THE FABLE of the Sirens is truly applied to the pernicious allurements of pleasure; but in a very poor and vulgar sense. For I find the wisdom of the ancients to be like grapes ill-trodden: something is squeezed out, but the best parts are left behind and passed over.
The Sirens were daughters (we are told) of Achelous and of Terpsichore, one of the Muses. Originally they had wings; but being beaten in a contest with the Muses which they had rashly challenged, their wings were plucked off, and turned by the Muses into crowns for themselves, who thenceforward all wore wings on their heads, except only the mother of the Sirens. These Sirens had their dwelling in certain pleasant islands, whence they kept watch for ships; and when they saw any approaching, they began to sing; which made the voyagers first stay to listen, then gradually draw near, and at last land; when they took and killed them. Their song was not all in one strain; but they varied their measures according to the nature of the listener, and took each captive with those which best suited him. So destructive the plague was, that the islands of the Sirens were seen afar off white with the bones of unburied carcasses. For this evil two different remedies were found; one by Ulysses, the other by Orpheus. Ulysses caused the ears of his crew to be stopped with wax; and himself (wishing to make trial of the thing without incurring the danger) to be bound to the mast; at the same time forbidding any one at his peril to loose him even at his own request. Orpheus, not caring to be bound, raised his voice on high, and singing to his lyre the praises of the Gods, drowned the voices of the Sirens, and so passed clear of all danger.
The fable relates to Morals, and contains an elegant though obvious parable. Pleasures spring from the union of abundance and affluence with hilarity and exultation of mind. And formerly they carried men away at once, as if with wings, by the first view of their charms. But doctrine and instruction have succeeded in teaching the mind, if not to refrain altogether, yet to pause and consider consequences; and so have stripped the Pleasures of their wings. And this redounded greatly to the honour of the Muses—for as soon as it appeared by some examples that Philosophy could induce a contempt of Pleasures, it was at once regarded as a sublime thing, which could so lift the soul from earth, and make the cogitations of man (which live in his head) winged and ethereal. Only the mother of the Sirens still goes on foot and has no wings; and by her no doubt are meant those lighter kinds of learning which are invented and applied only for amusement; such as those were which Petronius held in estimation; he who being condemned to die, sought in the very waiting-room of death for matter to amuse him, and when he turned to books among other things for consolation, would read (says Tacitus) none of those which teach constancy of mind, but only light verses. Of this kind is that of Catullus,
Let’s live and love, love, while we may;
And for all the old men say
Just one penny let us care:
and that other,—
Of Rights and Wrongs let old men prate, and learn
By scrupulous weighing in fine scales of law
What is allowed to do and what forbid.
For doctrines like these seem to aim at taking the wings away from the Muses’ crowns and giving them back to the Sirens. The Sirens are said to live in islands; because Pleasures commonly seek retiring-places aloof from the throngs of men. As for the song of the Sirens, its fatal effect and various artifice, it is everybody’s theme, and therefore needs no interpreter. But that circumstance of the bones being seen from a distance like white cliffs, has a finer point: implying that the examples of other men’s calamities, however clear and conspicuous, have little effect in deterring men from the corruptions of pleasure.
The parable concerning the remedies remains to be spoken of: a wise and noble parable, though not at all abstruse. For a mischief so fraught with cunning and violence alike, there are proposed three remedies: two from philosophy, the third from religion. The first method of escape is to resist the beginnings, and sedulously to avoid all occasions which may tempt and solicit the mind. This is the waxing up of the ears, and for minds of ordinary and plebeian cast—such as the crew of Ulysses—is the only remedy. But minds of a loftier order, if they fortify themselves with constancy of resolution, can venture into the midst of pleasures; nay and they take delight in thus putting their virtue to a more exquisite proof; besides gaining thereby a more thorough insight—as lookers-on rather than followers—into the foolishness and madness of pleasures: which is that which Solomon professes concerning himself, when he closes his enumeration of the pleasures with which he abounded in these words: Likewise my wisdom remained with me. Heroes of this order may therefore stand unshaken amidst the greatest temptations, and refrain themselves even in the steep-down paths of pleasures; provided only that they follow the example of Ulysses, and forbid the pernicious counsels and flatteries of their own followers, which are of all things most powerful to unsettle and unnerve the mind. But of the three remedies, far the best in every way is that of Orpheus; who by singing and sounding forth the praises of the gods confounded the voices of the Sirens and put them aside: for meditations upon things divine excel the pleasures of the sense, not in power only, but also in sweetness
-- Francis Bacon, XXXI. The Sirens or Pleasure, from The Wisdom of the Ancients (1857)