Christian Platonism

Rediscovering Ancient Wisdom

The Archetypal Meaning of Hercules at the Crossroads

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Annibale Carracci, The Choice of Hercules, 1596

THE ATHENIAN philosopher and rhetorician, Prodicus, a contemporary of Socrates, wrote an essay commonly known as Hercules at the Crossroads, which he often delivered orally to appreciative crowds. A moral allegory of deep psychological significance, it describes a young Hercules at a crossroads confronted by two women who personify Vice and Virtue.  Each appeals to him to take a different route: Lady Vice claims the easy path will lead to pleasure and happiness; Lady Virtue reminds him that the road to true and lasting satisfaction is the harder and more toilsome route.

Our best source of the story is Xenophon’s dialogue Memorabilia (2.1.21–34), wherein Socrates is presented as relating Prodicus’ story to a young protege named Aristippus (evidently not the eponymous founder of the Cyrenaic philosophical sect).

Thanks to Xenophon, the story was well known and often alluded to throughout antiquity and beyond.  Cicero, in On Moral Duties (1.32.118; 3.5.25), a work addressed to his son, mentions Prodicus’ tale in the context of choosing ones career.  Others, too, have understood the tale as referring choosing one’s long term course in life.  However we have good reason to believe the story has a deeper psychological and more existential meaning.

One clue to the deeper meaning is the strong appeal of the story throughout the centuries to the artistic imagination.  As Erwin Panovsky (1930) in a seminal work on art history describes, Prodicus story elicited scores of paintings and drawings beginning in the Renaissance.

Another clue to a deeper meaning is to see how this same theme is expressed in many variations throughout antiquity.  The earliest and best known example in the Greek tradition is Hesiod’s Works and Days 1.287−294.

Wickedness (κακότητα; kakotes) can be had in abundance easily: smooth is the road and very nigh she dwells. But in front of virtue (ἀρετῆς; arete) the gods immortal have put sweat: long and steep is the path to her and rough at first; but when you reach the top, then at length the road is easy, hard though it was.
Source: Hesiod, Works and Days 1.287−294 (tr. Evelyn-White)

This passage serves as a virtual epitome of book 1 of Works and Days, which also contains the Pandora and Ages of Man myths, both allegories of the moral fall.

In Greek mythology, a similar trope is found in the Judgment of Paris, where Paris must choose which goddess is more beautiful: Athena, Hera or Aphrodite — allegorically symbolizing Wisdom, domestic virtue, and sensory pleasure, respectively.  His choice of Aphrodite over Athena and Hera led to the Trojan War.  If we understand the Trojan War as allegorically symbolizing the principle of psychomachia, or conflict between virtuous and unvirtuous elements of the human psyche, then the Judgment of Paris may be understood as symbolizing a depth-psychological dynamic that precipitates a fundamental form of  inner conflict.

Plato cites the above passage of Hesiod in two of his works (Republic 2.364d  and Laws 4.718e−719a). Moreover, in two underworld myths presented in his dialogues (Republic 10.614c−d and Gorgias 524a−527a), he describes a parting of two paths — one associated virtue and leading to the Isles of the Blest, and one associated with vice and leading to punishment in Tartarus. If we understand the underworld as symbolizing depth-psychological processes, it suggests that Plato is saying that orienting our mind wrongly leads to internal self-inflicted punishments, the ultimate aim of which is to educated and reform us (Gorgias 525b−c).

The same trope of a parting of the ways in an underworld journey is found in Book 6 of Virgil’s Aeneid (Smith, 2000).  Further, an epigram attributed (probably incorrectly, but perhaps written within a century of Virgil’s death) describes what is commonly called the Pythagorean Y (so-named because of the resemblance of ‘Y’ to a forking path):

This letter of Pythagoras, that bears
This fork’d distinction, to conceit prefers
The form man’s life bears. Virtue’s hard way takes
Upon the right hand path, which entry makes
(To sensual eyes) with difficult affair ;
But when ye once have climb’d the highest stair,
The beauty and the sweetness it contains,
Give rest and comfort, far past all your pains.’
The broadway in a bravery paints ye forth,
(In th’ entry) softness, and much shade of worth;
But when ye reach the top, the taken ones
It headlong hurls down, torn at sharpest stones.
He then, whom virtues love, shall victor crown
Of hardest fortunes, praise wins and renown:
But he that sloth and fruitless luxury
Pursues, and doth with foolish wariness fly
Opposed pains (that all best acts befall).
Lives poor and vile, and dies despised of all.
(tr. George Chapman)

Like Hercules at the Crossroads, the Pythagorean Y inspired many Renaissance works of art.

Philo of Alexandria (fl. ca. 20 AD), the Jewish Middle Platonist philosopher (and, as it happens, the virtual father of Christian allegorical interpretation of the Bible), expanded on Prodicus’ theme in a discussion of the ‘two wives of the soul’ (On the Sacrifices of Cain and Abel 1.5.21−34).  Philo’s treatment is quite interesting in its own right, in part because of his remarkable list of over 150 negative adjectives to describe a votary of Pleasure (who plays the role of Vice in Prodicus’ tale).  Readers of Philo will immediately recognize the connection of the story with his allegorical interpretation of the Garden of Eden myth.

Centuries later, St. Ambrose of Milan (fl. 390 AD), in Cain and Abel 4.13−5.15, paraphrased Philo’s discussion and connected it with the ‘strange woman’ (Uebersax, 2009) in the Book of Proverbs (Prv 2:16−19; 5:3−8; 5:15−19; 5:20; 6:24−26; 7:5−27; 9:13−18; 20:16; 22:14; 23:27−35; 27:13, 15), a personification of pleasure and/or folly, and opponent of the virtuous ‘wife of thy youth.’ (Prv 5:15−19).

The theme of two paths associated with a choice or judgment concerning virtue vs. wickedness occurs throughout the Old and New Testament.  Perhaps best known is Psalm 1 (traditionally called The Two Paths).

When we find the same theme like this so prominently expressed across many times and traditions, it implies some universal, archetypal psychological dynamic of fundamental significance. That, I believe, is the case here. This is not a simple, prosaic morality tale such that “one must choose good and not evil.” Rather it confronts us with the existential fact — readily verifiable by introspection and close attention to thoughts — that we are always, every moment at our lives, faced with the two paths:  we can direct the immediate energies of our mind towards seeking physical pleasure, or to virtue, spirituality and higher cognitive activity.  When we choose the latter, all is well. Our mind is a harmony.  This is the path of life. But the moment we stop actively choosing virtue, our mind lapses into its immature state dominated by the pleasure principle; we are no longer true to our genuine nature, and a cascading sequence of negative mental events ensues.

This is not unlike the Freudian distinction between the pleasure principle and the reality principle, which, according to him, it is the principal task of the ego to broker.  However in this case, the reality principle is replaced by what we might call the virtue principle:  that our psyche is, in its core, fundamentally aligned with virtue.  In a sense this is still a reality principle — but, here the reality is that our nature seeks virtue.

To choose the path of virtue, wisdom and righteousness on an ongoing basis is not easy. It is, rather, as Plato calls it, the contest of contests (Gorgias 526e) and requires a degree of resolve and effort we may perhaps rightly call Herculean.


Colson, F. H.; Whitaker, G. H. (trs.). Philo: On the Sacrifices of Abel and Cain. In: Philo, Volume 2. Loeb Classical Library L227. Harvard University Press, 1929.

Evelyn-White, Hugh G. (tr.). Hesiod: Works and Days. In: Hesiod, Homeric Hymns and Homerica. Loeb Classical Library L057. Harvard University Press, 1943.

Marchant, E. C. Xenophon: Memorabilia and Oeconomicus. Harvard University Press, 1923.

Miller, Walter (tr.). Cicero: De Officiis. Loeb Classical Library L030. Harvard University Press, 1913.

Panofsky, Erwin. Hercules am Scheidewege und andere antike Bildstoffi in der neueren Kunst, Studien der Bibliothek Warburg 18, Leipzig, 1930.

Rochette, Bruno. Héraclès à la croissé des chemins: un topos dans la literature grécolatine. Études Classiques 66, 1998, 105−113.

Savage, John J. (tr.). Saint Ambrose: Hexameron, Paradise, and Cain And Abel. Fathers of the Church 42. Catholic University of America, 1961.

Smith, Richard Upsher. The Pythagorean letter and Virgil’s golden bough. Dionysius 18, 2000, pp. 7−24.

Uebersax, John S.  The strange woman of Proverbs. 2009.

1st draft, 1 Mar 2020

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