Heracles‘ Dilemma: Is Strength Really a Virtue?
Mit freundlicher Genehmigung von Heather L. Reid.
Heather L. Reid is a specialist in ancient philosophy and the philosophy of sport. She has published several books related to sports philosophy and the Olympics, as well as co-authoring numerous texts.
– Athletics and Philosophy in the Ancient World
– The Olympics and Philosophy
– The Philosophical Athlete
– Philosopher Kings and Tragic Heroes
– Reflecting on Modern Sport in Ancient Olympia
– Politics and Performance in Western Greece
Here: „The Training of the Olympian Soul“ –
More related papers here:
This is a listing. You will have to find the material on your own.
and/or other academic research databases.
(aus: Heather L. Reid. “Hercules’ Dilemma: Is Strength Really a Virtue?” In *Strength
and Philosophy, *edited by M. Holowchak. New York: Mellen Press, 2010.
Heracles (better known by his Latin name, Hercules) reigned as a god of the gymnasium in ancient Greece and Rome. There were altars set up to him, where athletes, presumably asking for strength, prayed and made offerings. In modern times, Heracles‘ strength-cult seems still to be thriving. Gymnasia, weight-lifting clubs, and strength awards are routinely named after him. His sometimes comical muscular image is emblazoned on t-shirts and supplement packages. A Disney version of his story has even become a favorite children’s movie.
In ancient and modern times, Heracles represents the value of human strength — the idea that physical strength is a virtue. Virtue was an important topic in ancient Greek philosophy, and Heracles was indeed connected with virtue in ancient Greek mythology. Unlike other gods, he began as a mortal and ascended to Mount Olympus upon completion of his famous labors [Accounts of Heracles‘ life and labors are found throughout ancient Greek and Roman literature. A good summary, generally followed here, is the website „Hercules: Greece’s Greatest Hero,“ Perseus Digital Library Project]
But even if mythology states that Heracles, a symbol of physical strength, was deified because of his virtue, does it allow that his strength was his virtue? Is strength really a virtue?
Heracles‘ history as a muscle-bound savior begins in his crib. He was a son of the supreme god Zeus, who seduced the beautiful mortal Alcmene while her husband Amphitryon was away. This infuriated Zeus‘ immortal wife Hera and, when the boy was ironically named Heracles, which means „glory of Hera,“ the goddess became angrier still. She sent a pair of snakes to the baby’s crib in an effort to kill him and his half-brother Iphicles, but the infant Heracles strangled them, one in each hand, foretelling both his prodigious strength and his protective instinct. One act of juvenile heroism, however, does not amount to virtue.
The ancient Greek word for virtue. areté, is more accurately translated „excellence.“ As discussed in the philosophy of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, it requires not just the performance of good acts, but the intentional cultivation and demonstration of a disposition to perform them consistently. The baby Heracles might have thought the snakes were merely toys.
Nevertheless, virtue requires an understanding of right actions and the deliberate choice to do them. It does not come about by fortune or accident. The ideal of virtue touted by Greek philosophers is constant and reliable — a steady state of character.
Mythology does depict Heracles choosing virtue deliberately. „Heracles Choice“ is a myth attributed to Prodicus and recounted by Xenophon to make a point of virtue [Memorabilia 2.1].
The story depicts Heracles as a young man going to a quiet place to choose his future path. He is approached there by two women, both larger than life. One is adorned with makeup and provocatively dressed; the other is simple and modest, wrapped in a pure white robe. The first woman was named Pleasure, the second Virtue. Pleasure rushes up and says „Heracles, 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.“ [Xenophon, Xenophon in Seven Volumes, vol. 4. E.C. Marchant 2.1.24]
She promises a life of indulgence and ease; one in which he would live off the fruits of others‘ labor and taste all the sweetest things that worldly life can offer. Virtue promises no more than a life of toil and hardship, but one that is dear to the gods. She explains that Heracles must serve the gods and his community in the way that shepherds serve their flocks and farmers serve their land. Virtue concludes that true strength comes when the body serves the mind. Pleasure interrupts and announces that the road to pleasure is much shorter and easier than the long and steep path proposed by Virtue. After much deliberation, Heracles chose Virtue.
Though Heracles chose the longer road and suffered through the whole of his mortal life, he did win the favor of the gods and won for himself an immortal place among them. Likewise in Ancient Greece athletic excellence promised the joys of victory as well as the praises and prizes that accompany it. Athletic excellence was associated with virtue in ancient Greece largely because it was achieved by toil and sweat. But we have seen from the history of the snakes in the crib that Heracles seems to have been born with prodigious strength — a genetic gift from his divine father.
There are no stories of Heracles training to build himself up; he was never the proverbial 90-pound weakling. To be sure, Heracles chooses the hard road in life — one full of the toil and challenges described by Virtue. But Heracles‘ prodigious strength is neither the result of virtue, as athletes‘ strength is assumed to be, nor virtue itself. Heracles‘ physical strength turns out rather to be his cross to bear. His true virtue is the moral strength that allows him to put his physical strength in the service of humanity — a quality not of his body, but of his soul.
What is Virtue?
In the ancient Greek philosophy of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, virtue is understood as a kind of health of the soul. It is the disposition and ability to perform good actions, which, like physical health, requires almost constant training and maintenance. In fact, we might update this metaphor and compare Greek virtue to athletic fitness: The better trained one’s soul is, the more reliably and powerfully one will perform good actions. This does not mean that virtue of the soul is unconnected to physical strength and prowess. For the Greeks souls were what animated the body, so physical movement originated in the soul.
Because Heracles‘ strength was the product of birth rather than training, it is not true virtue. But his ability to act on that strength for the good of his fellow humans and to endear himself to the gods is a product of his soul and, therefore, of his virtue. Heracles only achieved immortality because he painstakingly acquired the virtue needed to put his inborn strength to good use. Strength’s value, like the value of money, depends entirely on its good and proper use. In short, Heracles‘ strength is a tool for his virtue, rather than virtue itself.
Even the most powerful tool is only as good as its operator. Indeed, powerful tools can be dangerous, when left to untrained or undisciplined hands. So too it was with Heracles‘ strength. As a young man, he married Megara and started a happy family, but his divine nemesis Hera sent him into a fit of madness in which he brutally murdered his wife and children. When he regained his senses to behold the horrific deed, he was pierced by unfathomable sorrow and regret. In Euripides‘ play, the hero’s pain is palpable:
„O children! He who begot you, your own father, has been your destroyer, and you have had no profit of my triumphs, all my restless toil to win for you by force a fair name, a glorious advantage from a father. You too, unhappy wife, this hand has slain, a poor return to make you for preserving the honor of my bed so safely, for all the weary watch you long have kept within my house. Alas for you, my wife, my sons! Alas for me, how sad my lot, cut off from wife and child!“
One can even imagine Heracles resenting for a moment the prodigious strength that made his brief bout of madness so destructive. Heracles‘ strength was anything but a virtue, when it was out of his control. But as mortals we are all subject to forces outside our control, and Heracles‘ first step toward virtue was acknowledging that.
Despite his godlike strength, Heracles had the humility to admit his limitations. Though he himself had never wronged the gods, nor had he willingly harmed his wife and children, he recognized that his soul had been polluted by his deed. He took responsibility for it and went to the god Apollo to learn how to expiate his crime. Apollo told Heracles that he would have to complete 12 heroic feats or labors (athloi) as a servant of King Eurystheus of Tiryns, who had a reputation for being mean and was indeed a lesser man than Heracles. It is through his performance of these labors that we see Heracles building up the moral strength to match his physical strength. Through the labors, he demonstrates the virtue touted by such philosophers as Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.
During his real-life trial in Athens in 399 B.C.E. the philosopher Socrates compared himself to Heracles —
Here, from Plato, Apology:
„And I swear to you, Athenians, by the dog I swear! – for I must tell you the truth – the result of my mission was just this: I found that the men most in repute were all but the most foolish; and that some inferior men were really wiser and better. I will tell you the tale of my wanderings and of the „Herculean“ labors, as I may call them, which I endured only to find at last the oracle irrefutable.“
For philosophers, Socrates is a symbol of virtue primarily because of his intellectual integrity. Just as Heracles‘ supreme strength is complemented by the honest admission of his weakness with respect to the gods, Socrates supreme wisdom is complemented by the honest admission of his ignorance with respect to the gods. However, these admissions of imperfection do not merely honor the gods, they have the practical benefit of motivating human beings continually to improve themselves.
Socrates embodies that purpose when he „serves the god“ by showing those with a reputation for wisdom that they are not wise at all.
„I found that the men most in repute were all but the most foolish; and that some inferior men were really wiser and better. I will tell you the tale of my wanderings and of the „Herculean“ labors, as I may call them, which I endured only to find at last the oracle irrefutable. When I left the politicians, I went to the poets; tragic, dithyrambic, and all sorts. And there, I said to myself, you will be detected; now you will find out that you are more ignorant than they are. Accordingly, I took them some of the most elaborate passages in their own writings, and asked what was the meaning of them – thinking that they would teach me something. Will you believe me? I am almost ashamed to speak of this, but still I must say that there is hardly a person present who would not have talked better about their poetry than they did themselves. That showed me in an instant that not by wisdom do poets write poetry, but by a sort of genius and inspiration; they are like diviners or soothsayers who also say many fine things, but do not understand the meaning of them. And the poets appeared to me to be much in the same case; and I further observed that upon the strength of their poetry they believed themselves to be the wisest of men in other things in which they were not wise.“
In this way, he rids the city of demagogues and would-be tyrants who discourage Athenian citizens from thinking for themselves. It is a feat comparable to the Herculean labors, in which the hero rids various communities of fearsome beasts, which terrorize the people.
Indeed, Heracles‘ first labor was to slay the Nemean Lion, which had been terrorizing the countryside and could not be killed by arrows or spears. The task was considered virtually impossible and Heracles knew that it would be dangerous. When his host Morlorchus offered to pray and sacrifice for a good hunt, Heracles asked him to go and see whether the hero would return alive.
The willingness to risk one’s life in order the help one’s community is also a manifestation of virtue, shown by Socrates. The philosopher’s public interrogation of community leaders predictably got him into trouble. He was tired and convicted on the capital offense of impiety and then sentenced to death by a reluctant jury. Socrates seems to have recognized that his trial and death would make Athens rethink its „values“ and perhaps strive again for virtue. At the same time, the philosopher preserved his own virtue by accepting his death sentence and refusing an opportunity to escape by bribing the guard. One might say that Socrates‘ wisdom was what got him into trouble, but it was wisdom in service of the common good and thus, it amounted to virtue. Heracles used his strength to strangle the Nemean lion, as well as to dispatch the Lernaean hydra, Erymanthian boar, Stymphalian birds, Cretan bull, and finally the man-eating horses of Diomedes. It was the same strength he used to kill his wife and children, but now it was a tool of virtue and therefore, of the good.
Personified Virtue had warned the young Heracles that true strength is when the body serves the mind and the community. This idea resembles Plato’s theory of virtue as the proper ordering and harmonious function of a tripartite soul. In Republic and other dialogues, Plato conceives of the human soul as being divided into
In a various soul, the rational part leads while spirit and appetites follow and are kept in check. In Phaedrus, the tripartite soul is illustrated by the image of a two-horse chariot with a rational charioteer, a strong but unruly horse that represents the appetites, and an obedient horse that represents spiritedness.
Here, from Phaedrus:
„We will liken the soul to the composite nature of a pair of winged horses and a charioteer. Now the horses and charioteers of the gods are all good and of good descent, but those of other races are mixed; and first the charioteer of the human soul drives a pair, and secondly one of the horses is noble and of noble breed, but the other quite the opposite in breed and character. Therefore in our case the driving is necessarily difficult and troublesome.“
„In the beginning of this tale I divided each soul into three parts, two of which had the form of horses the third that of a charioteer. Let us retain this division. Now of the horses we say one is good and the other bad; but we did not define what the goodness of the one and the badness of the other was. That we must now do. The horse that stands at the right hand is upright and has clean limbs; he carries his neck high, has an aquiline nose, is white in color, and has dark eyes; he is a friend of honor joined with temperance and modesty, and a follower of true glory; he needs no whip, but is guided only by the word of command and by reason. The other, however, is crooked, heavy, ill put together, his neck is short and thick, his nose flat, his color dark, his eyes grey and bloodshot; he is the friend of insolence and pride, is shaggy-eared and deaf, hardly obedient to whip and spurs. Now when the charioteer beholds the love-inspiring vision, and his whole soul is warmed by the sight, and is full of the tickling and prickings of yearning, the horse that is obedient the charioteer, constrained then as always by modesty, controls himself and does not leap upon the beloved; but the other no longer heeds the pricks or the whip of the charioteer, but springs wildly forward, causing all possible trouble to his mate and to the charioteer, and forcing them to approach the beloved and propose the joys of love. And they at first pull back indignantly and will not be forced to do terrible and unlawful deeds; but finally, as the trouble has no end, they go forward with him, yielding and agreeing to do his bidding. And they come to the beloved and behold his radiant face. And as the charioteer looks upon him, his memory is borne back to the true nature of beauty, and he sees it standing with modesty upon a pedestal of chastity, and when he sees this he is afraid and falls backward in reverence, and in falling he is forced to pull the reins so violently backward as to bring both horses upon their haunches, the one quite willing, since he does not oppose him, but the unruly beast very unwilling. And as they go away, one horse in his shame and wonder wets all the soul with sweat, but the other, as soon as he is recovered from the pain of the bit and the fail, before he has fairly taken breath, breaks forth into angry reproaches, bitterly reviling his mate and the charioteer for their cowardice and lack of manhood in deserting their post and breaking their agreement; and again, in spite of their unwillingness, he urges them forward and hardly yields to their prayer that he postpone the matter to another time. Then when the time comes which they have agreed upon, they pretend that they have forgotten it, but he reminds them; struggling, and neighing, and pulling he forces them again with the same purpose to approach the beloved one, and when they are near him, he lowers his head, raises his tail, takes the bit in his teeth, and pulls shamelessly. The effect upon the charioteer is the same as before, but more pronounced; he falls back like a racer from the starting-rope, pulls the bit backward even more violently than before from the teeth of the unruly horse, covers his scurrilous tongue and jaws with blood, and forces his legs and haunches to the ground, causing him much pain. Now when the bad horse has gone through the same experience many times and has ceased from his unruliness, he is humbled and follows henceforth the wisdom of the charioteer . . .“
The chariot-soul’s struggle for areté is described as an upward climb toward truth and divinity that is especially difficult for humans because „the heaviness of the bad horse drags its charioteer toward the earth and weighs him down if he has failed to train it well.“ For the chariot to function well, it must be properly guided by the charioteer’s understanding, which must pull, in the right direction, spirit and appetite [though the spirited part is inclined to work with the rational part]. Plato thought that people — guided by the appetitive desire for food, sex, and money or by the spirited drive for honor and social esteem — do not demonstrate virtue. The virtuous person must be guided by reason, which is then aided by emotion, appetite, and, in Heracles‘ case, the prodigious strength to accomplish great deeds.
Although he is sometimes described, like so many men of strength, as mentally weak, a closer look reveals that several of Heracles‘ labors required as much mental as physical power. In order to kill the Nemean lion, he had to figure out how to trap and then strangle the beast, since its pelt was impenetrable.
The Lernaean Hydra had nine heads, and each time Heracles cut off one, two more would spring up in its place. The hero had the humility and the smarts to call for help. His friend Iolaus arrived with a torch and cauterized the neck-stumps to prevent more heads from sprouting back. Displaying forethought, Heracles even had the presence of mind to dip his arrows in the Hydra’s poisonous blood.
The labor of cleansing the Augean stables showed not only the willingness to do a dirty, smelly job, but also admirable intelligence. Heracles bet the supremely wealthy King Augeas that he could clean the immense stables in a single day. Believing the task impossible, Augeas promised to pay the hero a tenth of his cattle, should he succeed. Bringing Augeas‘ son as a witness, Heracles cleansed the stables by diverting two nearby rivers to flow through and flush the stalls out. Strength played a part, but foresight and engineering also came into play in that event. Collection of the payment required some intellectual maneuvering, too. The King went back on his promise, but rather than slay him as a monster, Heracles took the case to a judge. With the King’s own son as witness to the promise of the deed, the judge ruled in favor of Heracles. There is a sense in which Augeas was another public menace defeated by Heracles, but that monster was defeated with intelligence, not brute strength.
Moreover, it was Heracles who rescued the symbol and savior of human intelligence, Prometheus. The Titan, whose name means „forethought,“ was famous for stealing fire from the gods and giving it to humanity. Some interpret this fire in terms of its practical use for cooking and heating, others understand it as symbolic of divine intelligence. Plato’s Socrates reckons that Prometheus‘ gift gave humanity a portion of the divine, which explained not only religion but also our use of language.
„And now that man was partaker of a divine portion, he, in the first place, by his nearness of kin to deity, was the only creature that worshiped gods, and set himself to establish altars and holy images; and secondly, he soon was enabled by his skill to articulate speech and words . . .“
Zeus punished Prometheus for his „philanthropy“ by chaining him to Mount Caucasus and having a giant eagle peck out his liver every day. Still, every night, it would grow back, only to be pecked out again, until Heracles finally killed the eagle after 30 years of torture. It is significant that Heracles should be the one to rescue Prometheus („Forethought“), the symbol of human intelligence. With this deed, not only does Heracles liberate humanity from terrifying beasts and monsters, he symbolically saves our intelligence from eternal torture. This is indeed an act of body serving mind; he rescues the one who raised us beyond our animal state. Heracles‘ virtue must be more than „brute“ strength.
Prometheus is also a prominent part of another labor that resembles the theft of divine fire. Heracles was attempting to steal from Zeus the golden apples of Hesperides, which had been a wedding gift from the hero’s arch-nemesis Hera. This truly seemed an impossible task, one that would require all of Heracles‘ powers, not just his strength.
The apples were heavily guarded by a hundred-headed dragon as well as the Hesperides, daughters of Atlas, the Titan who used to hold up the sky. Heracles needed a plan to get the apples and a grateful Prometheus gave him one. The plan was to get Atlas to fetch the golden apples, by offering to relieve him in the meantime of his burden. When Atlas returned with the apples, a battle of strongmen’s wits ensued. Atlas offered to take the apples to Eurystheus himself, which would relieve Heracles to hold up the earth and sky (probably forever) — a deed of prodigious strength. Sensing Atlas‘ plot, Heracles feigned agreement and asked only for a moment’s reprieve in order to put some padding on his shoulders. When Atlas put down the golden apples to hoist the earth and sky, Heracles picked them up, escaped, and left Atlas with his eternal burden. Heracles had the strength to hold up the world, but it was cleverness that allowed him to complete his assigned deed. Heracles‘ strength serves his reason, just as in Plato’s theory of virtue.
Of course, a huge part of Heracles‘ cleverness was the Socratic humility to ask for help: from Iolaos with the Hydra, from Augeas‘ son with the stables, from Prometheus with the apples, and most importantly, from the gods themselves. In a memorable relief at Olympia depicting the hero’s labors, the goddess Athena is shown sharing Heracles‘ burden as he shoulders the universe.
For help in driving off the Stymphalian Birds, Heracles receives special noisemakers from Athena. Athena is a goddess of wisdom and war that is often depicted supporting those engaged in meaningful struggle (ἀγών, agon). In Homer’s Odyssey, she is almost constantly at Odysseus‘ side.
The Homeric hero is known only for his wily intelligence. It seems that Heracles too must be loved and aided by the goddess of wisdom for something more than the strength of his muscles. The labor of Hesperides‘ apples was demanded after Eurystheus unfairly rejected the labors of the Lernean Hydra and Augean Stables. But Athena is one who supports struggle, aiding in the production of noble deeds, almost as the embodiment of virtue itself.
Aristotle endorsed Plato’s theory of virtue as order in the soul, but he distinguished virtue of thought from virtue of character, noting that the first requires teaching and experience and the second habituation or training. Says Aristotle, „Virtue of character results from habit; hence its name ‚ethical‘, slightly varied from ‚ethos‘.
Here, from Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics:
„Virtue being, as we have seen, of two kinds, intellectual and moral, intellectual virtue is for the most part both produced and increased by instruction, and therefore requires experience and time; whereas moral or ethical virtue is the product of habit (ethos), and has indeed derived its name, with a slight variation of form, from that word.“
Both rational and non-rational aspects of virtue, then, are achieved through training and practice. Heracles illustrates Aristotle’s principle insofar as he is strong from birth, but only achieves his virtue through the process of completing his labors. Indeed his labors become more challenging and complex as they progress. After killing the Nemean Lion singlehandedly, then dispatching the Lernaean Hydra with the help of Iolaus, the third labor requires Heracles to capture a deer with golden horns and bronze hooves called the Cerynean hind. This was a delicate task, because the hind was a pet of the goddess Artemis, who would not look kindly upon it being hurt or killed.
The first thing this hunt demanded was patience and endurance; the hero chased the deer for a year before finally shooting it on Mount Artemisius. Heracles was smart enough to tell these gods the truth about his labor, and, as a result, Artemis healed the deer’s wound and allowed the hero to take her back to Eurystheus. This was not a test of strength, skill, or pure intelligence so much as a test of moral character. Heracles acted vigorously by facing up to the goddess‘ anger and confessing his deed; in turn, corrected his mistake, and allowed him to complete the task.
Divine intervention was not always at hand to correct Heracles‘ errors, however. On his way to the fourth labor, the killing of the Erymanthean boar, Heracles‘ appetites and political misjudgement cost him dearly. The hero was visiting his friend Pholus, who was a centaur (half-man and half-horse).
Heracles asked for food, which Pholus happily offered, but when he asked for wine, Pholus was reluctant to open the bottle, since the wine belonged to all of the centaurs in common. Heracles was known for letting his appetites affect his judgement; the comic playwright Aristophanes even ridicules him for it.
Here, for example, Poseidon to Heracles, from Aristophanes Birds:
„You wretch! You are nothing but a fool and a glutton.“
Here, The Birds:
Rationalizing perhaps that he could dispatch any disgruntled centaurs with his hydra-poisoned arrows, Heracles told Pholus not to worry and helped himself to the wine. Predictably, the centaurs attacked him. Heracles killed several of them, but when Pholus picked up one of the poisonous arrows in wonder that it could kill so easily, he accidentally pricked himself with it and died on the spot. As Heracles mournfully buried his host and friend, he must have reflected again on the danger that comes with great power and the need to moderate one’s appetites. Even though the hero was strong enough to handle the battle that was sparked by his immoderate taking of the wine, he could not control the unfortunate aftermath in which one of his weapons was turned on a friend.
Not only does this story emphasize the importance of self-control and moderation, it also illustrates Aristotle’s point that we are political animals. What he means is not that we should all become politicians, but rather that we should see ourselves as members of a community and recognize our dependence on others as well as our obligations toward them. When Heracles selfishly takes the centaurs‘ wine, not only does he violate his relationship with his host (philexenia), he fails to respect what is common property. His ability to overpower the attacking centaurs — essentially the exercise of the principle that might is right — backfires. Even when physical force prevails, it hardly seems the best solution.
That lesson is reinforced with the Amazons. Charged with capturing the belt of the Amazon queen Hippolyte, Heracles assembles an army and sails away. When he meets the queen on the shore, she kindly agrees to give the belt to him. But meanwhile Hera rousts the Amazon troops and convinces them that Heracles is about to kidnap their queen. When the fierce female fighters charge toward the shore, a bloody battle ensues and Heracles is forced to kill Hippolyte. The hero must have reflected, as he removed the gracious queen’s belt, that violent force had not really been necessary. The strongest warrior is the one who never has to draw his sword.
By the time of his twelfth and final labor, Heracles seems to have achieved what Aristotle calls practical wisdom (phronesis), the ability to hit the target set up by reason to achieve skillfully one’s ethical goals. Of course, Heracles had shown moments of practical wisdom throughout his labors, but for his final task he was expected to enter the kingdom of Hades, the underworld dwelling of Cerberus — the three-headed serpent-tailed dog that guarded its gates.
First, Heracles showed his Socratic integrity and humility by going to Eleusis to learn about the Elusian mysteries — religious secrets that promised a life of happiness in the underworld. Heracles understood that his mission might fail, so he prepared himself as best he could. The road to the underworld was studded with beasts and monsters much like those he had learned to defeat during his labors. Upon reaching Hades, the god of the underworld, Heracles simply asked him for Cerberus, as he had done with Artemis and Hippolyte. The god graciously complied — but only if Heracles could capture the creature using his bare hands. So Heracles‘ final labor ends fittingly with a task of pure strength, but now that bodily strength is controlled by a rational and honorable soul. Heracles‘ strength is not his virtue, but rather it is a powerful tool for his virtuous soul.
Heracles is a symbol of strength. One can understand why modern weightlifters draw inspiration from him just as ancient athletes worshiped him. But it is important to acknowledge the moral virtue and community service that transformed Heracles‘ strength into something worth worshiping. From the innocent act of saving his infant brother to the deliberate choices to follow the path of personified Virtue and to the twelve cathartic labors that expiated the massacre of his first wife and children, Heracles‘ story is a human saga about striving to become better.
It begins with the humility to acknowledge our limitations and the courage to choose the harder, better road. It asks us to willingly serve the wider community and to endure the often-outrageous whims of fortune. It asks us to moderate our appetites and develop our minds and to privilege divine intelligence over animalistic urges. It asks us to organize our talents in a way that achieves good goals with a minimum of force. By training intelligently and sedulously [showing dedication and diligence] in a gym, we may indeed cultivate some virtue, but we must not confuse mere bodily strength with the holistic nature of true Hellenic and Heraclean virtue.
In the end, a clever centaur got his revenge on poor Heracles by convincing the hero’s second wife, Deianira, that his blood was a powerful love-potion, but when Heracles donned the cloak, his skin began to burn uncontrollably. The pain was so great that the hero reckoned death to be better and asked his friends to burn him alive.
Somewhere between the burning from the potion and the burning on the pyre, Zeus suggested to Hera that Heracles had suffered enough. The goddess agreed and Athena was dispatched to bring the hero up to Mount Olympus to marry the divine Hebe and live in eternal bliss with the gods.
No other mortal ever received such an honor,
but no other mortal matched
the virtue of his strength and the strength of his virtue.
(aus: Heather L. Reid. “Hercules’ Dilemma: Is Strength Really a Virtue?” In *Strength
and Philosophy, *edited by M. Holowchak. New York: Mellen Press, 2010.