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Sunday, April 28, 2024

Odyssean Bargain

At a Church of Perpetual Life discussion, Cairn Erfreuliche Idun shared something pithy with us that she had originated.  She said she once ran it by B.F. Skinner and it resonated with him:

The better you understand the controls that control you,
 the better you can control the controls that control you.

It made me think of the "Odyssean bargain".  I read about this on the Web some years ago but when I search now I cannot find that phrase used in the same context that I remember.  Here is what it might mean:

In Greek mythology, sirens are man-eating monsters that entice sailors to their deaths through alluring song.  Odysseus wanted to be able to listen to the siren song without being drawn in and consumed.  He achieved this by having himself bound to a mast while the rest of the crew was protected by plugging their ears with beeswax.

So what he was doing here was taking steps while he was in control to prevent self-destructive behavior later when he knew he would be out of control.  I have heard that people who are addicted to a drug sometimes deliberately put themselves in a situation where they cannot possibly access the drug for many days so that they can make it through to the other side of withdrawal.  An example of this might be an addict throwing away their cigarettes just before launching for a sail across the Pacific.

There is a trend where people will motivate themselves by vowing to donate funds to an organization that they hate unless they achieve a goal by a given deadline.  These cases might not be Odyssean bargains because the actors are still in control, not out of control, as they are highly motivated to take steps to avoid the self-imposed negative consequences.  This will not work with sailors under the siren spell nor with addicts to whom all negative consequences are secondary.

Something else that sounds similar but is probably different is the advice that one should not go grocery shopping on an empty stomach.  If you postpone heading out until just after a meal, you are ensuring that you staying in control during the period of temptation instead of making it physically impossible to load your shopping cart with junk food.  An Odyssean bargain might instead be to choose to go to a health food store where that option is not available.

The word "bargain" implies that something is freely given in exchange for something else.  For the opportunity to hear the siren song, Odysseus made a conscious decision while he still had free will to restrict his freedom of movement in the future when he would not.  When I was finally able to quit smoking some decades ago after being bedridden for three days, that was more of a happy accident than a bargain struck.

Update 2024-04-29
Today I discovered the Wikipedia article Ulysses pact.