On the Ulysses effect: Insight, foresight, and ingenuity

The Story

Aware that, when the time comes, he will be unable to resist the siren’s beautiful song yet cognizant of the fact that the siren is really a death trap, Ulysses advises his men to secure him firmly to the ship’s mast. That way, he can listen to the song without being lured to his untimely death.

For us, what is the point of the story?

The Key

The key to the Ulysses Effect is a combination of insight, foresight, and ingenuity.

Insight

  • Human nature can be weak.
  • The world can be tempting.
  • Self-restraint can be taxing.

Foresight

  • If, when the time comes, self-restraint is outmatched (human nature < world), then the future self is bound to feel low, weak, and brutish.
  • If the future self feels low, weak, and brutish, then it’s bound to feel guilty (self-conception < future self).
  • Because the present self realizes that the future self will likely lack the necessary self-restraint when the time comes, the present self hatches a plot to outwit its future self.

Ingenuity

  • The plot: implement an external mechanism beforehand that is sturdy enough to withstand the temptations that will be placed before the future self.

Questions Asked and Lessons Learned

  • What temptations are too taxing for self-restraint to endure?
  • In such cases, what external mechanisms will be sufficiently robust in the face of these temptations?
  • How, over time and with practice, can one (a) strengthen human nature, (b) diminish worldly temptations, and (c) improve self-restraint?

All this is philosophy as a form of exercise (ascesis).

Further Reading

Andrew Taggart, “How is Willpower Weakened and Strengthened?”

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