Here’s one of my favourite stories of wisdom. It’s a long post so buckle up.
I’ll be paraphrasing from the book “How to think like a Roman emperor: The Stoic Philosophy of Marcus Aurelius” by Donald Robertson who we’ll be doing a live Q&A with on September 2nd.
Zeno the founder of Stoicism (the philosophical school that guides the lessons in “The Obstacle is The Way” (book 1 of book club) got a massive kick up his arse when he came across this story for the first time.
The story is called “The Choice of Hercules”.
Zeno was basically all out. Life was over for him. He was lost. He stumbled into a book shop and came across a book that had this story in it. It hit him like lightning and it may do the same for you.
Here’s the story:
One day, as a young man, Hercules was walking along an unfamiliar path when he came upon a fork in the road, at which he sat down and began to contemplate his future. Unsure which path to take, he found himself suddenly confronted by two mysterious goddesses. The first appeared as a beautiful and alluring woman dressed in fine clothing. She was called Kakia, although she (falsely) claimed that her friends called her Eudaimonia, meaning happiness and fulfillment. She barged in front of her companion and pleaded very insistently with Hercules to follow her path. It led, she promised, to by far the easiest and most pleasant way of life, a shortcut to true happiness.
After listening to her for a while, Hercules was approached by the second goddess, Arete, a less boastful and more modest woman, who nonetheless shone with natural beauty. To his surprise, she wore a grave expression. She warned him that her path led in a very different direction: it would be long and difficult, and would require a great deal of hard work. Speaking plainly, she told Hercules that he would suffer. He would be doomed to walk the earth in rags, reviled and persecuted by his enemies. “Nothing that is really good and admirable,” cautioned Arete, “is granted by the gods to men without some effort and application.” Hercules would be called upon to exercise wisdom and justice and to face mounting adversity with bravery and self-discipline. Overcoming great obstacles through courageous and honorable deeds, the goddess said, was the only true path to fulfilment in life.
Hercules famously chose the heroic path of Arete, or “Virtue,” and was not seduced by Kakia, or “Vice.” Armed with a wooden club and dressed in the pelt of the Nemean lion, symbolic of a more primitive and natural way of life, he wandered from one place to another, as if the whole world were his home. The gods forced him to undertake the legendary Twelve Labors, including slaying the hydra and ultimately entering Hades, the underworld itself.
Not surprisingly, Hercules was the mythic hero most admired by Cynic and Stoic philosophers. His labors embodied their belief that it’s more rewarding to face hardship voluntarily and cultivate strength of character than to take the easy option by embracing comfortable living and idleness.
Hence, the satirist Lucian, a contemporary of Marcus, portrayed the legendary sale of Diogenes the Cynic at a slave auction as follows:
BUYER: Is there anyone whom you strive to emulate?
DIOGENES: Yes, Hercules.
BUYER: Then why aren’t you wearing a lion-skin? Though I’ll admit that your club looks like his.
DIOGENES: Why, this old cloak is my lion-skin and like him I’m fighting a campaign against pleasure, not at anyone else’s bidding, by my own free will, since I’ve made it my purpose to clean up human life.
“What do you think Hercules would have amounted to,” Epictetus asks his students, “if there had not been monsters such as the Nemean lion, the Hydra, the stag of Artemis, the Erymanthian boar, and all those unjust and bestial men for him to contend with? Why, if he had sat at home, wrapped up asleep in bedsheets, living in luxury and ease, he would have been no Hercules at all!”
Epictetus tells his students that just as Hercules cleansed the earth of monsters without complaining, they should set about conquering themselves by purging the base desires and emotions from their hearts.
For Stoics, in other words, the tale of Hercules symbolizes the epic challenge of deciding who we really want to be in life, the promise of philosophy, and the the temptation of giving in to pleasure and vice (think giving in to junk food, drinking, snacking)
“But wasn’t Hercules’s life unpleasant? As we’ll see, from the Stoic perspective Hercules remained cheerful, despite the terrible things he endured. He enjoyed a profound sense of inner satisfaction knowing that he was fulfilling his destiny and expressing his true nature.
His life had something far more satisfying than pleasure: it had purpose.
The Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius was taught that he shouldn’t be tempted by such cheap distractions. He was told not to support any of the chariot racing teams or the gladiator fights. These were the main forms of public entertainment at the time and it seems the “masses” were just as addicted to them as many of us are to sports, reality TV and social media today.
Enjoying the suffering of others is bad. Taking pleasure in watching men risk death or serious injury would therefore be considered a vice by the Stoics. In contrast, enjoying seeing people flourish is good.
But do we like seeing others flourish? It’s actually very rare to see people liking someone succeeding. It’s often met with jealousy, hatred, nasty comments and internet trolling.
Marcus has that in mind when he repeatedly tells himself that the goal of his life is not pleasure but action.
I love this passage from the book:
“(Marcus) His friends’ company wasn’t always fun—sometimes they spoke plainly and criticized him—but he embraced them because they shared his values and helped to improve him as a person. He clearly preferred the company of his family and most trusted friends over socializing with the Roman elite.”
I know so many people that only hang around with others because they are fun. Obviously we want to enjoy life, don’t take this the wrong way but sometimes we put fun as the main characteristic and what tends to happen is that we ignore all the other red flags from that friend or friendship group.
I see this a lot with both male and female groups. They don’t speak for a single moment during the week, only to rally the troops for a big weekend night binge drinking. I’ve had some of the most fun times out drinking with my friends but I’ve also had some of my most memorable moments spending time doing the opposite with other friends.
You can be happy, joyful, and interesting without always having to look or be “fun”. Don’t let fun guide you to things you really don’t want to keep doing.
If you’re only willing to be friends with someone because they are fun then maybe it’s time to reevaluate that value.
Marcus Aurelius’s brother was the definition of a party boy. He was his co-emperor but let that get to his head.
He partied like a celebrity, too much food and drink. He surrounded himself with people who only wanted the fun from him aka his money and entrance to lavish parties.
He would send letters to his mentor saying he was depressed night and day due to the lifestyle but it didn’t stop him. The pull was too great. He had too many people telling him how fun he was, how great he was for always having parties. This got to his head I think and I believe he would have thought his identity was tied to fun. When this happens it’s dangerous.
“But you’re the fun one, come on!” This phrase is said far too often and is such an easy manipulation tool against someone.
“Binge drinking, casual sex, gambling, and partying became his way of coping, albeit badly, with the pressures of his role. The Stoics believed that entertainment, sex, food, and even alcohol have their place in life—they’re neither good nor bad in themselves. However, when pursued excessively, they can become unhealthy. So the wise man sets reasonable limits on his desires, and he exercises the virtue of moderation: “Nothing in excess.” When doing what feels pleasurable becomes more important than doing what’s actually good for us or our loved ones, though, that’s a recipe for disaster. There’s a world of difference between healthy pleasures and unhealthy ones”
So the lesson from the choice of Hercules and the additional information on how Marcus used that wisdom?
Giving in to easy pleasures is the easy route. It’s easy to binge eat. It’s easy to watch 5 hours of TV a night. It’s easy to play video games every night. It’s easy to drink every weekend. It’s easy to give in to your temptations all the time. It’s easy to not track. It’s easy to not workout and stay on a comfy chair. It’s easy to sleep in a nice bed until 15min before work. It’s easy to gossip away with friends. It’s easy to be negative. It’s easy to hate on someone. It’s easy to think life’s unfair and that’s why you’re where you’re at. It’s easy to pick up your phone 100x a day. It’s easy to endlessly scroll Instagram.
It’s not easy to go down the other path, the path Hercules chose.
It’s harder. It’s going to suck at times. It’s going to push/pull and push you to your limits. It’s going to make you want to give up.
But what it will do is mould you into living a life of meaning and purpose.
Nothing compares to self-made progress. It’s the best feeling knowing we are working hard on ourselves and improving every day.
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The path is a long way, it’s slow and steady but there’s no other way we’d like it. The turtle way.
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