Addendum on Illness

11 December 2009


Further to my last post, The Experience of Illness, I find myself still sick, and only marginally better than the day before. However, I am mildly pleased to be able to say that I recovered one of the ideas that I lost during the first stages of my illness, though I’m not yet to the point of writing anything down: the ideas I have at present are precariously preserved exclusively in consciousness, and when I fall asleep, I fall asleep with the worry that they will not be there when I wake up.

Yesterday, when I was feeling particularly fatigued again, I noticed that weakness of the will is magnified by an order of magnitude (if not several) by the experience of illness. My resolutions to accomplish the simplest tasks slipped away scarcely noticed. This strikes me as weakness of the will of the purest sort, because it is a weakness of the will that follows from the physical weakness of the body. Many accounts of weakness of the will assimilate weakness of the will to the classical Greek term akrasia (ἀκρασία), and akrasia in turn is assimilated to irrationality, but there is nothing essentially irrational in being too weak to follow through with a resolution.

If a person who is ill resolves to prepare some healthy food, but fails to do so out of weakness, instead eating prepared foods that leave the person feeling less well than before, we understand this as a literal expression of weakness. The individual knows that healthy food would be better but is incapable of pursuing the optimal course of action. The most common examples of weakness of the will are not too far removed from this, for examples, instances of people who claim that they want to stop drinking or smoking but find themselves unable to do so. Weakness of the will in a more strictly moral sense shades away from these concrete examples, but should not necessarily be thought to represent a different kind of experience. One may know the morally optimal course of action without having the strength to follow through with it. This is not at all unusual, and even in our regimented lives in the midst of industrialized society we face such decisions on an almost daily basis. Who can count the number of times they have hesitated to do battle with a bureaucracy, even knowing that one is right, because one knows that one doesn’t have the strength for the fight? Far from being an instance of irrationality, such a judgment involves a rational assessment of one’s capabilities and an adjustment of one’s expectations in line with one’s capabilities — an eminently reasonable, if humbling, undertaking.

Recent philosophy has moved progressively farther away from Cartesian dualism and toward the reintegration of mind and body. This has been a necessary corrective to an idea extrapolated beyond its scope of validity. But while this has given us a better appreciation of the embodied mind, the consequences are not such as to flatter our vanity. The moral capabilities of an individual are a function of the physical vigor and vitality of the individual — this is the harsh and unforgiving lesson of embodiment. However much we might like to think of ourselves as refined, spiritual, and elevated, even the most subtle and sophisticated minds must acknowledge that the mind is more clearly and distinctly aware of the pangs of hunger and the plight of illness than any idea. It is only after the body has been satisfied, and entered into a state of quiescence, that the mind can move on to extra-corporeal pursuits.

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