We can travel in a nearly infinite amount of directions in our lives. The world and any path may lie before us. In the parable Hercules at the crossroads, a tale from the classical era of Greece, Xenophon, one of Socrates’ students tells of his teacher relaying a story about Hercules being presented with but only two choices in life that a person actually has, that of virtue or of vice.
In this painting by the Italian artist Pompeo Batoni in 1748 we see Socrates’ story about Hercules unfold.
Two goddesses approached him as he was tending a flock of sheep and pondering on a hillside, which path he should take in life.
On the right side of the painting, the charming and revealing Venus, goddess of love rushes to Hercules first. She bounded to his side proclaiming, “Hercules, I see that you are in doubt which path to take towards life. Make me your friend; follow me, and I will lead you along the pleasantest and easiest road. You shall taste all the sweets of life; and hardship you shall never know.
First, of wars and worries you shall not think, but shall ever be considering what choice food or drink you can find, what sight or sound will delight you, what touch or perfume; what tender love can give you most joy, what bed the softest slumbers; and how to come by all these pleasures with least trouble.”
Venus went on and on, offering ease and comfort.
“Now when Heracles heard this, he asked, “Lady, pray what is your name?”
“‘My friends call me Happiness,” she said, “but among those that hate me I am nicknamed Vice.”
In the painting, Venus holds out a rose to Hercules, at her feet lie musical instruments and fruit, representing vanity and sensual pleasure.
Then Minerva, the goddess of wisdom finally arrived… she is on the left side of the painting, pointing sternly to the top of a winding, steep path, the difficult path to virtue, she persuaded Hercules not, but simply stated, “I, too, am come to you, Hercules: I know your parents and I have taken note of your character during the time of your education. Therefore I hope that, if you take the road that leads to me, you will turn out a right good doer of high and noble deeds, and I shall be yet more highly honored and more illustrious for the blessings I bestow. But I will not deceive you by a pleasant prelude: I will rather tell you truly the things that are, as the gods have ordained them.
For of all things good and fair, the gods give nothing to man without toil and effort. If you want the favor of the gods, you must worship the gods: if you desire the love of friends, you must do good to your friends: if you covet honor from a city, you must aid that city: if you are fain to win the admiration of all Hellas for virtue, you must strive to do good to Hellas: if you want land to yield you fruits in abundance, you must cultivate that land: if you are resolved to get wealth from flocks, you must care for those flocks: if you essay to grow great through war and want power to liberate your friends and subdue your foes, you must learn the arts of war from those who know them and must practice their right use: and if you want your body to be strong, you must accustom your body to be the servant of your mind, and train it with toil and sweat.”
Minerva ended by saying of Venus and vice, and of her path, that of virtue, “while thy votaries are young their bodies are weak, when they wax old, their souls are without sense; idle and sleek they thrive in youth, withered and weary they journey through old age, and their past deeds bring them shame, their present deeds distress. Pleasure they ran through in their youth: hardship they laid up for their old age.
But I company with gods and good men, and no fair deed of god or man is done without my aid. I am first in honor among the gods and among men that are akin to me: to craftsmen a beloved fellow-worker, to masters a faithful guardian of the house, to servants a kindly protector: good helpmate in the toils of peace, staunch ally in the deeds of war, best partner in friendship.
And when comes the appointed end, they lie not forgotten and dishonored, but live on, sung and remembered for all time. O Heracles, thou son of goodly parents, if thou wilt labor earnestly on this wise, thou mayest have for thine own the most blessed happiness.”
In this parable, the message is obvious, but these two paths may manifest differently and play out at every moment in our lives.
In whatever we do, in the end, we may only be really left with these two paths.
Like Hercules, we must make effort and strive to live in virtue, or lax into vice.