Aristotle and Force


By Michael Alberto 

Aristotle understood force as something that is compulsory, forcing an individual to do something. In the Eudemian Ethics, Aristotle specifically said, “In another way, too, men are said to act by force and compulsion without any disagreement between reason and desire in them, viz. When they do what they consider both painful and bad, but they are threatened with whipping, imprisonment, or death, if they do not do it,” (Eudemian Ethics 1225ͣ 1-6). Force is defined as a concept that does not eliminate free will, as Aristotle did not indicate that it is a binary of “do or do not” when force is applied. Rather, force is something that pushes the individual to do something they would normally not do or coerce them into doing whatever the “force” is pushing them to do. 

Aristotle additionally provided an example of what force is through the actions of a tyrant. He described the tyrant as “…[ordering] one to do something base, having one’s parents and children in his power, and if one did the action they were to be saved, but otherwise would be put to death” (Nicomachean Ethics 1110ͣ 5-7). Aristotle immediately questioned whether these actions would be considered voluntary or involuntary, but regardless of whether or not they were, it was clear that force was acting as a constraint of choice on what action to take in this scenario. It was a constraint on the individual because it was shaping their opinion on what actions to take. Force acted as an agent of change because of the effect it had on the individual in the situation. 

The scenario of the tyrant holding the individual’s family hostage and threatening them with death created the force that pushed the individual to act to save their family. In doing so, force became the agent of change that shifted the realm of possibilities in the situation to narrow it down to the choices that would save the individual’s family from death. With regards to the ability to choose different choices, force itself did not limit the individual to only choose the most beneficial option; however, it acted as a constraint to nudge the individual in the direction of the most beneficial opinion. On the subject of choice, Aristotle stated that “…choice is not either true or false. Nor yet is choice identical with our opinion about matters of practice which are in our own power, as when we think that we ought to do or not to do something” (Eudemian Ethics 1226ͣ 4-5). Choice in this understanding is something that is malleable and can be shaped by external factors. External factors in this scenario included force and the narrowing of choice–force was constraining the individual to choose between. The individual did not have to submit to what they were being forced to do to save their family, but if they did not do what was being presented to them, their family would die. While not restricting the individual to save their family as their only option, force was still acting to persuade them to save their family by presenting it as the most obvious and plausible choice. 

Force can additionally be understood as a sliding scale of severity. If the tyrant offered a less severe punishment or provided a different ultimatum toward the individual in the scenario, force as an agent of action would be less constraining because they would feel less compelled to perform the action, since the punishment would be less severe. The individual may have still felt compelled to perform the action to save their family, but if they were not to be put to death and had a less severe punishment, the individual would act with force not being the most dominant factor.