Tuesday 14 February 2012

The Choice of Hercules

Hercules as the myth goes was the product of the supreme God of Gods Zeus with a mortal woman Alcmene[1]. As such he was himself at least half a God. However, he did not start his life with a right foot. He was punished by his mortal step-father to the duty of herding sheep for the murder of his music teacher Linus. Hercules in his exile stayed with Thespius, who conveniently for Hercules was the father of 50 daughters. According to some versions Hercules proceeded into sleeping with all of them in one go[2] but this never made it as the 13th labour. Thus, Hercules did not start life as the hero that was to become later. He was easily swayed by earthly pleasures like lovemaking and was also a murderer. Not a typical role model even for those mythical days. What changed him though? Why do most of us remember the labours of Hercules and we have him in such a high esteem? The answer comes from Xenophon, who describes (through the sayings of Socrates) “The Choice of Hercules”.

Hercules, Vice and Duty
Antony Grayling’s book “The choice of Hercules” describes the scene[3] as Hercules sat watching the herd, a tall, slender woman in a simple white robe approaches him from one side, while from the other came a curvaceous young woman in make-up and plunging décolletage. The latter offered Hercules sex, entertainment, and lifelong ease; the former offered him struggle and labour…”

The story of Hercules bears resemblance to how many Greek people see themselves. Many hold dear the idea of a great nation and people and think of themselves slightly above the rest. The “My big fat Greek wedding” movie captured some of the underlying themes rather accurately.
Hercules was blinded by Hera the wife of Zeus, into committing the murder. Why is he being punished for the malevolent actions of a higher being that tricked him? Many Greeks feel that they are not responsible for their politician’s actions and that they, like Hercules, are punished unjustly for someone else’s sins. They were tricked and blinded into taking all these debt with the ultimate aim of controlling or acquiring the priceless assets of Greece. Conspiracy theories abound in Greece and many politicians of the far left and right see a developing vote market in them.
Continuing with the story at the cross roads, the choice was between Duty/Virtue, the slender woman (Ἀρετή), or Vice/Pleasure the voluptuous woman (Εὐδαιμονίαν/Κακία). As Hercules appears in most school books and it is also a children’s tv series one is obliged to infer that he chose Duty. Perhaps he was too exhausted with the 50 daughters of Thespius to contemplate life with Vice.

The choice of Greece
The Greek people would be called to choose, probably sooner than many anticipate between a future inside Europe and one outside. The modern analogues of Vice promise a brighter debt free and care free Greece outside Europe. They appeal to the dark side of misplaced nationalism and pseudo-independence. Virtue on the other hand has very few things going for her. It is one of the darkest moments of Greece and people are in despair. Yet the choice must be clear. Greece’s future is inside the European family. There are many things that we may not like about Europe but one needs to be inside to fight for a more democratically accountable, just and equitable European home.

[1] The myth of a God father and mortal mother producing a God-like son apparently predates Zeus and the similarities with the Christian faith are not coincidental.
[2] Based on the highly recommended book of Antony Grayling, The choice of Hercules, 2007
[3] καὶ φανῆναι αὐτῷ δύο γυναῖκας προσιέναι μεγάλας, τὴν μὲν ἑτέραν εὐπρεπῆ τε ἰδεῖν καὶ ἐλευθέριον φύσει, κεκοσμημένην τὸ μὲν σῶμα καθαρότητι, τὰ δὲ ὄμματα αἰδοῖ, τὸ δὲ σχῆμα σωφροσύνῃ, ἐσθῆτι δὲ λευκῇ, τὴν δ᾽ ἑτέραν τεθραμμένην μὲν εἰς πολυσαρκίαν τε καὶ ἁπαλότητα, κεκαλλωπισμένην δὲ τὸ μὲν χρῶμα ὥστε λευκοτέραν τε καὶ ἐρυθροτέραν τοῦ ὄντος δοκεῖν φαίνεσθαι, τὸ δὲ σχῆμα ὥστε δοκεῖν ὀρθοτέραν τῆς φύσεως εἶναι, τὰ δὲ ὄμματα ἔχειν ἀναπεπταμένα, ἐσθῆτα δὲ ἐξ ἧς ἂν μάλιστα ὥρα διαλάμποι: κατασκοπεῖσθαι δὲ θαμὰ ἑαυτήν, ἐπισκοπεῖν δὲ καὶ εἴ τις ἄλλος αὐτὴν θεᾶται, πολλάκις δὲ καὶ εἰς τὴν ἑαυτῆς σκιὰν ἀποβλέπειν...