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Sirens and Self-Control
By Daniel Akst   View more articles by this author
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February 25

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There’s a lot to like about Melbourne, Australia’s second largest city: sunshine, great food, trams clattering in all directions, not much traffic and of course the ocean. But there was one thing above all that I was determined to see during my stay: J.W. Waterhouse’s marvelous painting Ulysses and the Sirens (1891) at the National Gallery of Victoria. When I got there at last I was so excited that I had one of the guards to take my picture in front of the thing.


What’s the big deal? Classically inspired works were popular with English painters in those days. But this one is special because it vividly dramatizes history’s first recorded episode of someone saving himself by limiting his own choices.

You know the story. Odysseus (as Ulysses is better known to us) and his men are on the way home to Ithaca from the Trojan War when they approach the Sirens, whose magnificent voice, he’s been warned, lures sailors to their destruction. Odysseus wants to hear the song, but safely. And so he stops up the ears of his crewmen with wax, instructing them to tie him to the mast. Once they do face the music, so to speak, he’ll no doubt demand to be freed, but at that point they must ignore this order and instead just tie him tighter still.

It’s one of the great episodes from The Odyssey, which is all about the difficulty of controlling desire, and I especially wanted to see it because I was in Melbourne to promote the Australian edition of my book, We Have Met the Enemy: Self-Control in an Age of Excess, which talks a lot about such instances of “precommitment.” That’s the term for this kind of thing coined by the economist Robert Strotz back in 1956. Strotz was the first to notice the self-control implications of this scene from Homer’s epic poem.

And that’s one reason stickk.com was so interesting to me. You can’t very well have yourself tied to the mast in order to quit smoking, of course. But you can act today to inflict penalties on yourself tomorrow, when willpower weakens. Like Odysseus, in other words, you can bind yourself in order to set yourself free.

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steen505
steen505
March 5, 2012, 11:49:31 PM GMT
I teach the Odyssey to college students but I never thought about this episode in this way. Odysseus makes it home because he succeeds in controlling his desires, unlike his men. Maybe I'll turn this into a paper topic and have them write about how they control their own desires. I like the picture, too. Thanks!
trustserve
trustserve
January 2, 2012, 6:50:52 PM GMT
Nice article... interesting... however i have to ask... when does it become easy... i would think that at some point i should have to go around tying myself up... It doesn't really seem like self control at that point but more of a preagreed external control...
DiamondJim
DiamondJim
October 6, 2011, 12:44:36 AM GMT
Hello, I have just joined and I live in Melbourne, so I thought that this was some location generated greeting, but I think it was just coincidence. I have never heard of this painting and I have been to the National Gallery plenty of times. I will make a trip into the city and check it out.
Stevenoh
Stevenoh
August 17, 2011, 3:03:38 PM GMT
I like your sentence," Like Odysseus, in other words, you can bind yourself in order to set yourself free". It's sort of paradoxical. I like it. I promised to myself,"I will bind myself in order to set myself free". I'd like to read your book. Thanks.

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