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

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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Comment by steen505
5 Mar 2012 11:49 PM
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!
Comment by trustserve
2 Jan 2012 06:50 PM
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...
Comment by DiamondJim
6 Oct 2011 12:44 AM
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.
Comment by Stevenoh
17 Aug 2011 03:03 PM
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.
Comment by BarneyX
28 Jul 2011 01:44 PM
Melbourne's a great city. Terrific pubs too.
Comment by anjroo
24 Jul 2011 10:59 AM
I just finished your book and found it informative and entertaining and although I am currently super tired from being up half of last night abusing my body "against my better judgement" at least I now have some idea of how I manage to ignore that better judgement! Many thanks.
Comment by slide338
29 Jun 2011 08:25 PM
Got out your book last week, just finished it, and just signed up on stickK! It was a great read!
Comment by raja_sundar
9 May 2011 06:46 AM
tes
Comment by Hooky
24 Apr 2011 08:28 AM
I've one chapter left to read - "Carpe Diem" - seize the day. A great book helping us to realise how much the very freedom some in the US want us to fight for (looking back to my experience at "Air Venture" Oshkosh WI 2009) can also cause so many health problems - not to mention economics. I hope you enjoy some of the current Australian political debate on this very issue e.g. legislated pre-commitment to reduce problem gambling and yes - a carbon tax for the world's greatest exporter of coal!
Comment by marktj
13 Apr 2011 05:15 PM
I'm pretty heavily involved in my church (LDS) and I've generally sucked at self control but one thing I've found that helps is to fast for two meals and serve others during that time. It doesn't solve the whole self control issue but I think it helps 1) teach you to give up or postpone a desire 2) focus yourself on something other than "the sirens"

Good post, good book, good picture!
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