It’s from Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. He discusses incontinence and how the incontinent are harder to cure because they know one thing is right and yet performs the contrary. That quotation is said to describe an incontinent person.
Outside context I took it to mean, “if you complain about an easy way to do something, what alternatives are there?” but that may be too amateurish and literal of an interpretation.
What other outside context interpretations are there, and what does Aristotle mean?
I think it means you can not rely on one single solution to a certain problem. In the case of choking on water, washing it down is the last thing you want to do. You want it to come back up. I think Aristotle wants you to think of different yet equally effective ways of solving a problem.
Just like someone else mentioned “who do you call when the cops rob you”, you better have a back up plan for that too. Please do not ask me what that back up is because I don’t know.
Water is typically used to wash down something choking you or aggravating your throat. Sometimes, if you drink water too fast it will cause a choking reaction, ie, something went down the wrong pipe. The question is, if that happens, you can’t use your normal response to choking (drink some water) because that’s what cause the problem you’re trying to solve.
You’re left with a problem and your only course of action just makes the problem worse.
Well. I believe when he refers to “the incontinent” he is referring to people with low self-control, who do something that is wrong for them to cure something that is wrong with them.
Example: a person who is depressed about their weight knows (intellectually) that eating a whole cherry pie will only make them fatter and more depressed. But eating a whole cherry pie makes them feel good in the short term, even though in the long term they will logically become fatter and more depressed.
Or a hard drug addict who loathes himself for his habit will do drugs to forget about his problems, even though in the long term he will loathe himself even more and be hurt more by the drugs.
Or an alcoholic who tries to drink away their problems, when their problems all boil down to what they do when they’re drunk or how they feel after drinking.
Basically it’s just referring to someone who is trying to cure a problem by indulging in the same problem.
In the Ethics, moral incontinence is an excessive and involuntary pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain; the morally continent individual can adhere to his or her own standards of conduct, while the morally incontinent individual cannot. The morally continent man drinks water to wash down his food, so to speak; but if a man is incontinent – if his appetite for water is such that he chokes on it – he has no recourse. I think it’s a pre-existing proverb, not something made up for the passage; the meaning appears to be “when the usual solution to the problem turns out to be the problem, you’re screwed.”
I always interpreted this as a statement about addiction. If one is addicted to alcohol, one can conceivably (although not easily) give it up, stay away from it, and live a comfortable life. But what if one is addicted to food?
A gourmand (one who chooses to eat too much ) is more easily cured, because he can simply be pursuaded to chose differently in future. But a true food addict (incontinent - doing without choosing to do) can not completely give up what they crave (if water - something you can not do without - chokes you) or they will die. So a way must be found to imbibe moderately in the addictive substance which is much more difficult.
After looking at the other responses in this thread, and my own previous reading of the same text, I am not sure that you did not get it closer and more lucidly, if somewhat folksy-like, in the very first go. Were I to explain it to someone else, I might well borrow your very words.
I disagree. The proverb is not about complaints, it is about a condition in which the typical solution is the cause of the problem in this case. Though the part about looking for alternatives does fit.
Aristotle cited it against people who take the standard action because it is the standard or expected action, even when it is detrimental. That is not the same as someone complaining about not liking the standard answer.
The other interpretations on this board seem to not be familiar with the context surrounding this passage. Mira (the original author) and smiling bandit are on the right track. Mira you stated exactly what that quote means in your explanation of this book of NE:
“He discusses incontinence and how the incontinent are harder to cure because they know one thing is right and yet performs the contrary.”
The incontinent agent ‘knows what is best,’ and yet he fails to do it. ‘Knowing what is best’ in this case is water-- it is essential to a man’s soul (ethical vessel) in the same way water is essential to a man’s body. But if this knowledge is unpalatable to him and he chokes, then he cannot make the logical choice-- thus depriving his soul of its need to follow the right.
So in this way, the people who compared alcoholics and overeaters were right in that these people, assuming they know that they would be better off without excessive intake of alcohol or food, are incontinent agents. They know they ought not eat or drink to excess, yet they do it anyway. However, this passage is not limited to describing addicts. It could describe any of us at one moment or another when we know what we ought and we fail to do it. For example, I know I ought to be working on my paper right now, but instead I am on this message board talking about the NE.