Brute and primal hero: Hercules

Heracles, or more commonly Hercules (the Roman version), is the quintessential and archetypal hero, the one the Greeks considered their greatest and, more importantly, the one my four-year-old daughter names when I ask her who her favorite hero is.

So Hercules must, of necessity, open this thread on heroes and any investigation of heroism.

Which is interesting because I put it to you that the myth of Hercules is one of the worst stories of antiquity when you consider the storytelling per se. We today would consider Hercules a brute, a meathead, a boor. He is one-dimensional as opposed to complex. His story is in essence a repetitive list of triumphs that leaves no room for suspense, surprise or sympathy. (I meant empathy, really, but why not alliterate?).

And yet, Hercules is the one my daughter picks. So there must be something primal there. And that’s what this post wants to establish.

The man and his dilemma

Hera (Juno)

Hercules was, like many other Greco-Roman heroes, half god, half human. His father was Zeus, which meant that Hera, Zeus’s sister and wife, was jealous and would forever hate Hercules (some say that she is the Hera in Hera-cles) and make his life difficult. If there is tension in the story at all, it is this fight among the gods (some goddesses, such as Athena, helped Hercules) and between a goddess and a mortal. We’ll encounter this theme all throughout ancient mythology (Hera also fought against Aeneas, for instance).

Hera is thus how the Greeks, in this story, personified adversity and even what we would call our dark side. If things go wrong, even if Hercules himself does wrong, we will blame Hera. She is the Ur-bitch, you might say.

Just so this is clear, the story starts when Hera sends two venomous snakes into the crib of baby Hercules to kill him off. Poor snakes. Baby Hercules strangles them, one in each cute fist.

And thus you have the only other piece of information you need about Hercules, the thing that he is known for, the only thing we can really say about him: He is …. strong.

Strength is probably the first trait of a hero, as Jens has already pointed out. But strength against or for what?

Combine the malign influence of Hera and this awe-inspiring strength and you get a combustible cocktail.

Indeed, we need an explosion to get started: Hera causes Hercules to go temporarily mad. He rages with blood lust, destroying and killing not just anybody but … his own children! (Ask yourself: Could Hercules be a modern hero? Do heroes have to be “good”?)

This sets up a rather complicated and unconvincing double rationale for what must come next–ie, the ostensible “story”. Hercules has sinned and must atone, by doing certain labors of penance.

But penance did not work for the Greeks as a story line, so there is another, simpler layer: a good old power struggle. Hercules was supposed to have been a prince, but Hera (who else?) had played with Zeus’ mind and given the throne to Hercules’ cousin Eurystheus, a caricature of mediocrity. The deal is that Hercules can get his throne back if he completes the tasks that Eurystheus gives him. (Ask yourself how plausible that is. Why wouldn’t Hercules just bash his cousin’s head in?)

I’ve been dwelling on all this only to show you what a “bad” story this is. It should be entirely clear by now that the ancients were not the least bit interested in the why of Hercules’ labors, and arguably only modestly interested in the how. They were interested in the that. Namely, Hercules accomplished twelve amazing feats because … he could.

The labors

I won’t, as it were, belabor the labors, even though they are the myth, because you know them and, frankly, I consider them rather predictable and thus dull. (Compare any one of them to the fiendish complexity and uncertainty of, say, Jason having to get that fleece.) To jog your memory, here is the list:

  1. Hercules kills a monstrous lion and henceforth wears its skull and fur as hat and cape, which is how we picture him.
  2. He kills the Hydra, a monster with many heads. Every time he cuts off a head, two more grow in its place. (Compare this with the monster that Siegfried confronts in Norse myth).
  3. He captures a golden-horned deer that is the favorite of the goddess Artemis. (I think this task was included to show that Hercules also had Fingerspitzengefühl, finesse. He could not kill the doe, lest he piss off yet another goddess, so he aimed an arrow so carefully that it immobilized the doe without killing her. But ask yourself: Why did he have to use an arrow at all?)
  4. Next: a boar. Hercules runs it down in the snow, where the boar can’t run fast.
  5. He cleans the famous Augean stables. The cattle of King Augeas had been pooping uninterrupted for eternity and the entire Peloponnesus was reeking. Instead of shoveling shit, Hercules diverts two rivers to flush out the mess. (An import from the river cultures in Mesopotamia and Egypt? Meant to show that Hercules could not be humiliated?)
  6. Next, Hercules kills some terrifying birds who shot brass feathers into people.
  7. Next, Hercules carries the Cretan bull to the mainland. (This is the bull that would father, with King Minos’ wife, the Minotaur that Theseus will later deal with, which theoretically locates Hercules in time as slightly older than Theseus. Probably included to establish a link between the two heroes, the greatest, respectively, of the Peloponnesians and the Athenians. Updated and corrected thanks to Bill Frank.)
  8. Next, Hercules deals with the mares of Diomedes, horses that tear apart and devour any guest of their king. Hercules somehow turns the tables and feeds Diomedes himself to his mares, and they lose their appetite.
  9. Next, the belt of Hippolyte, queen of the Amazons. We need some sex in the story and this is it. Hippolyte falls in love with Hercules and wants to give him her belt, but Hera interferes again, making the other Amazons think that Hercules is about to kill their queen, and causing a battle in which Hercules and his men kill the Amazons. (Every time he kills children or women, you see, it’s really Hera’s fault.)
  10. Next, Hercules has to steal some cattle from a three-headed monster named Geryon. What’s interesting here is the location: Geryon is in Spain, and Hercules travels back to Greece via Italy (thus allowing the Romans to link him with their locales). Also, he has to cross the Alps along the way, and this was, in the Roman mind, not done again “at scale” until … Hannibal did it. I digress.
  11. Next, Hercules has to get the apples of the Hesperides, in today’s Morocco. He persuades Atlas, a Titan who is holding up the sky on his shoulders, to fetch the Apples for him, holding the sky (strength!) while Atlas obliges. When Atlas returns, he doesn’t want to take the burden of the sky back. Hercules says “Fine, I’ll keep carrying it, just take it for one second so that I can put a pillow on my shoulders.” As Atlas helps him out, Hercules makes off with the apples. (I think this is included to show that Hercules also had wit, besides strength. But that qualifies?)
  12. Last, Hercules must fetch Cerberus, the three-headed dog who guards the underworld of the dead. This is de rigueur for heroes: Odysseus and Aeneas will also visit Hades and return. I think it is meant to symbolize a brush with death, a transcendence of mortality.

Death and meaning

And that’s it, a smooth ride from one triumph to the next. If there is a twist, it is only in Hercules’ death.

Hercules and his wife crossed a river once and Hercules let a centaur, half man and half horse, carry his wife across (why did Hercules himself not carry her?). The centaur tried to elope with her, so Hercules shot him. As the centaur lay dying, the beast whispered to Hercules’ wife that she should keep his blood and soak Hercules’ clothes in it, which would prevent him from straying with other women. She did as told, but the blood was really venom. And thus she inadvertently killed her husband.

And yet, Hercules, alone among heroes, did not totally die. Zeus, his father, made him immortal and brought him to Mount Olymp. Another indication that Hercules was special.

So what is Hercules to us?

He represents the idea, once universal and now arguably fading, that heroes are somehow beyond morality and the law, beyond ordinary standards, “beyond good and evil”. That happens to be the title of a book  by Nietzsche, and I think Hercules might have fit Nietzsche’s idea of an Übermensch. It is what Dostoyevsky examined in Crime and Punishment: Can the hero be beyond morality? The ancients believed Yes. We have opted for No. Today, we would lock Hercules up or, if he happened to be president, appoint a special prosecutor.

But back to the point: Hercules may have got rid of some nuisances for his fellow men–a boar here, a monster there–but that was not why he did his labors.

Hercules was simply a strong man at a time when nature was ever-threatening and as arbitrary as a jealous woman (Hera), when our frightened ancestors yearned for one among them, whatever else his flaws, to stand by at the gate with a bludgeon and brawn.

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Good & bad conversations: Recognize Eris


I ended the previous post, the first in this series on Socrates, by suggesting that we “count all the other ways in which Socrates, like Hannibal, is relevant to us, today.” So let’s start with perhaps the most important (if not the most famous) insight that Socrates gave us: the incredible importance of knowing good from bad conversations. And for that, I need to introduce you to that strange lady above, whose named is Eris.

We spend much of our lives, and indeed many of our happiest moments, conversing with others. I love that word, which means turning toward each other. Good conversations make us human and whole, make us feel connected to others and bring us closer to the truth of something (or at least further from a fallacy).

Unfortunately, we also spend at least as much time in bad conversations. You know them:

  • bickering between husbands and wives
  • political “debates” on Fox, or indeed almost anywhere else.
  • Cross-examinations in courtrooms,
  • and on and on and on

Those “conversations”, which are really a turning away from one another, do the opposite of what good conversations do: They leave us depleted, down, disconnected, alienated, sleazy, yucky.

What is the difference between the good and the bad conversations? Socrates told us, by giving us two new words:

  • dialectic (=good), and
  • eristic (=bad)

Meet Eris, the Ur-Bitch

So now it’s time for a story. It’s the most famous of the many stories about Eris, whose Roman name was Discordia.

Eris was the goddess of strife. Nobody liked her, so when the future parents of Achilles had their wedding, everybody was invited except Eris. Eris fumed.

She knew what she was good at, and did it: She left a golden apple lying around the wedding party. It said “To the most beautiful”. How cunning, how feminine.

Three extremely beautiful goddesses, Hera, Athena and Aphrodite, immediately started bickering about who had rights to the apple. It was decided to appoint a judge, somebody sufficiently hapless, naive and male to be easily manipulated. They settled on Paris, a prince of Troy.

“Paris,” whispered Athena, “don’t you think I’m the most beautiful? I’m the goddess of wisdom, as you know, and I could be persuaded to make you the wisest man alive.”

“Choose me,” said Hera, “I’m the wife of Zeus and can make you the most powerful man in the whole world.”

“Oh, Paris,” cooed Aphrodite with a tiny bat of her languorous eyelids. “You know who I am, don’t you? We all know that the apple is mine. Say so, and I will give you the most beautiful woman in the world.”

Paris, with the priorities of the average teenager, chose Aphrodite. Athena and Hera were fuming. Hatred descended on the wedding party. And everybody knew that Paris was now to get Helen, the most beautiful of the mortal women.

The only problem: Helen was already married, to a Spartan who was the brother of the great king Agamemnon. Agamemnon and his Greeks would have to come after Paris and his Trojans to get Helen back. Ten years of bloody war followed. Eris had outdone herself.

Eristic conversation

So Socrates chooses to call bad conversations eristic. They are full of strife, because–and this is the key–they are conversations in which each side wants above all to win. Where there is a winner, there is usually a loser, so these conversations separate us.

The opposite was dialectic, whence our word dialogue, the Greek form of the Latin conversation (ie, turning toward). When you turn toward another, you are not trying to win, you are trying to find the truth. That is your motivation, and it is one you share with your conversation partner (as opposed to opponent). Everybody wins, as long as you climb higher through your conversing, toward more understanding or more communion.

We today

I mentioned in the previous post a series of serendipitous events recently. The first was an email from Cheri Block Sabraw, a writing teacher and reader of The Hannibal Blog, that pointed me to this essay, “Notes on Dialogue”, by a great intellect named Stringfellow Barr.

Written in 1968, it might as well have been penned today, as Barr describes eristic and dialectic conversation in our own world:

There is a pathos in television dialogue: the rapid exchange of monologues that fail to find the issue, like ships passing in the night; the reiterated preface, “I think that . . .,” as if it mattered who held which opinion rather than which opinion is worth holding; the impressive personal vanity that prevents each “discussant” from really listening to another speaker and that compels him to use this God-given pause to compose his own next monologue…

Expressing the Socratic ideal, Barr says that

We yearn, not always consciously, to commune with other persons, to learn with them by joint search,

and that

the most relevant sort of dialogue, though perhaps the most difficult, for twentieth century men to achieve and especially for Americans to achieve is the Socratic….

What makes good (Socratic) conversations good? They have a completely different dynamic than bad conversations. They tend to be

  • poor in long-winded declarations and rich in short, pithy back-and-forth,
  • egalitarian in that it does not matter who says what but what is said (even though this does not mean “equal time” for any nonsense)
  • spontaneous, in that they follow wherever the argument leads, even and especially to surprising destinations,
  • playful, and indeed humorous, for that is what makes “serious” investigation possible and sublime.

In short, this sort of conversation is what The Hannibal Blog is about, with the amazing input by all of you in the comments that make each topic come alive. If The Hannibal Blog is against anything, it is Eris and her spawn.

And so I leave you with just one famous instance when two fakers were called to account and told  just what sort of “conversation” they dealt in:

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