2 September 2014

The Path According to Hercules

How Marcus Tullius Cicero Describes
Discipleship In the Ancient Roman World

Carlos Cardoso Aveline
  Cicero was born on January 3rd, 106 B. C. E.

“Go in through the narrow gate, because
the gate to hell is wide and the road that
leads to it is easy, and  there are many
who travel it. But the gate to life is narrow,
and the way that leads  to it is hard, and
there are few people who find it.”

(“The New Testament”, Matthew, 7: 13-14.)

The axiom found in the New Testament about choosing between two Paths, one of them being nice and false, and the other one being narrow and difficult, but truthful, is a much older teaching than the relatively recent Christian religion.  

The teaching belongs to ancient Pythagorean texts, where it is called the “Pythagorean Letter Y”. One must take into consideration that for the ancient philosophers, “virtue” means “duty” and “courage”. The Pythagorean tradition says:
“The Pythagoric Letter two ways spread,
Shows the two paths in which Man’s life is led.
The right hand track to sacred Virtue tends,
Though steep and rough at first, in rest it ends;
The other broad and smooth, but from its Crown
On rocks the Traveller is tumbled down.
He who to Virtue by harsh toil aspires,
Subduing pains, worth and renown acquires;
But who seeks slothful luxury, and flies,
The labor of great acts, dishonor’d dies.” [1]

Xenophon (430 B.C.E. - after 355 B.C.E.) wrote about the same teaching in his “Memorabilia” (“Recollections of Socrates”, Book II, Chapter I), where he narrates it as an episode in the life of Heracles, or Hercules.

Later on, Marcus Tullius Cicero - who also lived before Christian era - mentioned Xenophon’s text in one of his great works.

In the following lines, we should consider that “happy fortune” means “good karma”. 

Cicero writes:

“….. We cannot all have the experience of Hercules, as we find it in the words of Prodicus in Xenophon: ‘When Hercules was just coming into youth’s estate (the time which Nature has appointed unto every man for choosing the path of life on which he would enter), he went out into a desert place. And as he saw two paths, the path of Pleasure and the path of Virtue, he sat down and debated long and earnestly which one it were better for him to take.’ This might, perhaps, happen to a Hercules, ‘scion of the seed of Jove’; but it cannot well happen to us; for we copy each the model he fancies, and we are constrained to adopt their pursuits and vocations. But usually, we are so imbued with the teachings of our parents,  that we fall irresistibly into their manners and customs. Others drift with the current of popular opinion and make especial choice of those callings which the majority find most attractive. Some, however, as the result either of some happy fortune or of natural ability, enter upon the right path of life, without parental guidance. There is one class of people that is very rarely met with: it is composed of those who are endowed with marked natural ability, or exceptional advantages of education and culture, or both, and who also have time to consider carefully what career in life they prefer to follow; and in this deliberation the decision must turn wholly upon each individual’s natural bent. For we try to find out from each one’s native disposition, as was said above, just what is proper for him; and this we require not only in case of each individual act but also in ordering the whole course of one’s life; and this last is a matter to which still greater care must be given, in order that we may be true to ourselves throughout all our lives and not falter in the discharge of any duty.”  [2]

The legends about Hercules’ choice and about his whole life are in fact symbols for true discipleship, and Helena Blavatsky wrote:

“Every true Adept had, and still has, to pass through the seven and the twelve trials of Initiation, symbolized by the twelve labours of Hercules…” [3]

 In the Book III of “On Duty”, Cicero refers to the Path actually chosen by the Greek hero.   Cicero mentions “the council of gods”, which modern theosophists would probably call “brotherhood of adepts and nirmanakayas”.  And he writes about the need to follow Hercules’ example:

“In like manner it is more in accord with Nature to emulate the great Hercules and undergo the greatest toil and trouble for the sake of aiding or saving the world, if possible, than to live in seclusion, not only free from all care, but revelling in pleasures and abounding in wealth, while excelling others also in beauty and strength. Thus Hercules denied himself and underwent toil and tribulation for the world, and, out of gratitude for his services, popular belief has given him a place in the council of the gods. The better and more noble, therefore, the character with which a man is endowed, the more does he prefer the life of service to the life of pleasure. Whence it follows that man, if he is obedient to Nature, cannot do harm to his fellow-man.” [4]

The choice between the nice, false path and the difficult true path is both individual and collective.

If there is a certain amount of people making the choice for the hard and true path - those who Helena Blavatsky called “The Few” and to whom she dedicated the book “The Voice of the Silence” - then a theosophical movement emerges which will be able to actively challenge Organized Ignorance.  Otherwise, the movement will attach itself to cozy little moments of mutual comfort with tea and biscuits.

It is necessary for each one to “take his own cross” (his karma) and to follow the Path in order for him to be able to see that the esoteric movement - in its collective aspect - is not supposed to give people only nice and superficial moments.  

It is meant above all to offer people probationary opportunities to burn one’s own ignorance so that the real path gets enlightened by such a fire - and others may benefit from the resulting warmth.


[1] “The Pythagorean Sourcebook and Library”, Compiled and Translated by Kenneth Sylvan Guthrie, Phanes Press, 1987, Michigan, USA, 362 pp., see p.  158.

[2] Marcus Tullius Cicero, “De Officiis - On Duty”, Loeb Classical Library, Harvard, Book I, pp. 121-123.

[3] “Collected Writings”, H.P. Blavatsky, TPH, volume XIV, p. 140.

[4]De Officiis - On Duty”, Cicero, Loeb, Book III, pp. 291-293.


On the role of the esoteric movement in the ethical awakening of mankind during the 21st century, see the book “The Fire and Light of Theosophical Literature”, by Carlos Cardoso Aveline.  

Published in 2013 by The Aquarian Theosophist, the volume has 255 pages and can be obtained through Amazon Books.