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Warning: nerdy political theory post coming up.

adorno-trading-card1Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, co-authors of Nudge, one the most important political books of last year, have a special fondness for Odysseus. They particularly like the bit where he confronts the Sirens, because this seems to them to be the perfect example of a “nudge”. Odysseus ties himself to the mast so that he doesn’t have to rely on willpower alone. In just the same way, they argue, we can tweak our physical environment to ensure that our good selves overcome our greedy, irrational selves, the parts of us which cannot resist temptation.

This is an influential meme. It turns up on websites like, where Dr. Alex Benzer (author of The Tao of Dating for Women, among other books) has christened it The Odysseus Protocol (sample quote: “Now Odysseus is one crafty dude”). It features in academic and political debates about libertarian paternalism, the philosophy underlying Sunstein and Thaler’s work.

I’ve always found something slightly suspicious about both the idea, but it was not until I began to read Raymond Geuss’s collection of essays Outside Ethicsthat I worked out exactly what. Geuss writes brilliantly (naturally; he is brilliant) about the German thinker Theodor Adorno. He summarises Adorno’s view of Odysseus thus:

the “archetype of the bourgeois individual” … Odysseus gains knowledge, control over nature (and aesthetic satisfaction) by virtue of self-repression, being bound to the mast, and by virtue of reducing his sailors to the status of (temporarily) mutilated slaves, who must row with stopped ears.

This relates to Adorno’s view (developed, like the above, with Max Horkheimer in The Dialectic of Enlightenment) that Enlightenment ethics, in particular those of Immanuel Kant, are essentially sadistic. (Anyone who’s read Vernon God Little will be, like me, reading “Immanuel Kant” as “Manual Cunt”). The fully rational universe that Kant describes, above all its emphasis on “duty“, can only be explained by an enjoyment of pain – that, or an enjoyment of pain being inflicted.

The widespread acceptance of The Odysseus Protocol would also seem to support a disturbing further thought. As Geuss puts it:

…the real world which we inhabit is already the world of de Sade – of universal sadism directed at self and others and of sadism’s mirror image, masochism – if just a little bit less fully and systematically organised, a bit less “rational”, than [de Sade's great work] The 120 Days of Sodom.

Perhaps you find this a bit far-fetched. Consider, in this light, the words of our friend Dr. Benzer:

he made sure his crew wouldn’t be tempted by plugging their ears, and he made sure he didn’t do anything silly by getting himself tied up nice and tight.

Less Marquis de Sade, more Oooh matron! Even so…


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