Two Paths to Self-Control: The Buddha and Jesus vs. Ulysses and Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor


Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology at Duke University, has an interesting recent blog post on self-control, which he frames as a dual dilemma: should we intensively train ourselves to be serene Buddhas, indifferent in the presence of immediate pleasures that might undermine our larger goals, or should we learn from passionate Ulysses, metaphorically tying ourselves to the mast in advance of anticipated temptations?

It’s not necessarily either/or, but Dan Ariely nevertheless votes for the latter (and thinks that, for most people, research supports the choice):

A helpful metaphor is the tale of Ulysses and the sirens. Ulysses knew that the sirens’ enchanting song could lead him to follow them, but he didn’t want to do that.  At the same time he also did not want to deprive himself from hearing their song – so he asked his sailors to tie him to the mast and fill their ears with wax to block out the sound – and so he could hear the song of the sirens but resist their lure. Was Ulysses able to resist temptation (the [Buddha-disciplined] first path)?  No, but he was able to come up with a very useful strategy that prevented him from acting on his impulses (the second path).  Now, Ulysses solution was particularly clever because he got to hear the song of the sirens but he was unable to act on it.

Dan Ariely sounds a bit like Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor here. Like the Grand Inquisitor, he’s a populist: a man of the people offering a compromise against the severe self-discipline sought by anchorite moral perfectionists like the Buddha and Jesus. Ariely is suggesting that there aren’t many people in the world who are really capable of walking in the way of Buddha and Jesus—of developing their power of will to a similar degree. Their radical freedom path is simply too hard for most people. Narrow is that gate, and few enter it, etc. The Grand Inquisitor saw this as well, and offered up miracle, mystery, and authority as a consoling substitute to Jesus’s hard freedom. The Grand Inquisitor wisely discerned that people really don’t want freedom. Instead, they want slavery to lower passions and some form of externally induced mesmerization to help the medicine of any higher calling go down a bit more easily than it otherwise would.

Likewise, Ariely is offering an alternative set of options for those of us on a lower or less ambitious path than that of the Buddha and Jesus (for reasons of general temperament or otherwise). But, instead of the Grand Inquisitor’s miracle, mystery, and authority, Ariely gives us other bamboozlements: distractions (substitutive entertainments), soothing strategies (the illusion of control), and statistics-based psychological studies (the imprimatur of science). La la la, pass the rope and earplugs. Ulysses, not Buddha, says Ariely. There is no need to exercise your will directly or deny your vital animal energies entirely. You can be sensible.

Here’s Ariely again:

It seems that Ulysses and kids ability [in a recent Duke study] to exert self-control is less connected to a natural ability to be more zen-like in the face of temptations, and more linked to the ability to reconfigure our environment (tying ourselves to the mast) and modulate the intensity by which it tempts us (filling our ears with wax).

If this is indeed the case, this is good news because it is probably much easier to teach people tricks to deal with self-control issues than to train them with a zen-like ability to avoid experiencing temptation when it is very close to our faces.

Of course, rather than presenting people with opportunities for practicing their existential freedom (the way of the Buddha and Jesus), it’s easier to “teach people tricks” for existential avoidance (the way of Ulysses). Because it requires a direct confrontation with one’s thoughts and will, exercising the power of choice has always been an unendurable burden for most people. They don’t want it, and don’t want to work with it.

So I guess the lesson is this: if your long-term goal is, say, to lose weight, then the way that you’re most likely to resist the immediate gratification of Doritos is, not to practice a daily half hour meditation in front of a bag of them while you’re hungry—heightening temptation and pain to build up your powers of resistence and tolerance for suffering over time—but to keep Doritos out of the house. Period. (Or, perhaps, you might buy one small bag a week, and indulge your cravings just a little.) This matches the wisdom in Proverbs, which says that bad company tends to corrupt good morals.

And even anchorites are not just characterized by their willful exposure to desolate and painful circumstances, but by their avoidance of opportunities for sin, most obviously in the social realm.

Still, Dan Ariely’s soothing and reassuring psychologist’s whisper—shall we call him the Self-Control Whisperer?—sounds to me like the cunning voice of the same devil that tempted Jesus in the wilderness and egged on Peter to say to Jesus, “Surely you shall not go to a cross, Lord! There must be an easier way!”

To which Matthew’s gospel has Jesus retort, “Get behind me, Satan!” For Matthew, to reach a higher end one must be nailed to a cross in heightened suffering, not tied to a mast for Ulysses-like flirtations with pleasure.

Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor tale ends a bit nicer than the one in Matthew, with Jesus giving the fiendish old religious rationalizer, not a curse, but a simple kiss as retort.


Top of page image source: Wikipedia Commons (a depiction of St Anthony, an early anchorite).

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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1 Response to Two Paths to Self-Control: The Buddha and Jesus vs. Ulysses and Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor

  1. Paradigm says:

    I would guess it depends on personality. A personality type like INFP, INTP or with Openness to experience generally has more self-control than say ESFP or a Sensation Seeker.

    But statistically speaking, people should be tied down ears plugged. Most people are too impulsive to cope with the temptations of the modern environment.

    It’s odd that a psychologist thinks Ulysses made a clever choice by listening to the Sirens while tied. I imagine that would have been torture.

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