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Ancient Greek philosophers coined the term “akrasia” to explain the lack of motivation

Domagoj Valjak

Most of the philosophical conundrums explored by contemporary philosophers were already explored in Ancient Greece.

In fact, Ancient Greek philosophers laid the solid foundation for all philosophical approaches that appeared throughout history: theories of Kant, Hegel or Nietzsche would never exist without Socrates, Plato or Aristotle. Among the many problems that baffled the Ancient Greeks, one of them gets quite a lot of attention today.

“The safest general characterisation of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” (Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, 1929). Photo Credit

“The safest general characterisation of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.” (Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, 1929). Photo Credit

Why don’t we always do what’s best for us? Why do we abandon good decisions in favor of bad ones? Why can’t we follow through on our plans and ideas? Many people would say that the answer is simply laziness or decision fatigue, but Ancient Greek philosophers believed that the problem lies much deeper, in human nature itself.

They coined the term “akrasia,” which describes a state of acting against one’s better judgement or a lack of will that prevents one from doing the right thing.

Plato believed that akrasia is not an issue in itself, because people always choose the solution they think is the best for them, and sometimes it accidentally happens that they choose the bad solution because of poor judgement. On the other hand, Aristotle disagreed with this explanation and argued that the fault in the human process of reasoning is not responsible for akrasia. He believed that the answer lies in the human tendency to desire, which is often far stronger than reason.

Plato (left) and Aristotle (right), a detail of The School of Athens, a fresco by Raphael.

Plato (left) and Aristotle (right), a detail of The School of Athens, a fresco by Raphael.

As with almost all philosophical concepts, a consensus has never been reached and akrasia remains open to interpretation. Still, several contemporary philosophers tried to tackle the issue and offered some valuable conclusions.

The Belgian-American philosopher Amelie Rorty believes that akrasia is even more complicated than it was initially perceived, because it can appear in many forms and cannot be defined with a single definition because it involves many different factors.

American philosopher David Donaldson offered a more simple explanation: he argued that akrasia is a natural process which occurs when the mind decides to exchange a long-term goal for an immediately available pleasure.

“Aristotle with a bust of Homer” by Rembrandt.

“Aristotle with a bust of Homer” by Rembrandt.

Human opinions often change and human decisions are rarely set in stone. Motivation is what makes us unpredictable and persistent, and the life circumstances of the modern world often make motivation disappear.

Read another story from us: Japanese Traditional Art of Kintsugi – A celebration of damage and a philosophy of repairing broken links

We look at achievements of exceptional people and wonder “how did they manage to do that despite all the obstacles”? Think about this question the next time you decide to order a pizza in the middle of the night instead of just choosing yogurt, or when you put off the completion of your unfinished novel because your day was too hard.