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WE HAVE MET THE ENEMY: Self-Control in an Age of Excess

by Daniel Akst

The Penguin Press | 2011 | 275 pages | $26.95

Reviewed by Michael Carey

daniel akst

The American Heritage Dictionary describes self-control as “Control of one’s emotions, desires, or actions by one’s own will.”  However, in We Have Met The Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess, Daniel Akst proposes that this definition is inadequate.  It gives no consideration to the conflicting desires present in all of us.  To improve upon this definition, Akst acknowledges a hierarchy of human desires.  First order desires are any old desires that may cross our minds, while second orders are the ones we actually want for ourselves.  He writes, “What self-control doesn’t mean, in my book, is mindless self-sacrifice or knee-jerk self-denial.  On the contrary, it represents an affirmation of self, for it requires not the negation of instinct, but its integration into a more complete form of character—one that takes account of more than just immediate pleasures and pains.  The self-control I’m talking about means acting in keeping with your highest level of reflection.”

The author introduces the reader slowly to the excesses and temptations present in everyday life with staggering stats, figures, and examples. The Internet alone, for example, has made everything cheaper, faster, and easier; all three promote impulse decisions that undermine rational thought and make self-control more difficult.  However, Akst proclaims that to succeed in keeping focus on our second order desires, three things are needed.  To do so requires faith in the power to choose, imagination to visualize the possible future the choices will create, and cleverness to create methods that promote the desired actions. Akst gives us a few examples of historical and literary figures that employed forms of pre-commitment, and offers a few other solutions to help curb indulgence.  The story of Odysseus tied to the mast while listening to the sirens’ song, among other examples he uses, is meant to induce the reader into thinking about the possibilities and measures available for aiding in self-control.  Akst then dives into an exploration of how the world came to such excess.

Akst guides a path through history starting with the philosophy of the ancient Greeks and their solution for a society of moderation.  He relates the success of capitalism and the rise of New World ideals, from thrift to profligacy, to the growing emphasis of the self in self-control. 

Akst does not fail to acknowledge the importance of the Reformation, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, and the teachings of Sigmund Freud as he brings the reader through the Great Depression, the liberation of the Sixties, and the inflation of the Seventies to the present.  Several times he references the recent financial crisis and explores it as a demonstration of our society’s failure, on many levels, to regulate and educate ourselves. 

The whole picture is painted as a meandering path that encountered many forks in the road along the way.  The majority made decisions about whose ideas to follow (or even how to interpret those ideas), and those decisions have led us to where we are as a society today.  Many social changes occurred along the way, and Akst discusses a few and the effect they have had on self-control.

There is a debate of Nature vs. Nurture that has been ongoing for many years with great support on both sides.  This argument has embedded itself, always at the root, into topics of humans, humanity, and the future before us.  Self-control is no exception.  Some wonder if we have any choice at all: Are our choices just responses to nature?

A great amount of science, and numerous studies have contributed to what is understood about the delay of gratification, evolution, and how the brain is designed and functions.  We Have Met The Enemy condenses this information through the exploration of experiments in conditioning, studies of children and adults’ choices of varying rewards as a function of time, as well as breakthroughs in medical sciences.

Akst is clear in his position implicating that some responsibility resides with the individuals for choices made.  Moreover, he is unafraid to dive into the influence that heredity, environment, and biology have and the amount of choices humans actually have, even though these issues have a potential to undermine his argument.  He also attacks controversial issues on the matters of addiction, crimes of passion, “cutting loose”, and the role of government. 

After introducing the reader to the many facets and ideas of self-control and the possible detrimental effects a lack of it can produce, Akst proceeds to constructively guide the reader to ways of strengthening willpower and offers guidelines and options that an individual can use to avoid a harmful faltering of the will.

We Have Met The Enemy is as much a testimony to the amount of research Akst compiled as to the depth of the issue of self-control.  I found the reading slow at times (It was more Encyclopedia Britannica than Encyclopedia Brown), but the way the author ties his ideas together was unique and enjoyable.  He uses humor and pop culture references to keep the mood light as he slides through the heavy subject matter. I took pleasure in reading this book and in the many interesting views and facts it presents.

I think this overview of self-control would be helpful to anyone even mildly struggling with temptations.  I’ll readily admit that I started reading this book with a beer in hand almost as a challenge to the author.  While he may not have succeeded in breaking me of bad habits, a basic understanding of the challenges and processes we face with each decision has helped me to look at my options and often make a better choice.

Akst also offers several clever solutions for those serious about changing actions and creating better habits.  In conclusion, I will end with a quote from Akst that sums a central theme in his book: “…for while we don’t have much say over the desires that we have, we certainly can decide which we prefer—and then search for ways to act on that basis.”

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