Many readers, no doubt, have heard the Homeric fable about the Sirens. These were the alluring mythical creatures who, by using their advanced powers of song, were able to divert mariners who happened to sail by the rocks they inhabited in the Mediterranean Sea. Their voices were supposed to be so seductive that sailors could not resist them. And when they approached the Sirens’ rocks to get a better look, they ran aground and were destroyed. This, at least, is what the Greek mythologists have told us.
The Sirens most famously appear in the Odyssey (XII.180–200). Odysseus and his men sail by the Sirens’ rocks, and the creatures–part female, part avian–call out to them, imploring them to come closer. Odysseus knows that no man can resist their temptations, so he orders his men to seal their ears, and has himself lashed to the ship’s mast. He wants to hear the song of the Sirens, no matter what. The impression we are given is that there is a strong erotic element associated with the Sirens: perhaps they are meant to symbolize the temptations and perils that carnal pleasures represent for man. I think there is much to be said for this interpretation; and I had never heard of any other. But our iconoclastic friend Cicero offers his own intriguing interpretation of what the Sirens and their songs really are meant to symbolize. His views are found in V.48–V.49 of On Moral Ends. And the more I have thought about his interpretation, the more I find it compelling.
Cicero notes that man has an instinctive love for knowledge. He will put himself through all sorts of agonies to expand his awareness, increase his store of learning, and seek the causes behind things. It is, he tells us, part of what Nature has conferred on human beings to distinguish them from the unreasoning beasts. In the passage below, which is taken from my translation of On Moral Ends (V.49), Cicero provides us additional explanation:
It seems to me that the poet Homer had something like this in mind when he imagined the songs of the Sirens. For it appears that it was neither the seductiveness of their voices, nor the uniqueness and variety of their singing, that used to divert unwary mariners; rather, it was because they claimed to have a storehouse of special knowledge. It was man’s lust for learning that caused him to become ensnared by the Sirens’ fateful rocks. This is how they called out to Ulysses (I have translated these relevant verses below, as well as others):
O Ulysses, great man of Argos, will you turn your ship
And your ears, so that you can learn our sacred songs?
For no one has ever passed through this blue-watered causeway
Who could not first linger, held in rapture by our sweet voices,
And having then satisfied his eager soul with all kinds of special music,
Sail away much wiser back to his homeland’s shores.
We know well the dark truth of conflict and the devastation of war
That the Greeks brought to Troy by divine command,
And the secrets of all things manifested on this earth.
Evidently Homer saw that if a man could be mortally ensnared by some middling song, his fable would not be accepted. The Sirens are promising knowledge; and it is no wonder that this would be more precious to a lover of wisdom than his own country. To wish to know everything under the sun, with no regard for boundaries, is to wish to be counted among the meddlesome; but to be guided by the contemplation of great ideas to a genuine love of knowledge must be recognized as a mark of the greatest of men.
Cicero is telling us that it was the tantalizing prospect of special knowledge that the Sirens dangled over the heads of the unwary, not the temptations of music or sex. Man risks death for wisdom, not for enchanting songs. Read the last sentence again in the quote above: “To wish to know everything under the sun, with no regard for boundaries, is to wish to be counted among the meddlesome; but to be guided by the contemplation of great ideas to a genuine love of knowledge must be recognized as a mark of the greatest of men.” Is this not a sublime idea? Is this not a beautiful conception? I find it so.
Can anyone doubt the truth of his interpretation of the fable of the Sirens? I like his interpretation because it reminds us of an important truth about ourselves: the idea that the man of action is driven by seek knowledge at all costs. We read of many examples of those who have risked their health or lives for knowledge. Explorers, scientists, philosophers, and seekers of all types have gone to the far reaches of the globe in search of hidden, special knowledge. There must be something deep within us that causes us to do this; we will not go to such lengths for the sake of sensory delights. I remember learning an Arabic proverb some years ago: اطلب العلم و لو في صين, and this means, “Seek knowledge, even though it be in China.” I do not know who actually said this, and for my purposes here, its origin is not important. I do not want to get into debates on authentic or false Hadiths, since such matters are beyond my knowledge. The point is that someone said it somewhere, and that it encapsulates a truth about human nature.
But to return to our topic. I like Cicero’s interpretation of the song of the Sirens because it reminds us that man, for all his faults and foibles, was made for greater things than sensory delights. Physical pleasures are fine, when taken in moderation, but we have been granted special gifts by Nature that mark us out for nobler purposes. It is knowledge that we seek, and knowledge that we will risk our lives for. It is just as the French philosopher Blaise Pascal said, many centuries later: man’s nobility comes from his awareness of things, even of his own suffering and death. The universe is passive, apathetic, and cold; and even if man happens to be destroyed by the universe, its victory will still be nothing in comparison to the greatness of man’s persistence in the face of mortal harm. For man will know he is dying; but of its victory, the unthinking universe will forever remain unaware.
Read more in the new illustrated, annotated translation of On Moral Ends: