Encyclopedia of Renaissance Philosophy

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Weakness of Will

  • Risto SaarinenEmail author
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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-02848-4_210-2


Weakness of will (akrasia) continues to be actively discussed in the Renaissance and the Reformation. Important treatises are written by John Buridan, Petrarch, John Mair, Josse Clichtove, Joachim Camerarius, Francesco Piccolomini, and Lambert Daneau. The dominant Aristotelian framework is complemented by Neo-Stoic and Platonic considerations. Increasingly voluntarist interpretations gain ground, stressing the “clear-eyed” nature of some akratic choices. While the practical syllogism continues to be employed, its overall significance for the explanation of human action decreases. Typical of early modern discussions is an inner wrestling between various rational arguments, or between reason and emotional perturbations, or between spiritual and carnal aspects of humanity. The uncertainty of human knowledge and the decisive importance of particular facts are emphasized more strongly than in classical and medieval discussions.


Good Judgment Early Modern Period Minor Premise Christian Ethic Aristotelian Tradition 
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Heritage and rupture with the tradition

Weakness of will, sometimes called with the Greek term akrasia or the Latin term incontinentia, depicts the phenomenon of acting against one’s better judgment, that is, the situation in which one knows the good one ought to do but nevertheless does something else. A person who does the good while also having harmful tendencies is called continent or enkratic. Virtuous and vicious people do the good or the evil without any inclinations to the contrary. The concept of akrasia has its origins in Book VII of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics (EN), in which this phenomenon is discussed. Since knowledge is stronger than opinions or emotions, and since better judgment represents this knowledge, no rational person should act against what he or she considers best. Often people nevertheless seem to act akratically. How can this phenomenon be explained?

As one crucial part of his explanation, Aristotle launches the practical syllogism, a calculative model of the emergence of human action. The practical syllogism consists of a major premise that expresses a general principle and a minor premise that states a particular observation. Given the intellectualist framework, rational beings should follow the conclusion implied by the two premises. Aristotle’s famous example concerns eating: “Sweet things are to be avoided” (major); “this is sweet” (minor); and “this should be avoided” (conclusion). Hence, a person’s acts result from his or her calculative deliberations in terms of practical syllogism (EN 1145a-1147b).

The standard Aristotelian answer to the problem of akrasia is that akratic persons know the good in a universal sense, but their grasp of the minor premise is impeded or imperfect. Thus, the akratic person eats the sweets, knowing that sweet things should generally be avoided, but fooling himself or herself into ignoring the particular case at hand (EN 1147a-b). Is this ignorance voluntary or not? A great range of different answers has been presented. Thomas Aquinas, for instance, says that philosophically such behavior is like involuntary forgetting, but theologically it is voluntary (Saarinen 1994, 118–131).

In addition to Aristotle, there is a Stoic tradition of akrasia of which scholars have only recently become better aware (Müller 2009, 155–193). The Stoic tradition is fragmentary; we have some texts of Chrysippus and Galen and uncertain mentions from Plutarch, Epictetus and Origen. Augustine is in some ways connected to this tradition (Saarinen 2011, 19–27). The Stoic tradition survives in some examples, of which the two most popular ones are “the runner who cannot stop running” and the literary figure of Medea who falls in love and kills her children against her better judgment. Both Medea’s love and her rage are used as examples of akrasia.

The Stoics discuss two possible options of akrasia. First, there may be so-called pre-passions, akratic leanings that emerge before (sometimes only immediately before) a judgment is formed. Second, the agent may be so strongly predetermined by some earlier habits that the new information cannot change his or her course of action immediately but only after a delay. After the assented judgment, for instance, to stop running, the runner proceeds at least for some meters. This proceeding might be called acting against one’s own better judgment.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses 7, 20–21, Medea claims to “see the better and approve it, but follow the worse.” This means, according to the Stoic view, that she saw that it was better to stay at her father’s home, but her love nevertheless caused her to continue with Jason. Although she intellectually decided to stay with her father, her earlier course of life was still so predominant that it led to a different action. In this manner, the case of Medea exemplifies the second Stoic option.

Plato’s writings also play a role in the interpretation of akrasia. In Protagoras 351–358, Plato draws a picture of Socrates that is very similar to Aristotle’s discussion in EN VII. This Socrates defends the view that “no one willingly goes to meet evil or what he thinks to be evil” (358c). In Republic 431, however, Plato outlines the inner conflict between the better and the worse parts of human soul, teaching that the better part, or reason, should rule the lower and irrational part. However, akrasia remains a genuine possibility, as there are situations in which the better part stays alive but is mastered by the lower one (Hoffmann 2008, 1–22). We may label the option of Republic as a/the “commonplace Platonic” view of akrasia, meaning a position in which reason and desire struggle in the human soul; desire can sometimes overcome reason. Augustine seems to have received some ideas from this tradition as well.

All three traditions – the Aristotelian, Stoic, and commonplace Platonic – are relevant for the understanding of weakness of will in the period between 1300 and 1650. The Aristotelian heritage dominates late medieval and early modern discussions. Stoic considerations and examples, Medea in particular, are increasingly mentioned in the sixteenth century. The commonplace Platonic picture of inner struggle is often mentioned in the treatment of akrasia; however, this picture is a general feature of the discussion rather than a distinct explanatory tradition.

The most important fourteenth-century discussion of akrasia takes place in John Buridan’s commentary on EN. Buridan teaches that the will is prepared for action through three stages. The will first receives a judgment of the practical intellect, informing it of various good and bad aspects of the alternatives under consideration. This preliminary judgment does not prompt action but only generates an act of “complacence” or “displacence” in the will. The cluster of first acts is followed by the second act of the will, which is the actual acceptance or refusal of the judgment’s conclusion. The third act of the will is the action itself (Buridan 1968, 41–43).

Akratic conduct occurs in a situation that is characterized by a “twofold inclination”; that is, a situation in which a person inclines towards contrary alternatives. Incontinence is primarily located in the will, because it is the faculty of the soul that can exercise a choice towards one alternative or its opposite (Buridan 1968, 141). Although the different first acts of the will can exemplify different preliminary judgments, Buridan defends the final unity of judgment and assent. He therefore refutes the view that a person can, strictly speaking, have contrary judgments about a particular action.

Buridan is both Stoic and Aristotelian in his emphasis on the unity of the judgment. Although the first act of the will can generate different and contrary viewpoints, the complete situation will finally be judged in a unified manner. This is expressed in the second act of the will, which prompts action. The second act is not, however, a voluntarist manifestation of freedom, but an intellectualist affirmation of the best option. Buridan underlines this intellectualist stance in his decisive questions regarding weakness of will. In his view, since it is not possible to act against actual, particular, and perfect knowledge, akrasia is accompanied by some ignorance. He further holds that the will necessarily obeys the conclusion of the practical intellect, if this conclusion is argued with full clarity and certainty. On the other hand, Buridan concedes that concrete decision-making often takes place in uncertain situations in which weakness of will can occur (Saarinen 1994, 178–181).

Buridan’s commentary had a vast manuscript diffusion (particularly in central Europe) and had several printings in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries; it remained influential in the universities. Through Martin Luther’s teacher Bartholomaeus Arnoldi de Usingen, Buridan’s views were familiar to the early Reformers. As Luther was critical of the scholastic treatment of “good works,” Buridan’s theory of action represented for him a typical scholastic view in which merit and virtue can be achieved through rational decision-making (Saarinen 2011, 105–132).

Among early-modern scholastic interpreters of weakness of will, John Mair (1470–1550) offers a thorough discussion that both continues Buridan’s intellectualist leanings and is innovative in its strategy of preserving the idea of free will. He affirms the possibility of akrasia in three ways (Mair 1530, 110). First, Mair concludes that a person’s will can prevent itself from working. This point resembles the Parisian condemnations of 1277 and John Buridan that ascribe to free will the option of remaining in the state of non velle (refusal to will something??) (Saarinen 1994, 168). The second way interprets Aristotle in a somewhat “commonplace Platonist” manner, claiming that the conflict between reason and desire features prominently in action theory and that desire can sometimes overcome reason.

The third way compares akrasia with so-called mixed actions, which are discussed in EN III, 1. A classical example of this kind is the shipping merchant who throws his goods overboard to survive a storm. For Mair, Aristotle's mixed actions recall features of akrasia although the person in Aristotle’s examples does not ignore or forget anything. To make room for such affirmations of akrasia, Mair undertakes an original claim that in syllogistic deduction the akratic person can affirm something shameful while also thinking that nothing shameful should be followed. This is possible if the first case refers to some concrete choice at hand, whereas the second case pertains to what is morally right. In this manner, Mair can combine voluntarist conclusions with the overall syllogistic structure of Aristotelian action theory.

Petrarch’s Secretum is an early example of the humanist reception of the problem of akrasia. In Petrarch, a person freely chooses the wrong option. While this fundamental choice is not caused by ignorance or disorder, it brings about ignorance and disorder as its consequence. These problems of the incontinent person can be remedied in cognitive therapy so that the person can see his voluntarist nature in a truthful light. This picture is not very far from late medieval Franciscan voluntarism. When Petrarch’s mask Francesco at the end of Secretum states that he cannot restrain his desire for study and turn to the spiritual road proposed by Augustine (Petrarch 1989, 144), he is not making a nonreligious free choice, but rather continues the tradition of late medieval voluntarism in an original way.

Much of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century humanist philosophy continues the doctrinal patterns of late medieval Aristotelianism. For this reason, the presentations of akrasia in Donato Acciaiuoli (1428–1478) and Jacques Lefèvre d’Étaples (1455–1536) are traditional (Acciaiuoli 1565, Lefèvre d’Étaples 1497). Some important innovations take place in Josse Clichtove’s (1514) commentary, in which he provides the above-mentioned example of Medea’s conflict as paradigm of akrasia. This example became extremely popular; it is discussed by most later commentators of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. As Medea exemplifies “clear-eyed akrasia,” a situation in which one goes wrong knowingly and willingly, this example creates a counterweight to Aristotelian intellectualism. Different traditional interpretations of Paul’s struggle in Romans 7 also appear in this context (for Romans 7, cf. Müller 2009 and Saarinen 2011).

Among later Catholic treatises, the moral philosophy of Francesco Piccolomini (1520–1604) discusses weakness of will in detail. Piccolomini wants to integrate Platonism more strongly with the existing traditions of Aristotelianism and Neo-Stoicism. He is aware of the intellectualist stance of Protagoras, but stresses also the “commonplace Platonist” view of inner struggle. He also analyses the case of Medea. One of his basic conclusions is that, while Plato focuses on the pure mind, Aristotle pays attention to the actual human condition. For this reason, Aristotle’s views are to be preferred (Piccolomini 1595, 262–267). As a whole, however, Piccolomini’s discussion remains eclectic and combines elements from different intellectualist and voluntarist traditions. As a comprehensive textbook, his work had an extensive reception history in both Protestant and Catholic milieus.

In early modern Catholic thinking, the vocabulary of weakness of will is often replaced with other Aristotelian and scholastic discourses. For instance, while Francisco Suárez (1548–1617) discusses the influence of coaction, concupiscence, fear, and ignorance on voluntary action in great length, he does not treat these as instances of akrasia (Suárez 1856, 181–233).

The Protestant reception history of akrasia starts with Philip Melanchthon’s scattered remarks. Melanchthon (1497–1560) is interested in the case of Medea and speaks frequently of the inner wrestling and struggles that last through a Christian’s entire life (Saarinen 2011, 132–142). John Calvin (1509–1564) discusses akrasia explicitly in his influential Institutio (Calvin 2006, II, 2, 23). For Calvin, the conscience informs even sinful persons of their wrongdoing. At the same time, people can go wrong in their evaluation of particular facts so that they act against their better judgment. Calvin’s view is fairly Aristotelian and has some resemblance to that of John Mair.

Melanchthon’s pupil Joachim Camerarius (1500–1574) lays out a particularly detailed analysis of weakness of the will in his commentary on EN. Camerarius knows well the Platonic and Stoic traditions, but he adheres to Aristotelianism, which he attempts to harmonize with Melanchthon’s theological and philosophical insights. He keeps the structure of the practical syllogism and argues, in keeping with the Aristotelian tradition, that the particular facts of the minor premise are not grasped properly in the akratic deliberation. Thus, some ignorance precedes akratic acts. Unlike former Aristotelians, however, Camerarius considers that the uncertainty related to our perception of empirical particulars is nothing less than “the cause of all evil” (Camerarius 1578, esp. 325–326).

The error of the akratic person thus concerns the particular circumstances: the devil is in the details. While this view is close to the Aristotelian syllogistic model, Camerarius is so focused on the uncertainty of particulars that his discussion resembles that of Buridan. The neglect of the particulars is also voluntary. Camerarius advances significantly beyond Melanchthon and Calvin; he also departs from the earlier Aristotelian tradition. The weight of empirical particulars and the uneasiness provided by small changes is an innovation of Camerarius that we encounter later in Leibniz.

Among the early Calvinist authors on akrasia, Lambert Daneau (1535–1590) is particularly interesting for several reasons. He is often considered the first author who develops a Christian ethics, understanding ethics no longer as a philosophical but rather a theological discipline. Daneau is also the first author who applies Martin Luther’s view of the Christian as “righteous and sinner at the same time” consistently to ethics. While Melanchthon and Calvin also borrow this idea from Luther, they do not work it out in detail and do not fully grasp its significance for the analysis of the human condition. The Reformation anthropology that has its origins in Luther receives its first fully elaborated moral-philosophical expression in Daneau’s Christian ethics (Saarinen 2011, 188–200).

Daneau establishes the picture of inner wrestling as a core doctrine of ethics: Christian ethics is concerned with virtus luctans, the virtue that continuously wrestles with harmful affects. The results of this struggle manifest themselves as continence and, in case of failure, as akrasia. Daneau points out that no human being can achieve true virtue in this life because the power and tinder of sin remain active in us. Even the apostle Paul could not achieve perfect virtue, as Romans 7 shows. Romans 7 is an example of Paul’s continence, not of his virtue nor of his weakness of will (Daneau 1583, 101). Daneau draws the conclusion that continence is the best stage that Christians can achieve in this life. It further means that a textbook on Christian ethics has to focus on the so-called wrestling virtue, as it is the option that we really encounter. Christians thus struggle between continence and weakness of will.

While the early modern period revives the old traditions of Aristotelianism, Stoicism, and Platonism, this period is also innovative in its treatment of akrasia. Buridan and Mair pay increased attention to uncertainty and the voluntarist nature of human decision-making; this innovative current is continued by Camerarius. The Protestant authors claim that pure virtue is almost impossible in this life; at the same time, conscience points to the difference between right and wrong. For this reasons, Christians remain in the struggle between continence and akrasia. Daneau presents the universal version of such innovative claims in his view that Christian ethics as a whole is concerned with wrestling virtue.

The cultural and intellectual impact of these innovations is considerable. In practical philosophy, the new prominence of uncertainty and voluntarism means that moral considerations no longer appear as universal as they did in earlier Aristotelianism. The inner struggle exemplified by Medea and Romans 7 became a fashionable literary and theological paradigm in the early modern period. All humans were supposed to experience an inner struggle, and there are many different variants of such wrestling. Among the literary expressions of inner struggle, Shakespeare’s Sonnets belong to the most famous.

The philosophical legacy of these themes is visible in the extensive contemporary literature concerning weakness of will. Not unlike Aristotle, contemporary philosophy often aims at explaining human action in terms of rational calculation. Phenomena like inner struggle and irrational behavior can be considered as philosophical challenges of such explanatory paradigms (Stroud 2014).


Primary Literature

  1. Acciaiuoli, D. 1565. Expositio super libros Ethicorum Aristotelis. Venice.Google Scholar
  2. Buridan, J. 1968. Questiones super decem libros Ethicorum. Paris 1513, reprint Frankfurt. Minerva.Google Scholar
  3. Calvin, J. 2006. Institutes of the Christian Religion. Louisville. Westminster John Knox Press.Google Scholar
  4. Camerarius, J. 1578. Explicatio librorum Ethicorum ad Nicomachum, Frankfurt.Google Scholar
  5. Clichtove, J. 1514, with Lefèvre. Artificialis Introductio in X libros Ethicorum, elucidate commentariis Clichtovaei. Paris.Google Scholar
  6. Daneau, L. 1583. Ethices Christianae libri tres. Geneva.Google Scholar
  7. Lefèvre d’ Étaples, Jacques. 1497. X libros moralium Aristotelis tres conversiones. Paris.Google Scholar
  8. Mair, J. 1530. Ethica Aristotelis Peripateticorum principis. Cum Ioannes Maioris Theologi Parisiensi Commentariis. Paris.Google Scholar
  9. Petrarch. 1989. Secretum with introduction, notes, and critical anthology. New York. Peter Lang.Google Scholar
  10. Piccolomini, F. 1595. Universa philosophia de moribus. Frankfurt.Google Scholar
  11. Suárez, Francisco. 1856. De voluntario et involuntario. Opera omnia, vol. 4. Paris. Vivès.Google Scholar

Secondary Literature

  1. Hoffmann, T. ed. 2008. Weakness of will from Plato to the present. Washington. CUA Press.Google Scholar
  2. Müller, J. 2009. Willensschwäche in Antike und Mittelalter. Leuven. Leuven University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Saarinen, R. 1994. Weakness of the will in medieval thought: From Augustine to Buridan. Leiden. Brill.Google Scholar
  4. Saarinen, R. 2011. Weakness of will in renaissance and reformation thought. Oxford. Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  5. Stroud, S. 2014. Weakness of will. In The Stanford encyclopedia of philosophy. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/weakness-will/

Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of TheologyUniversity of HelsinkiHelsinkiFinland

Section editors and affiliations

  • David A. Lines
    • 1
  1. 1.Italian Studies, School of Modern Languages and CulturesUniversity of WarwickCoventryUnited Kingdom