Seneca wrote two plays about the Stoic hero, Hercules. It’s sometimes claimed that his plays seem totally divorced from his philosophy and portray violent scenarios, with little philosophical content. However, these two plays, set just before the twelve labours began, and just after he completed the final one, both contain clearly philosophical remarks and focus on well-known Stoic themes. We find obvious references in both plays to the notion that the external consequences of actions are morally indifferent, only our intentions can make us virtuous or vicious. We also find a number of other philosophical remarks, quoted below.
The Madness of Hercules (Hercules Furens)
Hercules is driven temporarily insane by the goddess Hera (Juno) and kills his wife and children, an awful tragedy he must somehow learn to live with. A major Stoic theme in this play is therefore the notion that we cannot be blamed for the unintended consequences of our actions, only our intentions are morally relevant. We learn from Hercules that even the most tragic act must be forgiven if it’s been done by mistake. Hercules consulted the Oracle of Delphi to discover how he could atone for this atrocity and this led to him undertaking the famous twelve labours, spanning the next twelve years of his life.
Chorus: Known to but few is untroubled calm, and they, mindful of time’s swift flight, hold fast the days that never will return. While the fates permit, live happily; life speeds on with hurried step, and with winged days the wheel of the headlong year is turned. 
Megara: What the wretched overmuch desire, they easily believe. 
Megara: Who can be forced has not learned how to die. 
Amphitryon: … things ’twas hard to bear ’tis pleasant to recall. 
Amphityron: What man anywhere hath laid on error the name of guilt? 
Hercules on Oeta (Hercules Oetaeus)
This is the story of Hercules’ death. Having completed the twelve labours, and overthrown King Eurytus, he seeks to take the slave girl Iole as his wife. However, his existing wife, Deianira, becomes jealous and tricks him into wearing a cloak imbued with what she mistakenly believes is a love potion. It turns out she was herself tricked, and the potion contains the Hydra’s blood, which poisons Hercules and kills him. Again, this story touches on the Stoic theme that the consequences of our actions are morally indifferent, and that our intentions alone determine our moral character. In this instance, it’s Deianira, though, who’s actions result in an unintentional catastrophe.
Chorus: Happy is he whoever knows how to bear the estate of slave or king and can match his countenance with either lot. For he who bears his ills with even soul has robbed misfortune of its strength and heaviness. 
Deianira: He has scorned all men, who first has scorn of death; ’tis sweet to go against the sword.
Chorus: Whoever has left the middle course fares never in path secure. […]To our undoing, high fortunes are by ruin balanced. 
Hyllus: Why dost drag down a house already shaken? From error spring wholly whatever crime is here. He does no sin who sins without intent. 
Hyllus: Life has been granted many whose guilt lay in wrong judgement, not in act. Who blames his own destiny? 
Hyllus: But Hercules himself slew Megara, pierced by his arrows, and his own sons as well, shooting Lernaean shafts with furious hand; still, though thrice murderer, he forgave himself, but not his madness. At the source of Cinyps ‘neath Libyan skies he washed away his guilt and cleansed his hands. 
Deianira: […] sometimes death is a punishment, but often ’tis a boon, and to many a way of pardon has it proved. 
Hylus: Give o’er now, mother, I beseech thee, pardon thy fate; an error is not counted as a crime. 
Hercules: Whate’er in me was mortal and of thee, the vanquished flame has borne away my father’s part to heaven, thy part to the flames has been consigned. […] Let tears for the inglorious flow; valour fares starward, fear, to the realms of death. 
At the conclusion, it’s explained that Hercules bore his death with a countenance “such as none e’er bore his life”, and that “joyous did he mount his funeral pyre”, with indifference to the flames. Like a Stoic then: “How calmly he bore his fate!”
There’s a new action movie out about the myth of Hercules, starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, based on graphic novels by Steve Moore. It’s just a bit of silliness but it looks like it’s been well-made, at least in terms of the visual effects, etc. Unlike another (not to be confused!) recent film, The Legend of Hercules, that was thoroughly panned by the critics. Somewhat surprisingly, this one looks like it actually draws, albeit loosely, on the myth of the Twelve Labours. (Edit: Turns out that although the Labours feature in the trailer, they’re only fleetingly shown in the movie.) This myth, and legend of Hercules, was of great importance to the Stoics, who followed their predecessors the Cynics in taking the demi-god as a kind of role-model.
The movie might be rubbish (we wait with baited breath!) but it’s inspired me to think again about the relevance of Hercules for the Cynic-Stoic tradition. A lot of people are unaware of the importance placed on Hercules by the Stoics so I’ve pulled together some quotations quickly to help provide a bit of context. Apologies for just providing some rough notes at the moment. Treat this is a draft – I’ll work it into a more polished article later, time permitting. (Hercules in Latin = Heracles in Greek, incidentally.)
Prodicus / Xenophon
Socrates reputedly admires the Sophist Prodicus, who was renowned for his inspirational lecture, which became known as The Choice of Hercules. In his Memorabilia, Socrates’ friend and follower, the Athenian general Xenophon portrays Socrates recounting his own version of this story. We’re told that it was reading Xenophon’s Memorabilia of Socrates, and apparently this chapter in particular, that inspired Zeno after his shipwreck to embrace the life of a philosopher and become a follower of the Cynic Crates. Later Stoics appear to also have revered this part of the Hercules myth and perhaps saw it as important insofar as it perhaps ultimately inspired the founding of the Stoa itself.
There’s a curious legend that an Athenian was once about to make a sacrifice to the gods when a small white (or swift) dog ran up and snatched the offering from him. The man was alarmed but received an oracle saying that he should build a temple to Hercules on the spot, just outside the city gates of Athens, where the dog finally dropped the ritual offering. The area around the shrine became known as the Cynosarges, or White Dog, and a gymnasium was built there, which was used by illegitimate children. Antisthenes taught there at one point, and according to Diogenes Laertius, was also nicknamed “The Absolute Dog”, and so some claim this is how the name of the Cynic school originated.
Diogenes Laertius therefore says that Antisthenes was the original founder of Cynicism and that “he argued that hardship is a good thing” and pointed to Hercules as an example in this regard. We’re told he wrote several texts referring to Hercules in their title, such as Heracles, or Of Wisdom or Strength. It’s tempting to see his interest in Hercules as somehow inspired by the temple to Hercules at the Cynosarges, where he taught. Antisthenes was also respected by the later Stoics, and perhaps seen as a precursor of their own school.
Diogenes of Sinope
Diogenes Laertius states that Diogenes of Sinope, the Cynic, wrote a dialogue entitled Hercules. If that’s true, it’s possible this may have been a response to the writings of the same name by his alleged teacher, or at least his inspiration, Antisthenes.
Diogenes was generally associated with the myth of Hercules and is even portrayed as explicitly modelling himself on the mythic hero. For example, Diogenes is on sale at the slave market…
Buyer: Where are you from?
Buyer: What do you mean?
Diogenes: You’re looking at a citizen of the world!.
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, but of my own free will, since I’ve made it my purpose to clean up human life. (Lucian, Philosophies for Sale)
This passage makes it crystal clear that the Cynics sought to emulate Hercules.
Diogenes Laertius says of Diogenes the Cynic that “he maintained that his life was of the same stamp as that of Hercules, in so far as he set freedom above all else.”
But you for your part should regard your rough cloak as a lion’s skin, and your stick as a club, and your knapsack as being the land and sea from which you gain your sustenance; for in that way the spirit of Hercules should rise up within you, giving you the power to rise above every adversity. (Letter from Diogenes to Crates)
Diogenes tells Metrocles that he should have no shame about begging for food because even Hercules did so.
Now it is not for mere charity that you are begging, or to be given something in exchange for something of lesser value; no, for the salvation of all, you are asking for what nature requires, to enable you to do the same things as Hercules, son of Zeus, and so give back in exchange something much more valuable than what you receive. (Letter from Diogenes to Metrocles)
In the late first century AD, Dio Chrysostom, an author influenced by Cynicism and Stoicism, puts the following interpretation of Hercules in the mouth of Diogenes the Cynic:
In the mean time, the relaters of these marvellous properties [who idolise famous athletes and the rich] compassionated Hercules for the difficulties and dangers, with which he was contending; and styled him the most wretched of mankind. From the influence of this false conception, his toils and his achievements were denominated miseries; as a life of labour is vulgarly called a miserable life: now he is dead, however, they honour him above all his species, they regard him as a Divinity, and assign the blooming Goddess of Youth [Hebe] for the hero’s bride; nay, what is strange, they universally address their supplications to one, so completely wretched to defend them from that wretchedness, which achieved his immortality! Eurystheus, moreover, a man of no value in their account, they make the master and controller of that hero: though not an individual on earth ever offered prayers, or performed a sacrifice, to this Eurystheus. Hercules, however, perambulated Europe, and the whole continent of Asia, with views and dispositions nothing similar to the competitors in these [athletic] Games. For could he have penetrated to the extremities of the globe with such a load of flesh upon him, with such a necessity of excessive food, such an addiction to profound and continued sleep? Watchful was he, spare and unsuperfluous of flesh, like lions; sharp-sighted, quick of hearing, regardless alike of cold and heat, wanting no coverlets, no delicate cloaks, no purple carpets, for luxurious enjoyments: with an undressed skin about his shoulders, and a craving stomach; succouring the virtuous, and chastising the depraved.
Thus Diomed the Thracian, because he was arrayed in gorgeous apparel, and sat upon his throne, drinking and revelling through the day; and insolently exposed both strangers and his own subjects to carnivorous horses; Hercules dashed to pieces with his club; as you would break up an old and rotten cask. Geryon also, the lord of innumerable oxen, and the most opulent and haughty of all the monarchs in the West, he slew, together with his brethren; and drove away their cattle.
Again, Busiris, whom he found most devotedly engaged in gymnastic exercises, and intemperately eating all day long, and priding himself excessively on his skill in wrestling, he fractured in every limb by violent contusion on, the ground; as a wallet full-crammed is ruptured with it’s fall. The Amazonian queen, though she assailed him with her captivating charms, and expected to seduce his affections by her beauty, he despoiled of her girdle; demonstrating by this rencounter the superiority of his soul to the influence of female- loveliness, and evincing a conscious preference of his own proper accomplishments to all the winning graces of the sex.
Moreover, having discovered in Prometheus, according to my conception of the fable, an arrant sophist, a martyr to popular applause, with a liver swelling and growing from the breath of praise, and wasting again beneath the blast of censure; Hercules, actuated by a commiseration of his condition, with an intermixture of menacing reproof, delivered the man from his stupefying vanity and perverse contentiousness; nor departed, till he had restored him to sanity and sober-mindedness. These achievements he performed voluntarily, without any compulsion imposed upon him by Eurystheus: to whom, however, those apples, which have been deemed golden, the apples of the Hesperides, as soon as they came into his possession, he readily presented, as baubles of no value to himself, with a wish of ill fortune in their company to his tyrannic persecutor. What benefit could be expected by a man of spirit from those golden apples, which had rendered no service even to the women, their first possessors ?
At length, under the decrepitude and imbecility of declining age, fearful, that his future life might not correspond to his former glories, and afflicted, I presume, by a supervening sickness; he devised for himself the most honourable remedy ever yet applied by man; constructing on mount Oeta a funeral pile of the driest wood, and manifesting his indifference to the torment of the flames. But, previously to this transaction, that illustrious and dignified exploits might not appear the sole objects of his benevolent ambition, he carried out, and entirely cleared off, from the stable of Augeas, an enterprise of incredible exertion! the accumulated filth of many revolving years: because he thought his duty to consist no less in a magnanimous contest with the vanities of popular opinion, than in combating the crimes of savage monsters and lawless men. (Dio Chrysostom, On Diogenes, or Virtue)
Crates of Thebes
Crates was Zeno’s teacher and a student of Diogenes. Like Diogenes before him, Crates was compared, metaphorically, to the figure of Hercules.
The poets recount how Hercules of old, through his indomitable courage, vanquished dreadful monsters, human and animal alike, and cleared the whole world of them; and this philosophical Hercules achieved just the same in his combat against anger, envy, greed, and lust, and all other monstrous and shameful urges of the human soul. All these plagues he [Crates] drove out of people’s minds, purifying households and taming vice, he too going half-naked and being recognizable by his club, a man who had been born, moreover, at the same Thebes in which Hercules is supposed to have entered the world. (Apuleius, Florida 22; G18)
Diogenes Laertius concludes his account of the Cynics by writing:
They hold further that “Life according to Virtue” is the End to be sought, as Antisthenes says in his Hercules: exactly like the Stoics.
He then describes the Cynic doctrine in a way that may be a continuation of this allusion to Antisthenes’ Hercules:
They also hold that we should live frugally, eating food for nourishment only and wearing a single garment. Wealth and fame and high birth they despise. Some at all events are vegetarians and drink cold water only and are content with any kind of shelter or tubs, like Diogenes, who used to say that it was the privilege of the gods to need nothing and of god-like men to want but little.
They hold, further, that virtue can be taught, as Antisthenes maintains in his Hercules, and when once acquired cannot be lost; and that the wise man is worthy to be loved, impeccable, and a friend to his like; and that we should entrust nothing to fortune. Whatever is intermediate between virtue and vice they, in agreement with Ariston of Chios, account indifferent.
Diogenes Laertius says that Cleanthes was called “a second Hercules” and he says that after being insulted by a poet who mocked him, Cleanthes accepted his apology graciously. He explained that as Hercules was ridiculed by the poets without being moved to anger, it would be absurd for him to be upset by verbal abuse.
Lucan, the Stoic nephew of Seneca, recounts the myth of Hercules in his epic poem, The Civil War, which portrays Cato of Utica as a kind of Stoic superman, and appears to juxtapose his heroism in Africa (“Libya”) with that of the legendary Hercules.
There are several intriguing references to the myth of Hercules in the surviving Discourses of Epictetus.
What do you think that Hercules would have been if there had not been such a lion, and hydra, and stag, and boar, and certain unjust and bestial men, whom Hercules used to drive away and clear out? And what would he have been doing if there had been nothing of the kind? Is it not plain that he would have wrapped himself up and have slept? In the first place then he would not have been a Hercules, when he was dreaming away all his life in such luxury and ease; and even if he had been one, what would have been the use of him? and what the use of his arms, and of the strength of the other parts of his body, and his endurance and noble spirit, if such circumstances and occasions had not roused and exercised him? Well then must a man provide for himself such means of exercise, and seek to introduce a lion from some place into his country, and a boar, and a hydra? This would be folly and madness: but as they did exist, and were found, they were useful for showing what Hercules was and for exercising him. Come then do you also having observed these things look to the faculties which you have, and when you have looked at them, say: Bring now, 0 Zeus, any difficulty that thou pleasest, for I have means given to me by thee and powers for honouring myself through the things which happen. (Discourses, 1.16)
Who would Hercules have been, if he had sat at home? He would have been Eurystheus and not Hercules. Well, and in his travels through the world how many intimates and how many friends had he? But nothing more dear to him than God. For this reason it was believed that he was the son of God, and he was. In obedience to God then he went about purging away injustice and lawlessness. But you are not Hercules and you are not able to purge away the wickedness of others; nor yet are you Theseus, able to purge away the evil things of Attica Clear away your own. (Discourses, 2.16)
Hercules when he was exercised by Eurystheus did not think that he was wretched, but without hesitation he attempted to execute all that he had in hand. And is he who is trained to the contest and exercised by Zeus going to call out and to be vexed, he who is worthy to bear the sceptre of Diogenes? (Discourses, 3.22, On Cynicism)
It was the fortune of Hercules to visit all the inhabited world. Seeing men’s lawless deeds and their good rules of law casting out and clearing away their lawlessness and introducing in their place good rules of law. And yet how many friends do you think that he had in Thebes, bow many in Argos, how many in Athens? and how many do you think that he gained by going about? And he married also, when it seemed to him a proper occasion, and begot children, and left them without lamenting or regretting or leaving them as orphans; for he knew that no man is an orphan; but it is the father who takes care of all men always and continuously. For it was not as mere report that he had heard that Zeus is the father of men, for he thought that Zeus was his own father, and he called him so, and to him he looked when he was doing what he did. Therefore he was enabled to live happily in all places. And it is never possible for happiness and desire of what is not present to come together. For that which is happy must have all that it desires, must resemble a person who is filled with food, and must have neither thirst nor hunger. (Discourses, 3.24)
He [Zeus] does not supply me with many things, nor with abundance, he does not will me to live luxuriously; for neither did he supply Hercules who was his own son; but another (Eurystheus) was king of Argos and Mycenae, and Hercules obeyed orders, and laboured, and was exercised. And Eurystheus was what he was, neither king of Argos nor of Mycenae, for he was not even king of himself; but Hercules was ruler and leader of the whole earth and sea, who purged away lawlessness, and introduced justice and holiness; and he did these things both naked and alone. (Discourses, 3.26)
What would Hercules have been if he said, How shall a great lion not appear to me, or a great boar, or savage men? And what do you care for that? If a great boar appear, you will fight a greater fight: if bad men appear, you will relieve the earth of the bad. Suppose then that I lose my life in this way. You will die a good man, doing a noble act. (Discourses, 4.10)
Cornutus’ book focuses on symbolic interpretation of Greek myths, informed by (dubious) speculations about the etymology of words, particularly the gods’ names.
‘Heracles’ is universal reason considered as that which makes nature strong and mighty [[being indomitable as well]]: giver of strength and might to its various parts as well. The name comes, perhaps from the fact that it extends to heroes, and is what makes the wellborn famous. For the ancients called heroes those who were so strong in body and soul that they seemed to have some relation to the gods.
Zeno was reputedly inspired to study philosophy after reading the second book of Xenophon’s Memorablia of Socrates. This actually begins with a chapter in which Socrates recounts a story known as “The Choice of Hercules” (or “Heracles” to the Greeks), attributed to the highly-regarded ancient sophist Prodicus (Memorabilia, 2.1). Antisthenes, the Cynics, and the Stoics apparently all agreed that Hercules, the greatest of Zeus’ sons, provided an ideal example of the self-discipline and endurance required to be a true philosopher. The story symbolises the great challenge of deciding whom we actually want to be in life, what type of life we want to live, the promise of philosophy, and the temptation of vice. Zeno himself was perhaps compared to Hercules by his followers and we know that his successor Cleanthes was dubbed “a second Hercules”, on account of his self-mastery.
The story goes that Hercules, when a young man, found himself at an isolated fork in the road, where he sat to contemplate his future. Uncertain which path to take in life he found himself confronted by two goddesses. One, a very beautiful and alluring woman, was called Kakia, although she claimed that her friends call her “Happiness” (Eudaimonia). She charged in front to ensure she spoke first, promising him that her path was “easiest and pleasantest”, and that it provided a short-cut to “Happiness”. She claimed he would avoid hardship and enjoy luxury beyond most men’s wildest dreams, produced by the labour of others. After hearing this, Hercules was approached by the second goddess, called Aretê, a plain-dressed and humble woman, though naturally beautiful. To his surprise, she told him that her path would require hard work from him and it would be “long and difficult”. In fact the path Hercules chose would be dangerous beyond belief, he would be tested by many hardships, perhaps more than any man who had lived before, and have to endure great loss and suffering along the way. “Nothing that is really good and admirable”, said Aretê, “is granted by the gods to men without some effort and application.” However, Hercules would have the opportunity to face each adversity with courage and self-discipline, and of showing wisdom and justice despite great danger. He would earn true Happiness by reflecting on his own praiseworthy and honourable deeds.
Hercules, of course, chose the path of Aretê or “Virtue” and was not seduced by Kakia or “Vice”. He faced continual persecution, from the goddess Hera and her minions, and was forced to undertake the legendary Twelve Labours, including slaying the Hydra and ultimately entering Hades, the Underworld itself, to capture Cerberus with his bare hands. He died in the most extreme agony, poisoned by clothing soaked in the Hydra’s blood. However, Zeus was so impressed by his greatness of soul that he elevated him to the status of a God in his own right. Of course, the Stoics took this all as a kind of metaphor for the good life: that it’s better to face hardships, rise above them, and thereby excel, than to embrace easy-living and idleness, and allow your soul to shrink and deteriorate as a result. It would therefore make sense if Socrates retelling of “The Choice of Hercules” was indeed the part of the Memorabilia that inspired Zeno’s conversion to the life of a philosopher. However, it may certainly have served this purpose for later generations of Stoics.