By Franz Clemens Brentano
Edited and translated through Rolf George and Roderick M. Chisholm.
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Refrain tonight, And that shall lend a kind of easiness To the next abstinence; the next more easy; For use almost can change the stamp of nature... Hamlet is talking to a middle-aged woman about lust, but the pattern is universal, and expresses the common experience of human beings. What is at work here that is so effective? We are in a position to see that it is not the stamp of nature that needs to be changed, but the earliest stamp of habit. We can drop Hamlet’s “almost” and rid his last quoted line of all paradox by seeing that the reason we need habit is to change the stamp of habit.
The characteristically human enhancements of life open up in the middle region. This example demonstrates that the mean that constitutes temperance is not in anything external and measureable, but only in the soul. It is also enlightening, I think, in another way. No argument seems needed about why sharing the treat is the right thing to do. —and we know it more clearly and immediately than we know any principle that it might be argued from. Aristotle says that we know such things by perception, not the perception of any one of the five senses, but the sort by which we perceive that a triangle is the last kind of figure into which a polygon can be divided.
The sign of what is natural, for Aristotle, is pleasure, but we have to know how to read the signs. Things pleasant by nature, he says, have no opposite pain and no excess, because they set us free to act simply as what we are (1154b, 15-21), and it is in this sense that Aristotle calls the life of virtue pleasant in its own right, in itself. (1099a, 6-7, 16-17) A mere habit of acting contrary to our inclinations cannot be a virtue, by the infallible sign that we don’t like it. Our first or childish nature is never eradicated, though, and this is why Aristotle says that our nature is not simple, but also has in it something different that makes our happiness assailable from within, and makes us love change even when it is for the worse.