Many years ago (okay, many, many years ago), Socrates was talking to a friend, Aristippus, who was advocating self-gratification as the path to a happy life. Socrates was unconvinced by his friend's claims and countered with a story called The Choice of Heracles, which he attributed to the earlier sophist Prodicus.
In the story, the demi-god Heracles enters adulthood and comes to a crossroads. Two women join him there, each urging him to take one of the opposing paths. One of the women is fashionable and cheery and runs ahead on the easy road of self-gratification, encouraging Heracles to spend life doing precisely what he wants, deliberating only about the best means to do this with as little effort as possible. Her friends call her happiness; her enemies call her vice (or pleasure).
The second woman is sober and reserved, perhaps a bit frumpy. She appeals via her words more than by her appearance. She warns that the initial appeal of vice and pleasure eventually fade into nothing worth having; it certainly doesn't lead to a happy life. But the second woman's road, fraught with work and self-denial though it may be, is the way to achievement and respect and a truly happy life. Her name? Virtue.
The Choice of Heracles has provided much fodder for western artists in the years since it was first told. And in some ways, Will Smith's latest movie, The Pursuit of Happyness, can be seen as part of this conversation. What hath the Prince of Bel-Air to do with Athens, you ask? Bear with me.
The Pursuit of Happyness tells the mostly true story of Chris Gardner (Smith), a San Francisco salesman of high-density bones scanners. With high hopes and the knowledge he would be the only Bay-area distributor, he spent his life savings buying ...