With this posting, I shall start to do what I promised in the last one – namely to start lifting Hercules out of the ‘elitist enclaves’ (to quote Liz Hale again) where he often resides. This rescuing is going to be difficult on one level in light of just how far it is nobles, politicians, gentlemen and so forth who have persistently received Hercules. Alastair Blanchard’s Hercules: a heroic life (Granta 2005) is an excellent account of the ‘life’ and ‘afterlife’ of a personage repeatedly appropriated by notables through ages. Looking through a gardening magazine recently, I learnt of one Scottish example of just such a reception to add to the English one on which I shall be focusing. This is the Hercules Garden in the grounds Blair Castle in Perthshire, laid out in the eighteenth century.
|Hercules overlooks his Garden at Blair Castle, Perthshire|
On the other hand, there has already been plenty of rescuing of Hercules thanks to the proliferation of receptions in popular culture – in film for example (including the range of examples discussed in Blanchard’s book), in graphic novels and in children’s literature.
The myth I shall be looking at is one that, as I have commented previously, is on display in what was once a gentleman’s villa. It was designed to be a talking point, I would argue, for classically-informed eighteenth-century people. But, as I have also discussed previously, it is also full of potential for ‘speaking’ to anyone, irrespective of their background.
Here is the story. As I said in the previous posting, there are only a few accounts of it in antiquity. The two ancient accounts I shall focus on below are in works by rather different authors, one Greek, one Roman, but the later one quotes the earlier one – so we are really dealing with two variants rather than two distinct versions.
The story is first told in Xenophon’s Memorabilia (2.1.21–33), a variegated work which includes several Socratic dialogues. It is in one of these dialogues, on the topic of childrearing, that Hercules’s choice features. The other speaker, Socrates’ student Aristippus, has said that there isn’t any value in raising children to be leaders, because the life of leaders is full of burdens and misery. Socrates’ response is that, if burdens are accepted for the right reasons, and freely, then they are less of a burden than those which someone merely endures.
It is at this point that, to support his argument, Socrates tells the story about Herakles (I'm slipping into the Greek spelling as I'm dealing with a Greek text). He claims that it is a story that he was, himself, told by another, the sophist Prodicus. Thus, it would go back to the fifth or very early fourth century (there are no precise dates for Prodicus) – and it is possible, though not at all certain, that Prodicus’s actual words are being quoted, or at least paraphrased.
What happens is this. Herakles is a young man close to adulthood, the time when, according to Prodicus/Socrates/Xenophon:
The young now become their own masters, show whether they will take the path of arête (‘virtue’) or the part of kakia (‘vice’)’ (Emma Stafford’s translation in Herakles (Gods and Heroes of the Ancient World 2012), very slightly adapted.
Not knowing which of the two paths to take, Herakles goes to a ‘quiet place’ and, here, ‘sat not knowing which of the two roads to take’ (Emma’s translation again). While he was sitting in his indecision, two tall women appeared and approached him. One was called Arete – best translated ‘Virtue’ – the other was Kakia (‘Vice’).
As well as having names that are opposing, the women are different in appearance. Virtue is tall, slim and wears a simple robe. Vice is shorter, plumper and wears elaborate make-up and clothing. Each of them seeks to persuade the young hero to take up a lifestyle in keeping with their name and character. Vice offers him various pleasures – food, drink and sex – and a life of comfort. Virtue offers him a life of hard work, but also enduring fame. We are not told which of the two paths it is that Herakles picks. From the context in which the example is narrated, around the acceptance of burdens by leaders, it seems likely that Herakles decided in favour of the life of virtue.
But this is not absolutely clear, though it is the way that the myth tends to be understood. It is understood in this way, for example, in Roger Lancelyn Green’s Tales of the Greek Heroes: Retold From the Ancient Authors (1958 – and many later editions including the left-hand one illustrated here, which I am using presently, and the one on the right, my first ever gateway into classical myth - this is something that I shall discuss in the future...)
In Lancelyn Green's account, Herakles is a cowherd, wondering whether it would be his fate in life to remain as such always. While he is resting, he encounters the two women and is offered a choice between the ways of life that match their personae. He does not hesitate in choosing Virtue’s path. Straightaway he sees a lion attacking his cows and, with his quest for this lion, so begins his heroic career.
In Lancelyn Green’s version, then, what Hercules chooses is the path of Virtue – and it is not a choice that causes him much trouble. Nicholas Lezard summaries the usual way to read the outcome of the choice as follows: ‘Hercules chooses duty, of course.’
As a way of reading Hercules, this does have much appeal. Indeed, it looks like an obvious way to read Hercules’ decision. Hercules is, after all, the hero known beyond all others for his hardships. His is a life of hard work and suffering – no sooner does he complete one labour than another presents itself. Eventually, he earns a respite from his suffering, but this is only when – after death, and apotheosis, on Olympos, with Hebe (‘Youth’) as his wife – his toils are over. Such a contrast between his life of struggles on earth and his blessed afterlife is expressed, for instance, in the Homeric Hymn to Herakles the Lionhearted. In life:
he used to wander over unmeasured tracts of land and sea at the bidding of King Eurystheus, and himself did many deeds of violence and endured many (4-6)
he lives happily in the glorious home of snowy Olympus and has neat-ankled Hebe for his wife (7-8, tr. Loeb of Hugh G. Evelyn-White).
But there is another Herakles for the ancient Greeks – a Herakles who embraced the pleasures of life and who would take pleasure as and when he could. This is an impetuous Herakles, who sacks cities when it chooses him to do so, who has sex with women as and when he chooses, and who has a vast appetite for food and for drink and for sex. The last of these appetites is best exemplified by his fifty-night stay at the house of Thestius and his fifty daughters, having sex with each daughter in turn. Meanwhile, his appetite for eating and drinking was a mainstay of ancient drama, notably comedy but also Euripides’ Alcestis, where Herakles enjoys the hospitability of the house of Admetus, aware that the house is in mourning but unaware that it is Alcestis, the mistress of the house, who has died. The Servant, assuming that Herakles is aware of the identity of the deceased, relates his apparently outrageous behaviour:
if we failed to bring anything, he ordered it brought. Then taking an ivy-wood drinking-bowl in his hands and drinking unmixed wine, offspring of the dark grape, until the fire in it enveloped and warmed his heart, he garlanded his head with sprays of myrtle and howled songs out of tune (755-62, tr. Loeb of D. Kovacs).
|Painting on a bilingual amphora, by the Andokides Painter c. 530-10 BCE |
(Staatliche Antikensammunglen, Munich, 2301).
Photo details here. Further information on the vase here,
via the Beazley Archive.
On one side of a bilingual amphora (in the sense of black-figure on one side, red-figure on the other), Herakles reclines on a couch, leaning on a cushion. There are vines containing grapes around him and he wears a grapevine wreath on his head. He is holding a drinking cup – a kantharos – and to the left there is food, including strips of meat and fruits. Athena, the frequent helper during his labours, and possible model for Virtue, is his companion here as well – holding him a flower.
Therefore, there is a pleasure-loving Herakles just as there is a Herakles who endures a life of suffering. It is not vital that we follow Lancelyn Green and others and to regard Hercules as the hero who chooses the virtuous path. His is also the path offered by Vice.
So: there are two possible ways to read the outcome of Hercules’ choice – that Hercules chooses the path of Virtue and that he chooses the other path, of pleasure – of Vice. Thus, the choice he faces is set up as a clear-cut one, between two diametrically opposite ways of living, but… determining the choice he makes is less easy than it might initially appear.
‘We cannot all have the experience of Hercules’: A Ciceronian detour
Another of the ancient works to discuss the Choice, Cicero’s (De officiis), emphasises just how simple this choice is for Hercules – between one clear path in life and another. For other youths: ‘this is the most difficult problem in the world,’ because, Cicero continues:
it is in the years of early youth, when our judgment is most immature, that each of us decides that his calling in life shall be that to which he has taken a special liking. And thus he becomes engaged in some particular calling and career in life, before he is fit to decide intelligently what is best for him. For we cannot all have the experience of Hercules (1.117-18, W. Miller Loeb tr.).
Thus, while it is not necessarily clear which choice Hercules makes, the choice itself is a simple one.
But, as we have seen, there is a fit with both choices in relation to the life of Hercules. Hercules is, in some respects, the hero with the life of toil who experiences more toil than any other person. But there is also the Hercules who lives life to the full more than anyone else. The choice might be simple. But does Hercules ever commit himself?
He does… and he does not… And it is this lack of clarity in terms of the outcome that makes the episode so full of potential, as a talking point and as an opportunity for reflecting on moral positions and about dilemmas one might face in life. Making choices can be difficult for anyone. It is possible to feel caught in indecision.
Looked at one way, the choice involves a clear decision between two things as opposed as Virtue and Vice, where the heroic career is reduced to a choice between things as extreme as they come, with none of the ambiguities that often accompany a choice in life.
Or there is complexity. It is not clear how to read the episode and how to determine what choice the hero made.
It is this simultaneous simplicity and complexity that I shall be drawing on in my resources for use in the autistic classroom. The episode offers potential for getting any user to reflect on a choice in life, and to think about different possibilities and what the implications of these possibilities could be including around where they fit in the world, between themselves and others.
Meanwhile, it is this simplicity of Herakles’s choice – the very thing that distinguishes Hercules’s choice from that of other children according to Cicero – that counts as one of the reasons why the story has so much potential for use with autistic children. This is because it can enable children in a range of places along the spectrum to engage in moral dilemmas and to think about contrary ways to respond to a decision in life.
By doing this, the children for whom I'll be creating the resources will have the opportunity to engage in a process that has engaged others as well, including those for whom the particular representation of the choice was likely created.
I’ll break for now – this posting is already around twice as long as my usual ones. In the next posting, I shall turn my focus to what it is about Hercules that makes this figure so appealing for use with autistic children. I'd originally envisaged introducing the resources over three postings. This is already number 4. I expect to write at least one more such posting before, finally, sharing the resources themselves.
 For a brief discussion of the possible closeness – or otherwise – to Prodicus, see Graham, D.W. ed., 2010. The texts of early Greek philosophy: the complete fragments and selected testimonies of the major Presocratics (Vol. 2). Cambridge University Press: 860-1. For longer discussion, see Sansone, D. 2004.‘Heracles at the Y’, in Journal of Hellenic Studies 124: 125-142 (arguing that Xenophon preserves Prodikos’ lost words) and Gray, V., 2006. The Linguistic Philosophies of Prodicus in Xenophon's'Choice of Heracles' in Classical Quarterly, 56(2): 426-435. (challenging Sansone’s arguments and seeing a fit between Xenophon’s account of the Choice and sentiments elsewhere in the Memorabilia concerning service and honour). (Url accessed 29.01.18 – likewise all urls in this posting)
 Review of Grayling, A.C., 2010. The choice of Hercules: Pleasure, duty and the good life in the 21st century(Hachette UK). Guardian 27.12.08
 Grayling (see previous note for reference) follows the usual way of reading the outcome of the choice, namely that the hero opted for the path of duty/virtue and rejected the other. According to Grayling, it is not in fact necessary to choose between the two ways of life – instead, he advocates a life of moderation, which strikes a balance between duty and pleasure. What I would add here is that Hercules might not have chosen just the one path either.