a “hinge” between phenomenal sensation and intellectual grasp of an object. Imagination, by the way, being akin to the perceptive faculties is something humans and animals share.]

Aristotle notes that motion in the soul, leading to acts of behavior, arises either from desire unrestrained by reason or desire restrained by reason. The purpose of rational choice, then, is to direct desire toward its appropriate end, toward the good that the human soul rationally seeks. As Aristotle writes in the Ethics:

Since, among the things that are up to us, the desired thing that has been deliberated upon is what is chosen, choice would be the deliberate desire of things that are up to us, for having decided as a result of deliberating, we desire in accordance with our deliberation.1113a10-12(Nicomachean Ethics 1113a9-12, tr. by Joe Sachs, Focus 2002)

In many ways, this sets the central teaching of Aristotle’s ethical paradigm: the desires of the virtuous person are rationally chosen. Indeed, this is also the Platonic account (cf. the charioteer of the soul in the Phaedrus): the rational aspect of the soul is to take the lead over the desiderative or appetitive aspect of the soul.

But instances of pleasure and pain set up experiences in which the active condition of the soul (its character) is revealed, either by pursuing or fleeing the one or pursuing or fleeing the other. Sometimes the appetite, our desires, are very strong, and sometimes reason does not seem forceful or canny enough to channel this energy. This sets up potential conflict in the soul between knowledge and desire:

[Choice] seems to be what belongs most properly to virtue and to determine one’s character more than one’s actions do. . . . For choice is not shared by irrational beings, while desire and spiritedness are. And a person lacking self-control acts while desiring something but not choosing it, while a person with self-control conversely acts while choosing something but not desiring it. And while desire sets itself against choice, desire does not set itself against desire. And desire is for what is pleasant or painful, while choice is of something neither painful nor pleasant. (Nicomachean Ethics 1111b5-6, 12-18, tr. by Joe Sachs, Focus 2002).

In the De Anima, Aristotle describes these soulish forces at work in the following way:

Hence desire does not have the power of deliberating, but at one time this desire wins out and knocks away that one, and at another time that one wins out and knocks away this one, like a ball, when there is a lack of self-restraint; but by nature the higher desire is more governing and causes the motion–so that there are already three ways of being moved. But the power of knowing is not moved, but stays constant. (De Anima 434a11-16, tr. by Joe Sachs, Green Lion 2001)

A quick note to which we will return at the end: this passage from the De Anima may seem to contradict that of the Ethics immediately preceding it. In the Ethics Aristotle says that “desire does not set itself against desire” while in the De Anima he writes that “at one time this desire wins out and knocks away that one, and at another time that one wins out and knocks away this one, like a ball.” In the Ethics, Aristotle is at pains to point out the deliberative nature of virtuous action. In the De Anima, his point is that of how motion takes place in the soul. In the Ethics, Aristotle is trying to explain the opposition, in terms of pleasure and pain, that can take place in the soul between deliberative choice and desire (in general). General desire cannot oppose itself as desire, for it would still be desire. In the De Anima, however, Aristotle is demonstrating that knowledge, since by nature it is stable and unmoving, cannot by itself be the cause of motion in the soul, but that knowledge requires the energy of desire to bring about motion in the soul. And here, Aristotle is speaking in terms of specific desires, not desire considered generally. Specific desires can, indeed, replace one another as now one governing desire replaces a lesser desire and is itself replaced by an even more governing desire.

So, in terms of actions, deliberative choice (reason directed at an end) and desire are what are needed for the soul to cause itself to move in an act:

But it is obvious that these two things cause motion, desire and/or intellect . . . . Therefore both of these are such as to cause motion with respect to place, intellect and desire, but this is intellect that reasons for the sake of something and is concerned with action, which differs from the contemplative intellect by its end. (De Anima 433a9, 12-15, tr. by Joe Sachs, Green Lion 2001)

Or, as Aristotle writes in the Ethics:

The source of action, then, is choice–the origin of motion rather than the cause for the sake of which it takes place–while the source of choice is desire combined with a rational understanding which is for the sake of something. (Nicomachean Ethics 1139a31-33, tr. by Joe Sachs, Focus 2002)

I have been at some pains to describe the foundations of action in Aristotle so as to prepare for an understanding of how one might approach the question of procrastination (or, indeed, of any sort of behavior demonstrating a lack of restraint). It is crucial to grasp this ancient conception of the soul: that the soul is a complex of dynamic and interrelated aspects, with our focus on the rational and appetitive aspects especially.

Now when it comes to action, Aristotle’s basic paradigm is clear: we have a desire toward some end, which desire anticipates some pleasant or painful experience (a desire, that is, to pursue a thing or to flee a thing). If we allow our reason to control our choices, then reason will direct that desire toward a rational end. If we do not, strictly speaking, choose, then our actions are simply enactments of our desires without rational direction. There is, however, a third possibility Aristotle considers in the seventh book of the Ethics, the possibility that reason is itself guided by desire and is used as a tool of desire to pursue or flee a particular end. Although Aristotle does not go into quite the analysis of this possibility as Plato does in the eighth and ninth books of the Republic, he does acknowledge that this is a most pernicious state of affairs.

[S]omeone who pursues pleasures beyond these [necessary pleasures], or these [necessary pleasures] to excess and by choice, for themselves and for nothing else resulting from them, is a dissipated person; for necessarily this person is without regret, and is therefore incurable, since a person without regret is incurable. (Nicomachean Ethics 1150a19-22, tr. by Joe Sachs, Focus 2002)

In terms of unrestraint, or akrasia, then, we see that reason or knowledge is somehow inoperative and the unrestrained person, the akratic, acts out of desire and not out of reason. In fact, Aristotle sums up:

It is clear then that unrestraint is not a vice (except, perhaps, in a certain respect), since the one is by choice and the other is contrary to choice; however, they are alike as far as actions are concerned, as with the words of Demodocus to the Milesians, “It’s not that Milesians are stupid, just that they will do the sort of things that stupid people do” . . . . (Nicomachean Ethics 1151a5-10, tr. by Joe Sachs, Focus 2002)

So, then, just how does unrestraint, or akrasia work? Here we invoke Aristotle’s so-called “Practical Syllogism.” A syllogism, as is well-known, consists of two basic premises connected to a conclusion. In the “Practical Syllogism” the first, or major, premise is a universal premise, usually pertaining to an ethical principle, and the second, or minor, premise is a particular premise, usually pertaining to the circumstances about which one must take some action. As Aristotle describes it in the De Anima:

But since one sort of assumption or proposition is universal and the other sort particular (for the one says that a certain sort of person ought to act in a certain sort of way, the other that this particular actions is of that sort and I am that sort of person), it is surely the latter sort of opinion that causes motion, and not the universal, or else it is the two together, but with the universal, not the particular, remaining more constant. (De Anima 434a16-21, tr. by Joe Sachs, Green Lion 2001)

That is to say, there is an overarching ethical principle that applies universally, and a particular judgment about the specific set of circumstances in which one finds oneself that connects the act to the principle. And what provides the motive force to the act is the desire(s) attendant upon the specific circumstances. As Aristotle puts in in the Ethics:

For a universal premise is an opinion, but the other sort of premise is concerned with particulars, which are governed from the start by sense-perception, and when one conclusion comes from them, it is necessary then for the soul to affirm it and in reasoning about doing something, for one to perform the action at once. For example, if one ought to taste everything that is sweet, and this thing here, as a certain one of the particulars, is sweet, it is necessary for someone who is able to and is not prevented, to do this at that same time he recognizes it. But when a universal premise is present in someone that prevents tasting it, and another that every sweet thing is pleasant, and this thing here is sweet (and this is at work on him), and a desire happens to be present, then while the one premise says avoid this, the desire takes the lead, since it is able to set in motion each part of the body. And so, behaving without restraint results in a certain way from a proposition or opinion, which, while not in itself opposed to right reason, is opposed to it incidentally, since the desire, though not the opinion, is opposed.(Nicomachean Ethics 1147a25-1147b3, tr. by Joe Sachs, Focus 2002)

In the example Aristotle gives, one may have a universal premise that one ought to taste everything sweet, and particular premise that this thing here in front of one is sweet. And since this is a set of premises about a certain action, once one has reached the conclusion (that one ought to taste this sweet thing in front of one), then one necessarily affirms it with one’s soul and then performs the act. The only way in which one would not perform the act is if something prevented one from doing so. Here that prohibition would be the incidental opposition of a universal premise. Say, then, that there is a universal principle that one ought not taste sweet things, another that notes that every sweet thing is pleasant, and that this particular thing in front of one is a sweet thing. And if this last premise (that this particular thing is a sweet thing) is the one at work on the agent, and if a desire happens to be present, then, since as we noted above it is desire which gives to the soul its motion, desire takes the lead, and provides the basis for an unrestrained person’s act.

It would be helpful to cite here a passage from the De Anima–though it deals with motion in the soul, it does so from the standpoint of competing desires:

But since desires come to be opposite to one another, which happens whenever reason and impulses are opposed, and comes about in beings that have perception of time (for the intellect urges one to resist impulses on account of the future, while the impulse urges one to resist reason on account of what is immediate, since what is immediately pleasant appears to be both simply pleasant and simply good, on account of not looking to the future), then while the thing that causes motion would be one in kind, the desiring part as desiring–or first of all the thing desired, by being thought or imagined–there come to be a number of things that cause motion. (433b5-13, tr. by Joe Sachs, Green Lion 2001)

Note here that none of the premises are inherently opposed to one another: every sweet thing may, indeed, be pleasant, and one should avoid tasting every sweet thing, and this particular thing in front of one is a sweet thing. But what is opposed here is not knowledge against itself, but desire opposed to the universal principle of avoiding tasting sweet things.

What arises here is, in a sense, surprising. Aristotle is showing that knowledge in itself is not enough to determine action. That is to say, one may be said to have knowledge, but not have it in the sense of “being-at-work.” In other words, when it comes to lack of self-restraint, the failure is not so much one of knowledge, but rather a failure of choice and deliberation. Aristotle writes:

Of unrestraint, one sort is impetuousness and another sort of weakness. For people of the latter sort have deliberated, but on account of passion, do not stick to the things they decided by deliberating, while those of the former sort are led by passion because of not having deliberated. (Nicomachean Ethics 1150b19-22, tr. by Joe Sachs, Focus 2002)

This is why, in fact, that unrestraint is not a vice, since a vicious action is chosen and an unrestrained action is a failure of choice. Aristotle conceives of it this way

[T]here is someone who, on account of passion, stands aside from a right understanding, whom passion masters so much so that he does not act in accord with the right understanding, but does not master so much so that he is the sort of person who is convinced that one ought to pursue such pleasures without restriction. This is the unrestrained person . . . .(Nicomachean Ethics 1151a20-24, tr. by Joe Sachs, Focus 2002)

So, after a few pages of summary and exposition, how does Aristotle’s conceptions of human choices and acts and unrestraint apply to procrastination? And why would Aristotle be a more helpful source than some of the time management literature out there?

First and foremost, all human actions are aimed at some end or purpose (telos). Some ends are intermediate, pointing beyond themselves to a greater end, and even serving as means to that end. Think for example of health. Health is a good, an end in itself. And yet it is also furthers the attainment of human flourishing and well-being (eudaimonia or happiness). When those acts are guided by rationally chosen ends, when practical judgment effectively unites knowledge and act, when rational choice is directed toward eudaimonia, human choices and acts will tend to produce eudaimonia.

But it is possible for reason to be replaced by desire. In such cases the choice and act is not a rational one, but is unrestrained. In Christian terms it is a choice of passion.

In effect, this is the dynamic of the procrastinator’s decision to put off the act he contemplates. He knows, say, that he should always balance his checkbook on the first of the month (the universal premise); and knows that he now holds in his hand his checkbook and bank statement which would enable him to balance his check book and further that today is the first of the month (the particular premise[s]). The proper rational conclusion is that he would begin balancing the checkbook.

But the Practical Syllogism so illustrated here is only a heuristic device. It has no power in itself to propel the soul to act. As Aristotle clearly articulates in the De Anima, it is desire that moves the soul toward action, not knowledge. But as we have also seen it is knowledge that rightly orients desire to the highest good of eudaimonia. So the task is to rightly orient desires through proper knowledge of ends (universals) and the proper application of that knowledge in specific circumstances (via practical judgment). In the case of our procrastinator, he would see that a momentary gratification in the present merely delays the important, and could possibly result in further difficulties (perhaps by not catching irregularities in his account in a timely enough manner). He would also rightly point his desires to the rational end of proper financial stewardship and the broad non-financial benefits that result from a properly kept checkbook (not the least of which would be peace of mind).

But none of this will ultimately provide the motivating force for doing the checkbook. In the procrastinator the competing desires of instant gratification versus the accomplishment of the task being procrastinated are unequally matched. Instant gratification has, as it were, worn a groove in the character of his soul. He has formed a habit of unrestraint. And the desire for the instant gratification of procrastination is greater than the desire for immediately fulfillment of one’s responsibilities. As we know from Aristotle’s account of the formation of character in Ethics Bks II.1-III.5, it is the rational deliberation of habitually chosen acts that forms the soul in either virtue or vice. Thus the procrastinator must deliberately choose rational acts of restraint (that is to say, must immediately act on his responsibilities without delay) that result in properly formed desires. The procrastinator will free himself of the desire for instant gratification by acting. That involves rationally empowering, by choosing, the weaker desire so as to make it, by virtue of its being the motive force for action, the more powerful desire in that moment of choice. In other words, desires are stronger when rationally chosen than when not so chosen.

At first such empowerment by choice is a difficult struggle, but the accumulation of habituated choices and acts results in a change in the active state of the soul, or one’s character. Over time the soul becomes one habituated toward action and against procrastination. That is to say, one becomes what one chooses to become. To cease procrastinating one must essentially choose to do so. Knowledge and analysis, the use of practical judgment, all these things enable one to make a good choice. But it is in the moment of choice that the formation of the character balances between virtue and passion.

3 thoughts on “Aristotle, Akrasia, the “Practical Syllogism” and Procrastination

  1. I am one of those chronic procrastinators who has seen potential opportunities left unchosen again and again, so I really appreciate this Aristotelian take on the problem. Virtue-ethics proves itself true to nature of the case once again.

  2. Dear Benedict Seraphim,

    first of all, I would like to thank you for your wonderful blog and your account of your journey to Orthodoxy. (I know this is an old post I am replying to, but I hope you read it anyway).

    For me, an Orthodox Christian and a philosophy graduate student (in Europe) this blog was immediately of enormous interest. And since Aristotle is very close to my heart even more so. His Metaphysics played one of the major roles in my conversion from atheism. So far I always thought my Orthodoxy and my appreciation of Aristotle was somewhat of a contradiction (since Orthodox theology is more Platonic).

    I appreciate your ideas about faithful thinking very much and plan to look into the books you mention (e.g. the books on true philosophia and free will).

    And I must say that I am very relieved to read your view that the Orthodox Church is not merely against reason and thinking (which would be a strange position given John’s prologue, where Christ is the logos incarnate). But that it is rather about coming to a unity of heart and mind — to the integrity of the person (which is what Platon’s Politeia is all about, in my opinion).

    Best wishes, I will be following your ideas,
    p.s. now I should stop procrastinating and get to work on my Hegel paper!

  3. thank you for this nice thought.

    lots of interconnected things get talked about together when speaking on akrasia…

    but when is akrasia not procrastination?

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