Prodicus, a Fifth Century B.C. Greek sophist and rhetorician, from the island of Ceos, is credited with being the first to say that service to others was the highest calling. He is also credited with being the author of the Choice of Hercules, which contrasts the value of service to others against a life of self-indulgence. This essay was translated in 1709 by Joseph Addison:
“When Hercules was in that part of his youth in which it was natural for him to consider what course of life he ought to pursue, he one day retired into a desert, where the silence and solitude of the place very much favored his meditations. As he was musing on his present condition, and very much perplexed in himself on the state of life he should choose, he saw two women of a larger stature than ordinary approaching him.
One of them had a very noble air and graceful deportment. Her beauty was natural and easy, her person clean and unspotted, her eyes cast towards the ground with an agreeable reserve, her motion and behavior was full of modesty, and her raiment as white as snow. The other lady had a great deal of health and floridness in her countenance, which she had helped with artificial whites and reds, and endeavored to appear more graceful than ordinary in her comportment by a mixture of affectation in all her gestures. She had a wonderful confidence and assurance in her looks and all the variety of colors in her dress that she thought were proper to show herself to advantage. She regularly cast her eyes upon herself then turned them on those that were present to see how they liked her and often looked on the figure she made in her own shadow.
Upon their approach to Hercules the more florid of the two stepped before the other, and the other came forward calmly, with a regular, composed carriage, and accosted him after the following manner:
“My dear Hercules, I find you are very much divided in your own thoughts upon the way of life you ought to choose: be my friend, and follow me; I’ll lead you into the possession of pleasure, and out of the reach of pain, and remove you from all the noise and disquietude of business. The affairs of either war or peace shall have no power to disturb you. Your whole employment shall be to make your life easy, and to entertain every sense with its proper gratification. Sumptuous tables, beds of roses, clouds of perfumes, consorts of music, crowds of beauties, are all in a readiness to receive you. Come along with me into this region of delights, this world of pleasure, and bid farewell for ever to care, to pain, to business .”
Hercules, hearing the lady talk after this manner, desired to know her name, to which she answered, “My friends, and those who are well acquainted with me, call me Happiness, but my enemies and those who would injure my reputation, have given me the name of Pleasure.”
By this time the other lady was come up, who addressed herself to the young hero in a very different manner.
“Hercules, I offer myself to you because I know you are descended from the gods and give proofs of that descent by your love to virtue and application to the studies proper for your age. This makes me hope you will gain, both for yourself and me, an immortal reputation. But before I invite you into my society and friendship, I will be open and sincere with you, and must lay down this as an established truth, that there is nothing truly valuable which can be purchased without pains and labor. The gods have set a price upon every real and noble pleasure. If you would gain the favor of the gods, you must be at the pains of worshipping them, if the friendship of good men, you must study to oblige them. If you would be honored by your country you must take care to serve it. In short, if you would be eminent in war or peace you must become master of all the qualifications that can make you so. These are the only terms and conditions upon which I can propose happiness.”
The goddess of Pleasure here broke in upon her discourse: “You see, Hercules, by her own confession, the way to her pleasure is long and difficult, whereas that which I propose is short and easy.”
“Alas,” said the other lady, whose visage glowed with a passion made up of scorn and pity, “what are the pleasures you propose? To eat before you are hungry, drink before you are athirst, sleep before you are tired, to gratify appetites before they are raised, and raise such appetites as nature never planted. You never heard the most delicious music, which is the praise of one’s self, nor saw the most beautiful object, which is the work of one’s own hands. Your votaries pass away their youth in a dream of mistaken pleasures, while they are hoarding up anguish, torment, and remorse for old age. As for me, I am the friend of gods and of good men, an agreeable companion to the artisan, a household guardian to the fathers of families, a patron and protector of servants, and associate in all true and generous friendships. The banquets of my votaries are never costly, but always delicious, for none eat or drink at them who are not invited by hunger and thirst. Their slumbers are sound, and their days cheerful. My young men have the pleasure of hearing themselves praised by those who are in years and those who are in years, of being honored by those who are young. In a word, my followers are favored by the gods, beloved by their acquaintances, esteemed by their country and honored by posterity.”
Hercules made his choice and became a hero, immortalized in folklore passed down through the centuries to present times. Service is, indeed, the highest calling.