2nd Reflection on Plato’s Republic
The first step on the path to self-improvement is to curb those harmful impulses which pull us from the centerline, that turn our goals on their heads and set fire to the desires burning in our soul. The aspect of our character which is necessary for this is continence – but what is this facet of our nature, and how can we employ it to our benefit? I will examine the definition of the term carefully before analysing the impulses that we keep under its yolk. Through this relationship, I will demonstrate continence’s importance in our lives.
To begin with, we should define continence. Continence is the ability of a person to constrain their demands of their animal instincts, subordinating these more primitive impulses to the rational aspect of the mind. Another term which one can utilise is self-control – holding one’s actions in check. So, we now turn to the instinctual drivers which continence seeks to master: seeking pleasure and gaining power.
To determine the positive role which continence plays, I shall examine the two instinctual drivers in their unconstrained state. The first driver, pleasure, taken to its extreme is the hedonistic mindset. A person who surrenders to pleasure as the ultimate goal is an addict, their sickness consuming all aspects of their lives. Unable to satisfy their urges, the hedonist gulps down more and more of the sweet intoxicant – each measure less effective, demanding an increase in the dosage. If we allow pleasure to become our masters, we transform ourselves into the wretched slaves of our desires (see on Pleasure). However, this is not the only subconscious driver which applies the bloody whip to our mind.
The second searing brand is the search for power. Internal to our minds the group dynamics – forged through human and pre-human social interaction – leave us constantly seeking to affirm and improve our status. This self-preening search for power leads the capable to seek domination – of others and their environment – as a means to achieving happiness. The epitome of this quest is the tyrant, able to quash those around them with a word, garnished with the symbols of rank and prestige. But if the tyrant gains these badges through force and guile, they must live in the constant fear of destruction by the same tools which lead to their elevation. A true despot cannot bear to be surrounded by those of capacity, as they are potential threats, and fears even the weakest of subjects who could end their life in a desperate act of violence. Finally, the tyrant, alone of frightened, seals themselves behind the high walls of their bastions. Growing older and weaker they wait for death, all the while the next generation of brutal dictators circle their prey, smelling blood in the water.
So, if pleasure and domination are not sources of happiness, how can continence help us overcome the pitfalls of seeking these two false idols? Firstly, by being continent, we can engage moderately in pleasures, some of which are completely necessary to the continuation of life. By moderation we can stop ourselves from overindulgence, bringing ourselves back from the brink, while still engaging socially with other human beings. Secondly, continence allows us to engage politically with our societies without falling prey to the lust for power. By engaging in politics with justice, we will be able to help contribute to our broader society without oppressing our fellow citizens (see on Obedience).
With this in mind, the question stands as to how we can improve our self-control. Willpower, like all skills, is attained and maintained through constant practice. You should seek always to use continence when dealing with others and yourself, and even if you lapse do not despair. Each failure is only another stepping stone to success in the life-long pursuit of self-mastery.
Anne-Louis Girodet, Hippocrates refusing the gifts of Artaxerxes, 1792