Comments On the “Choice of Hercules”

An influential legend well known at the time of Epicurus on the topic of “Virtue vs. Pleasure” was the “Choice of Hercules” (whose name is also rendered into English as Heracles).   The best known version of this story comes down to us from Xenophon (this version translated by Edward Bysshe):

“Of the same opinion is Prodicus, in the book he has written of the life of Hercules, where Virtue and Pleasure make their court to that hero under the appearance of two beautiful women.  His words, as near as I can remember, are as follows:—

“‘When Hercules,’ says the moralist, ‘had arrived at that part of his youth in which young men commonly choose for themselves, and show, by the result of their choice, whether they will, through the succeeding stages of their lives, enter into and walk in the path of virtue or that of vice, he went out into a solitary place fit for contemplation, there to consider with himself which of those two paths he should pursue.

“‘As he was sitting there in suspense he saw two women of a larger stature than ordinary approaching towards him.  One of them had a genteel and amiable aspect; her beauty was natural and easy, her person and shape clean and handsome, her eyes cast towards the ground with an agreeable reserve, her motion and behaviour full of modesty, and her raiment white as snow.  The other wanted all the native beauty and proportion of the former; her person was swelled, by luxury and ease, to a size quite disproportioned and uncomely.  She had painted her complexion, that it might seem fairer and more ruddy than it really was, and endeavoured to appear more graceful than ordinary in her mien, by a mixture of affectation in all her gestures.  Her eyes were full of confidence, and her dress transparent, that the conceited beauty of her person might appear through it to advantage.  She cast her eyes frequently upon herself, then turned them on those that were present, to see whether any one regarded her, and now and then looked on the figure she made in her own shadow.

“‘As they drew nearer, the former continued the same composed pace, while the latter, striving to get before her, ran up to Hercules, and addressed herself to him in the following manner:—

“I perceive, my dear Hercules, you are in doubt which path in life you should pursue.  If, then, you will be my friend and follow me, I will lead you to a path the most easy and most delightful, wherein you shall taste all the sweets of life, and live exempt from every trouble.  You shall neither be concerned in war nor in the affairs of the world, but shall only consider how to gratify all your senses—your taste with the finest dainties and most delicious drink, your sight with the most agreeable objects, your scent with the richest perfumes and fragrancy of odours, how you may enjoy the embraces of the fair, repose on the softest beds, render your slumbers sweet and easy, and by what means enjoy, without even the smallest care, all those glorious and mighty blessings.

“And, for fear you suspect that the sources whence you are to derive those invaluable blessings might at some time or other fail, and that you might, of course, be obliged to acquire them at the expense of your mind and the united labour and fatigue of your body, I beforehand assure you that you shall freely enjoy all from the industry of others, undergo neither hardship nor drudgery, but have everything at your command that can afford you any pleasure or advantage.”

“‘Hercules, hearing the lady make him such offers, desired to know her name, to which she answered, “My friends, and those who are well acquainted with me, and whom I have conducted, call me Happiness; but my enemies, and those who would injure my reputation, have given me the name of Pleasure.”

“‘In the meantime, the other lady approached, and in her turn accosted him in this manner:—“I also am come to you, Hercules, to offer my assistance; I, who am well acquainted with your divine extraction and have observed the excellence of your nature, even from your childhood, from which I have reason to hope that, if you would follow the path that leadeth to my residence, you will undertake the greatest enterprises and achieve the most glorious actions, and that I shall thereby become more honourable and illustrious among mortals.  But before I invite you into my society and friendship I will be open and sincere with you, and must lay down this as an established truth, that there is nothing truly valuable which can be purchased without pains and labour.  The gods have set a price upon every real and noble pleasure.  If you would gain the favour of the Deity you must be at the pains of worshipping Him; if you would be beloved by your friends you must study to oblige them; if you would be honoured by any city you must be of service to it; and if you would be admired by all Greece, on account of your probity and valour, you must exert yourself to do her some eminent service.  If you would render your fields fruitful, and fill your arms with corn, you must labour to cultivate the soil accordingly.  Would you grow rich by your herds, a proper care must be taken of them; would you extend your dominions by arms, and be rendered capable of setting at liberty your captive friends, and bringing your enemies to subjection, you must not only learn of those that are experienced in the art of war, but exercise yourself also in the use of military affairs; and if you would excel in the strength of your body you must keep your body in due subjection to your mind, and exercise it with labour and pains.”

“‘Here Pleasure broke in upon her discourse—“Do you see, my dear Hercules, through what long and difficult ways this woman would lead you to her promised delights?  Follow me, and I will show you a much shorter and more easy way to happiness.”

“Alas!” replied the Goddess of Virtue, whose visage glowed with a passion made up of scorn and pity, “what happiness can you bestow, or what pleasure can you taste, who would never do anything to acquire it?  You who will take your fill of all pleasures before you feel an appetite for any; you eat before you are hungry, you drink before you are athirst; and, that you may please your taste, must have the finest artists to prepare your viands; the richest wines that you may drink with pleasure, and to give your wine the finer taste, you search every place for ice and snow luxuriously to cool it in the heat of summer.  Then, to make your slumbers uninterrupted, you must have the softest down and the easiest couches, and a gentle ascent of steps to save you from any the least disturbance in mounting up to them.  And all little enough, heaven knows! for you have not prepared yourself for sleep by anything you have done, but seek after it only because you have nothing to do.  It is the same in the enjoyments of love, in which you rather force than follow your inclinations, and are obliged to use arts, and even to pervert nature, to keep your passions alive.  Thus is it that you instruct your followers—kept awake for the greatest part of the night by debaucheries, and consuming in drowsiness all the most useful part of the day.  Though immortal, you are an outcast from the gods, and despised by good men.  Never have you heard that most agreeable of all sounds, your own praise, nor ever have you beheld the most pleasing of all objects, any good work of your own hands.  Who would ever give any credit to anything that you say?  Who would assist you in your necessity, or what man of sense would ever venture to be of your mad parties?  Such as do follow you are robbed of their strength when they are young, void of wisdom when they grow old.  In their youth they are bred up in indolence and all manner of delicacy, and pass their old age with difficulties and distress, full of shame for what they have done, and oppressed with the burden of what they are to do, squanderers of pleasures in their youth, and hoarders up of afflictions for their old age.

“On the contrary, my conversation is with the gods, and with good men, and there is nothing excellent performed by either without my influence.  I am respected above all things by the gods and by the best of mortals, and it is just I should.  I am an agreeable companion to the artisan, a faithful security to masters of families, a kind assistant to servants, a useful associate in the arts of peace, a faithful ally in the labours of war, and the best uniter of all friendships.

“My votaries, too, enjoy a pleasure in everything they either eat or drink, even without having laboured for it, because they wait for the demand of their appetites.  Their sleep is sweeter than that of the indolent and inactive; and they are neither overburdened with it when they awake, nor do they, for the sake of it, omit the necessary duties of life.  My young men have the pleasure of being praised by those who are in years, and those who are in years of being honoured by those who are young.  They look back with comfort on their past actions, and delight themselves in their present employments.  By my means they are favoured by the gods, beloved by their friends, and honoured by their country; and when the appointed period of their lives is come they are not lost in a dishonourable oblivion, but live and flourish in the praises of mankind, even to the latest posterity.”

“Thus, my dear Hercules, who are descended of divine ancestors, you may acquire, by virtuous toil and industry, this most desirable state of perfect happiness.”

“Such was the discourse, my friend, which the goddess had with Hercules, according to Prodicus.  You may believe that he embellished the thoughts with more noble expressions than I do.  I heartily wish, my dear Aristippus, that you should make such an improvement of those divine instructions, as that you too may make such a happy choice as may render you happy during the future course of your life.”


Socrates may have intended to illustrate the general superiority of “virtue” over “pleasure,” but the story clearly proves the opposite about which constitutes the real goal of life.  It is clear from the promised rewards that if Hercules were to pick virtue, he would be picking it for the sake of the pleasurable rewards that would follow, and not for the sake of virtue in and of itself, regardless of consequences.  There is no suggestion, much less explicit argument, that “virtue” is to be chosen simply because it is virtuous and without regard to result.

In addition, we can see that the representative of “Virtue” is offering Hercules a bargain that appears realistic, in that we all see how the reward of fame and esteem comes to those who are successful in war and similar exploits.  On the other hand, the offer made by the representative of “Pleasure/Happiness” is totally unrealistic.  It is easy to observe that all rewards in life require work and effort to obtain, and even those pleasures which are as simple as eating and drinking and breathing require effort.  The idea that this no-cost and permanent life of “Pleasure” could possibly exist would be swatted down immediately by an Epicurean on at least two grounds: (1) that the choice is in total conflict with reality and could never exist, and (2) that the requirement for the existence of such a life – a supernatural guarantee – is nonsense, as gods granting such favors do not exist (see PD1).

In the end it is only common sense that life requires exertion, and exertion is required for the achievement of any reward.  The question is not so much what type of exertion is to be expended, but what reward is set at the outset to be the intended goal of that exertion.  Lucretius showed that Epicureans could employ the Herculean legend to show that pleasure is the goal of life by contrasting the results of the exertions of Hercules with the exertions of Epicurus in Book V of “On The Nature of Things.”  The result is to illustrate that a life is not to be judged by the abstract “moral worth” of one’s accomplishments, but for the practical benefit of those accomplishments in terms of the pleasure and happiness that come to those who are benefited:

“WHO can avail by might of mind to build a poem worthy to match the majesty of truth and these discoveries? Or who has such skill in speech, that he can fashion praises to match his deserts, who has left us such prizes, conceived and sought out by his own mind? There will be no one, I trow, born of mortal body. For if we must speak as befits the majesty of the truth now known to us, then he was a god, yea a god, noble Memmius, who first found out that principle of life, which now is called wisdom, and who by his skill saved our life from high seas and thick darkness, and enclosed it in calm waters and bright light. For set against this the heaven-sent discoveries of others in the days of old. Ceres is fabled to have taught to men the growing of corn, and Liber the liquid of the vine-born juice; and yet life could have gone on without these things, as tales tell us that some races live even now. But a good life could not be without a clean heart; wherefore more rightly is he counted a god by us, thanks to whom now sweet solaces for life soothe the mind, spread even far and wide among great peoples.

But if you think that the deeds of Hercules excel this, you will be carried still further adrift from true reasoning. For what harm to us now were the great gaping jaws of the old Nemean lion and the bristling boar of Arcadia? Or what could the bull of Crete do, or the curse of Lerna, the hydra with its pallisade of poisonous snakes? what the triple-breasted might of threefold Geryon? [How could those birds] have done us such great hurt, who dwelt in the Stymphalian [fen], or the horses of Diomede the Thracian, breathing fire from their nostrils near the coasts of the Bistones and Ismara? Or the guardian of the glowing golden apples of Hesperus’s daughters, the dragon, fierce, with fiery glance, with his vast body twined around the tree-trunk, yea, what harm could he have done beside the Atlantic shore and the grim tracts of ocean, where none of us draws near nor barbarian dares to venture? And all other monsters of this sort which were destroyed, had they not been vanquished, what hurt, pray, could they have done alive? Not a jot, I trow: the earth even now teems in such abundance with wild beasts, and is filled with trembling terrors throughout forests and mighty mountains and deep woods; but for the most part we have power to shun those spots. But unless the heart is cleansed, what battles and perils must we then enter into despite our will? What sharp pangs of passion then rend the troubled man, yea and what fears besides? what of pride, filthiness and wantonness? what havoc they work? what of luxury and sloth? He then who has subdued all these and driven them from the mind by speech, not arms, shall this man not rightly be found worthy to rank among the gods? Above all, since ’twas his wont to speak many sayings in good and godlike words about the immortal gods themselves, and in his discourse to reveal the whole nature of things.”


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