Scylla and Charybdis: Between Fear and Courage

The News Magazine of HCU

By Dr. Steven L. Jones

The following is a reprint from “Reflection and Choice,” a blog by the Houston Baptist University School of Humanities.

According to Greek mythology, Scylla (pronounced SIL-ah) and Charybdis (pronounced kah-RIB-dis) were monsters that inhabited opposite sides of a channel of water, sometimes imagined as the Strait of Messina separating Italy from Sicily. Scylla, a former lover of Poseidon, had been transformed into a hideous beast by the poisoned bath salts of Poseidon’s angry wife Amphitrite. Charybdis was a massive underwater beast, later rationalized as a whirlpool, that would drink in ocean water three times a day and spew it out again. Sailors had to choose how to navigate the hazard. If you sailed too close to Scylla, she would snatch six people from your ship, but the rest would survive. If you went too close to Charybdis, you risked your whole ship being sucked down and destroyed. “Caught between Scylla and Charybdis” was the ancient equivalent to our “stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

The choice of Scylla versus Charybdis is a hard one. Do you knowingly cause the death of six crew members in order to save the rest? Or, do you risk all their lives in the hopes of saving all their lives? What is interesting is that when I pose this question to my students, they all immediately have the same reaction: Scylla…logically. It is more logical to lose six crew members than all of them. They stick with Scylla even when I clarify that they are choosing to intentionally and knowingly kill six people so the rest can live — noble sacrifice they say. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few. The light begins to dawn when one of them asks, “Do we get to pick who those six are, or does Scylla pick?” The prospect of being one of the six promotes a reevaluation of the situation. If you were one of the six designated as Scylla-bait, maybe the idea of attempting Charybdis doesn’t seem like too bad of an idea.

Often this myth is discussed as an example of a no-win scenario in order to teach people that sometimes there is no right answer. But I believe this is the wrong way to read it. The choice between Scylla and Charybdis is not about the difficulty of certain choices. It is about the fact that in the midst of making difficult choices, every one of us would prefer to choose Scylla, but we should choose Charybdis. We are the captains of our lives. When we encounter difficult straits, we would rather throw six dead bodies overboard and move along. Scylla provides us an opportunity to avoid risk or change or labor, but at the cost of doing wrong. We lie, steal, cheat, or kill in order to maintain the course of our lives. Charybdis requires courage to risk everything we hold dear. But it keeps our souls intact.