A Herculean Choice: Virtue or Vice

March 5, 2020 Updated: March 16, 2020
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I try to wake up every day and treat that day like a lifetime, like a microcosmic version of life itself. I ask myself: “Born in the morning and dead at night, how will I live today? How can I make choices throughout the day that will allow me to sleep with peace and dignity in my heart?”

I recently stumbled across a painting by Gérard de Lairesse titled “Hercules Between Vice and Virtue.” De Lairesse captured a pivotal moment in a day in Hercules’s life. I also find myself confronting moments like this in my daily life. 

Let’s take a look at this specific moment in Hercules’s story.

The Myth of Hercules’s Choice

The story “Choice of Hercules” was used by Socrates to instruct his disciples. It is believed to have been first written by Prodicus of Ceos but is now best known from Xenophon’s “Memorabilia.” Below is my summary of a translation by the 18th-century author Joseph Spence:

As a young man, Hercules decided to go into solitude to meditate on which path he would pursue: the path of virtue or vice.

While he was contemplating, two larger than life-sized women approached him. The first woman, dressed modestly, had a decent and modest air about her; she approached Hercules as nature had made her: unaffected and with dignity. 

The second woman was softer and rounder. She had made her skin appear fairer and dressed to reveal her beauty. She paid close attention to the impression she made on others as she wished to be held in high regard.

The second woman hurried in front of the first to greet Hercules. She attempted to persuade Hercules to take her path in life. She said she would make his life “most easy, and the most agreeable” and told him, “You shall taste all the Pleasure of Life in it; and be free from all its Cares and Troubles.”

Hercules asked her name when she finished her speech. She responded, “The Name … by which I am known among my Friends, is Happiness; but my Enemies, out of the great good Humour, are pleas’d to call me—Vice.”

At this time, the first woman, Virtue, approached Hercules and gave her speech. She also wished Hercules to follow her ways and her path. She said:

“I shall not go about to deceive you with any flattering Speeches, as she [Vice] has done; but shall lay Things before you, according to their true Nature and the immutable Decrees of the Gods.

“Of all the real good Things that Heaven grants to Mortals, there is not any one that is to be attain’d without Application and Labour.”

It was not long, however, before Vice interrupted her and told Hercules that she could show him a shorter way to happiness. 

In response, Virtue scolded Vice, saying:

“Tis true, you were of a Celestial Origin; but were [you] not cast out of the Society of the Gods? And have you not, ever since, been rejected by all the most worthy Men, even upon Earth? … On the contrary, My Conversation is with the Gods, and with good Men; and there is no good Work produc’d by either, without my Influence. I am respected above all Things, by the Gods themselves, and by all the best of Mortals.”

Virtue finished her speech with the claim that all of her followers “look back with Comfort on their past Actions; and delight themselves in their present Employments. By my means, they are favour’d by the Gods; belov’d by their Friends; and honour’d by their Country: And when the appointed period of their Lives is come, they are not lost in a dishonourable Oblivion; but flourish in the Praises of Mankind, even to the latest Posterity.”

It is no secret that Hercules chose Virtue’s path and inspired many artists like de Lairesse.   

Composing the Scene

De Lairesse was a 17th-century painter during the Golden Age of Dutch painting. Initially, he was greatly influenced by Rembrandt, who painted his portrait. Later, before eventually going blind, de Lairesse was influenced by the work of French neoclassical artists like Nicolas Poussin.

De Lairesse employed more neoclassical elements in his painting “Hercules Between Vice and Virtue.” For instance, he focused more on form than color, keeping color subdued. This allegorical painting uses classical themes and dress to depict Hercules’s story. 

De Lairesse depicted five figures instead of three: one man and four women. The man, of course, is Hercules. To the left of Hercules is Virtue. She looks at Hercules but points upward. She presents herself modestly and with dignity.

Behind the figure of Virtue is another woman, and she casts a sideways glance at Hercules. Her head is slightly tilted upward and she has a look of dignity on her face. She holds a dimly lit torch in her right hand.

To the right of Hercules is Vice. She is dressed promiscuously and attempts to seduce Hercules with caresses. She looks at Hercules with adoration. Over her shoulder is another, older woman who holds her finger to her mouth as if she’s keeping a secret. The older woman looks out at us.

Hercules also looks directly at us and is the focal point of the painting. The two figures to the left look at Hercules whereas the two to the right lean toward him, which reinforces Hercules as the focal point. Also, the club that Hercules holds over his right shoulder and the path of his left arm create an “X” at his head. These compositional elements, along with the higher degree of contrast that describes Hercules’s form, reinforce the presence of Hercules in the painting.

Can we decipher which path Hercules chose? Who are the other two women? Why does Hercules and the older woman look out at us? Why is Hercules the focal point?

It’s Our Choice Too

Hercules’s body language reveals which path he chose. Hercules uses his left hand to keep Vice at a distance and slightly turns away from Vice toward Virtue. He holds his club in his hand to indicate that he is ready to confront any challenges that may come his way. Hercules does not choose the “easy” way of Vice.

I see the women behind Virtue and Vice as their true representations. In other words, Vice presents herself as something she is not in order to entice Hercules with immediate pleasure and comfort. Her true representation—the consequence of taking her path—is the opposite of what she offers, an offer that is enticing only if its result is kept secret. Is this why the older woman behind Vice—Vice’s truth—looks at us with her finger to her mouth as if to ask us to keep her secret?

The secret is that Vice has made up something ugly—herself—to appear beautiful. Is this why Vice’s true representation is that of an old woman?  

The myth reveals this aspect of Vice as, at one point, Virtue calls Vice’s bluff when she says: “Such as do follow you, are robb’d of their Strength, when they are young; and are void of Wisdom, when they grow old. In their Youth they are bred up in Indolence, and all manner of Delicacy; and pass thro’ their old Age with Difficulties and Distress.”

Virtue’s true representation, however, is presented with dignity and pride. The consequences of Virtue’s way are ones of which we can be proud. No matter how difficult and dark things may become in our lives, Virtue is there to light our way, even if the light is dim. Is this why Virtue’s true representation holds the torch in her hand?

Here, we also see a great contrast between Virtue and Vice: One illuminates our path for us, and the other obscures the truth of our path in secrecy.

But why, then, is Hercules the focal point? Why not depict either Virtue or Vice as the focus? Hercules shares something in common with us: He has to make tough decisions. He looks out at us as if to share this very common moment, a moment that requires us to exercise our freedom to choose the path of our lives.

In a way, he is also challenging us. He is showing us the path he took—the difficult path—and in his look toward us, he seems to ask: “Can you take the path less traveled, the difficult path, the path of Virtue?” So he not only shares a moment with us but also cautions us to deeply consider the consequences of our actions.

We all have the power to choose what we’ll do with our days, with our lives. We have the option of choosing Virtue or Vice. Sometimes we will take a wrong step, but hopefully the story of Hercules and this painting by de Lairesse will remind us to never give up the ways of Virtue.

 Art has an incredible ability to point to what can’t be seen so that we may ask “What does this mean for me and for everyone who sees it?” “How has it influenced the past and how might it influence the future?” “What does it suggest about the human experience?” These are some of the questions we explore in our series Reaching Within: What Traditional Art Offers the Heart.

Eric Bess is a practicing representational artist. He is currently a doctoral student at the Institute for Doctoral Studies in the Visual Arts (IDSVA).