Life offers a lot of choices and secrets that unfold while we are experiencing it. During the Summer, when we were kids, we used to stay sometimes at our grandparents country house. It was an old but impressive structure. It blended well with the vernacular of the olive groves estate. We would play, and help a bit with some simple tasks, like feeding the chickens, the goats, or taking the donkey to drink water at the fountain. At nights we would explore the sky looking upon the stars, tell jokes, gather and form our storytelling circle, awaiting for grandfather’s customary tales of long ago.
It was one of those nights that he joined smiling our circle around grandma’s lantern and started talking about mythical times in ancient Greece. He spoke of Heracles (Hercules). And we all thought he would mention one of his famous twelve labours. But this time he didn’t. He started recounting the story of young Heracles and his encounter with two young maidens -Arete and Cacia.
I still remember the reflections of light on his face, revealing his austere yet, graceful poise. This was a man who had endured hardships unimagined to us.
“…the young Heracles, in his travels reached a point where the road split and had to decide which direction to continue. While he was pondering which road to take, two young maidens of great stature approached him, one from each road. Both looked beautiful but in their own different way. One was a fair, pure and modest figure, dressed simply. The other, οn the contrary, was seductive, voluptuous, wearing a dress that enhanced very provocatively her charms. She, outdoing her counterpart, ran to Heracles and asked him to friend her and follow her, promising him the easiest and pleasantest road to success! My road has no worries, no aches, only joy and pleasure! My friends call me Happiness. Those who hate me, refer to me as Cacia (Vice).
-Heracles, my name is Arete (Virtue), said the fair Lady that had also reached nearby. I will not deceive you offering an easy road if you follow me, like Cacia promises. My road is hard and tough. But with effort and toil you will truly succeed if you follow me.”
What joy is there if you drink a lot before you ever get thirsty. Or if you eat a lot before you ever get hungry. Compare the taste of water when you are thirsty, the feeling of refreshment you get, to when you are not. Compare the taste of food when you are really hungry and when you are not.
Our grandfather asked us what we thought Heracles did. Which road did he take? Who did he follow. We started debating and teasing each other according to our responses.
Then he stood up as a sign that he will intervene and said: “The road Cacia offers is easy and joyful in the beginning. But then you start running out of all that is necessary to proceed. Her road turns out to be harsh in the end.
Think about it this way. What joy is there if you drink a lot before you ever get thirsty. Or if you eat a lot before you ever get hungry. Compare the taste of water when you are thirsty, the feeling of refreshment you get, to when you are not. Compare the taste of food when you are really hungry and when you are not.
Nothing beats the real feeling of life. Life is about living it, always trying to find that special balance… and harmony. Choices and secrets reveal themselves while living it. Besides, look around you. You see all these olive trees… the olive tree yields you a lot of olives if you cultivate it. If left on it’s own it will grow wild and lose its fruitage.
Now, I will ask you again… which road do you think Heracles took?”
A true story, based on the allegorical parable “The Choice of Heracles” by the sophist Prodicus (465 BC – c. 395 BC), reported in Xenophon’s (430–354 BC) Memorabilia (2.1.21-34).
“The Choice of Hercules”, 1596.
By the Italian Baroque painter Annibale Carracci.
It is housed in the Capodimonte Gallery of Naples.
“Hercules at the Crossroads Between Virtue and Vice”, 1765.
Battoni, Pompeo Girolamo. The New Hermitage Museum.