In Part 1 of this series of articles, we introduced the nine types of personality that constitute the Enneagram and invited you to consider what your own number type is. But we also said that the “Odyssey,” through its narrative, reveals the Enneagram numbers as challenges to Odysseus and that in each case he had to overcome it. How he overcomes each number is indicative of how each of us, perhaps, might also overcome our own besetting “deadly sin.”
Odysseus encounters the sins in reverse order, so starting at type Nine, we travel round with Odysseus until at last we encounter the sin of type One.
Thus, in this Part 2, we start at the end and look at type Nine. As a reminder, Nines on the Enneagram’s wheel of types see themselves as “I am content.” They wish to experience wholeness and be peaceful people. At their best, Nines are empathetic, reliable, and harmonious; at their worst, they are apathetic, listless, and stubborn, because their deadly sin is what the ancients called acedia—the inability to take effective action. Part of this inactivity is due to their ability to see both sides of a position, and so to fail to choose either.
The Nines must overcome the deadly sin of sloth.
Odysseus has spent 10 years fighting in Troy and has at last, through his cunning and stratagem of the Trojan Horse, succeeded in overcoming the walls of Troy. What all the direct aggression of Achilles and the other great Greek fighters failed to do, Odysseus managed, because he, as Homer says, is the “man of twists and turns,” and of whom Zeus says, “Great Odysseus excels all men in wisdom.”
It is this sense of resourcefulness, wisdom, and resilience that is the key marker in understanding how Odysseus is able to overcome what appear to be overwhelming odds.
The “Odyssey” itself begins in what is called in medias res, or in the thick of things, so that we don’t start at the beginning but in the middle. It is only later, in Chapter 9, that we learn that on leaving Troy, one of Odysseus’s and his crew’s earliest encounters is with the Lotus-Eaters.
Unlike the traditional enemies that they have met before—typically, kings and soldiers who wish to kill them—the Lotus-Eaters mean them no harm at all. Rather, they offer them the “honey-sweet fruit”—the Lotus—that they themselves are eating. This fruit immediately banishes all their worries, concerns, fears, and yes, even their desires. Those of his crew who eat the fruit lose all desire to return to Ithaca, to home.
In a way, this temptation is a most brilliant example from the ancient world of what we are almost too familiar with in Western culture: our numbing out.
Instead of being truly alive, we prefer our drug and drink options, or our sex and gambling obsessions, or even more low-key still, our addictions to TV and today’s net surfing or social-media imbibing (really doing nothing at all), or workaholicism (never stopping the doing of something).
In the 1960s, as the West began its long descent into nothingness, Timothy Leary, the American academic, put it this way: “Drop Out—detach yourself from the external social drama which is as dehydrated and ersatz as TV. Turn On—find a sacrament which returns you to the temple of God, your own body. Go out of your mind. Get high. Tune In—be reborn. Drop back in to express it. Start a new sequence of behavior that reflects your vision.” In short, ignore reality and act as if illusion or delusion were where it would be better to be.
Apathy rules, and one is resigned to life at a low level of nonachievement.
The deadly sin here, which all Nines must confront if they are to escape it, is sloth. How easy it is for Odysseus’s men to fall for it and to think they have found paradise!
Odysseus immediately grasps the enormity of the danger he and his crew face and swings into action. Indeed, action here is the key.
He does not “experiment” with the lotus himself; he does not reason, “Well that’s a valid point of view”; and he does not entertain the idea that his men have the right to their own opinions and that he should thereby leave them to it.
For one thing, he fully gets the implication of their behavior on himself and all their families awaiting them back in Ithaca. And instead, he issues decisive commands to those of his crew still unaffected and forces them all back to the ships. There, he lashes them into their seats and demands that they row like mad to get off the island.
The antidote to sloth is willpower: decision-making driving immediate action—just do it! It is with the clear order to row, even though at this point Odysseus is not even sure to where—only through this expedient—that they can escape the grip of sloth.
What sloth as a deadly sin manifests is the terrible and terrifying idea of a life unlived, a sort of permanent state of being divorced from reality. At perhaps its less extreme level, sloth becomes an acceptance of things as they are: the failure to want to innovate, to improve, whether it be the world or, primarily, oneself.
It is a sort of fatalism that saps the will to do, to achieve, and ultimately to succeed in life. And the ultimate success, of course, is to get “home”—for the mind to find its own true soul and so be enraptured by its own beauty.
This is what Odysseus cannot forget: In Ithaca, his wife, his soulmate and also symbolically his literal soul, awaits him. No sacrifice must be spared to get there, as we shall see.
Keep in mind that Odysseus sets off with 12 ships and full crew complements, but all of his men and his ships are lost on the voyage; he alone makes it home. That is why, to be a hero or heroine, we must adapt, as Odysseus did (remember the man of “twists and turns”?) to each of the deadly sins that besets us.
In our next episode, we find Odysseus at number Eight, encountering a deadlier and much more ferocious enemy than sloth: the Cyclops, Polyphemus, and the sin of lust. Here, “just doing it” would be precisely the wrong strategy to overcome the sin. Read Part 3 to find out how Odysseus twists and turns to overcome its irresistible strength.
Note that I am strongly indebted for many ideas here to Michael J. Goldberg’s wonderful book, “Travels with Odysseus,” and I strongly recommend it for those seeking more detailed information, although, curiously, Goldberg does not directly draw parallels with the Enneagram and only mentions it in the endnotes of his book.
In this multipart series, “Finding the True Self,” we will discuss nine types of personalities, their flaws, and show how Odysseus, through his adventures, overcame them to find his way back home.
James Sale is an English businessman and the creator of Motivational Maps, which operates in 14 countries. He has authored over 40 books from major international publishers, including Macmillan, Pearson, and Routledge, on management, education, and poetry. As a poet, he won first prize in The Society of Classical Poets’ 2017 competition.