We have previously discussed the harm that comes from too much thinking and too little action when attempting to exercise prudence. This results in the Overthinker archetype, one of many distortions of true virtue.
On the other side of the spectrum, we have what I call the Impulsive. At face value, this may seem to be the worse of the two and the more necessary to avoid. However, I think it is a great folly to try to compare these negative archetypes for two reasons.
The first point is that many will overly philosophize issues of negative moral conduct to a point where they fail to actually engage in positive moral conduct. We only have twenty-four hours in a day which we must account for, and rather than focusing too much on that which harms us, we should strive towards that which is healthier for our soul and body.
The second point is that there is generally a higher view of rationally-motivated actions over more ‘animalistic’ impulses. In this light, people will often say the Overthinker is better than the Impulsive because at least the Overthinker is utilizing reason. It is true that reason is a higher faculty, bestowed on men in the image of God. The crux of this problem is that at the end of the day, we are still arguing about the better of two evils. It is not good for a man to be an Overthinker or an Impulsive. The goal will always be to strive for prudence, rather than to merely avoid overthinking and impulsive decision making.
With that out of the way, let us examine qualities of this negative archetype.
The impulsive man may be he who takes risks, jumps up at the chance for crazy opportunities, and is the first in line for to take part in any new trend or for any hot new commodity. Impulsive men may appear to be brilliant, should one of their escapades succeed. Indeed, in many ways they are brilliant, for sometimes they are able to pull things off where the reasoned man may otherwise fail.
However, he is also the man who impulse buys, who is quick to anger, and often gets himself or others in trouble due to rash, unplanned, knee-jerk action. While impulsive actions may feel spur-of-the-moment and freeing, he cultivates habits that lead him to a sense of slavery. He may feel trapped by his capricious actions, unable to escape without deep, concerted effort. Such impulsiveness can also manifest itself in addiction, particularly for habit-forming activities such as gambling or the consumption of drugs.
Such unprompted and impetuous behavior is often due to one of two absences:
- Absence of Willpower: Many books have been written about the subject of willpower, the most well-known being Roy Baumeister’s Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. Modern psychologists view willpower as a muscle of sorts, which can be strengthened through routine exercise, atrophies with disuse, and can tire with overuse. Men that lack willpower (or sufficient willpower to accomplish their goals) are often enraptured by whatever their passions dictate, often at the expense of their goals or better judgement. This is a major problem in our world, which seeks to capitalize on low willpower reserves whether it is the candy placed at every grocery check-out stand or the applications that whittle away at your attention with incessant notifications.
- Absence of Wisdom: It’s not the most politically correct standpoint, but it must be realized that there are men in the world that are simply foolish people. We often dismiss them by saying “they don’t know any better” or “they don’t know what’s best for them.” These people, far from having poor self-control, often utilize their self-control muscle to take actions that are impulsive and capricious.
Before laying out a simple and prudent remedy to impulsiveness, it is important to combat a distinction that has arisen in the past few decades. There is a tendency in many to assume that anyone who engages in negative or harmful activities will feel regret and, thus, after some poor rationalizing, that any lack of regret means that the activity was positive or harmless. Such faulty logic is typically applied in areas of individual morality, but it can be extended to the vice of impulsiveness.
Many will often write-off outcomes of capriciousness if the outcome was beneficial, believing that regret is the sole hallmark of negative impulses or, even more strangely, that perhaps the impulsive action was precipitated by some ‘hidden’ or ‘unknown’ internal urging which is deemed healthy, rather than foolishness or a lack of willpower. This assumes that the ends are the only important matter though, ignoring the necessity of lining up the means to the ends if one is to always act virtuously. Proper action and motivation is much more important than proper outcome. It is far better to come up short after doing the right thing than succeed by doing the wrong thing. The end goal of the pursuit of virtue is to line up your actions and results so that every aspect is informed by virtues you have cultivated.
The solution to such impetuous action involves the cultivation of patient reflection, the enemy of impulsiveness. Too often is impulsiveness caused by reacting to opportunities, positive or negative, rather than acting to capitalize on them.
Slowing down and removing yourself from the moment is a way to immediately check your self-control, or lack thereof, and assess whether or not you are acting on impulse or after some quick, reasoned thought. This does not need to be a drawn out process, for fear that we begin to overthink things – a few moments is all that suffices.
Adequate reflection in this scenario has two components, the first being the immediate meditation on whether or not the impulsive action is in accordance with your goals, habits, or merely noble, virtuous living. One can rationally articulate a need for the candy he sees at the check-out counter, so this last (quick) step is needed to remind you of your higher goals. The second is a deeper reflection after the fact which aims to identify successes and failures of action and whether or not you need to educate yourself any further to overcome any reckless actions in the future.
Ultimately, like everything in the pursuit of virtue, practice is necessary. If you make impulsive decisions, you must regularly practice ways to slow down, evaluate your decisions, act prudently, and then reflect on your actions (similar to the OODA loop we discussed in the last episode).
Some takeaways from this archetype for the cultivation of prudence are that we must:
- Slow down. Be patient. Act, don’t react.
- Let your means be as virtuous as your ends.
- Self-control and wisdom are both necessary on the path to prudence.
Next, we will examine negative archetypes related to the cardinal virtue justice. In the meantime, we recommend listening to the podcast episodes on prudence for more insight and practices that can help you overcome impulsiveness.