23 October 2013

The Choice of Hercules

Thomas Carlyle, "Wotton Reinfred," The Last Words of Thomas Carlyle, pp. 99-101:
"Self-seeking, if you so understand it, is certainly the staple of human principle; for my share, I will confess, I find it difficult to see how any living creature can act on any other. If you told me, 'This is and will be pleasant, that is and will be painful,' should I not, must I not, reject the latter and cling to the former?" 
"But if I told you, 'The pleasant is and will be vicious, the painful is and will be virtuous'?" said Maurice, hastening to assist Dalbrook, who seemed to be ill at ease in argument. 
"'Tis an impossible case," said the other. "Admit it for a moment; would you feel no twinge, no compunctious visiting? Nay, if I offered that you should to all eternity be filled and satisfied with pleasure, on condition that you became a villain and a fool, supposing even that I took your conscience from you, and no trace of repentance or remembrance were ever to afflict you again, would you strike the bargain without scruple? Would you plunge into the scene as into your native element? Would you hasten to it as to the bosom of a mother? Would there be no whisper of gainsaying?" 
"Perhaps some whisper; but — " 
"That little whisper saves us!" cried Maurice. 
"It was the voice of your better genius!" cried Dalbrook. 
"Perhaps only of my vanity," said Williams. "I might not like to be degraded." 
"The voice at least of something which was not love of pleasure; something which the philosopher and I reckon higher, and which you yourself must admit to be different," said Maurice. 
"O good Heavens!" cried Dalbrook. "Quousque venimus? Does it require proof that there is something better in man than self-interest, however prudent and clear-sighted; that the divine law of virtue is not a drudge's bargain, and her beauty and omnipotent majesty an 'association,' a shadow, the fable of a nurse? O Prodicus! Was thy 'Choice of Hercules' written to shame us; that after twenty centuries of 'perfectibility' are here still arguing?
Sebastiano Ricci, Hercules at the Crossroads (c. 1715)