The latest Hercules movie starring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson features brawn on par with 300 and other similar action movies that highlight power and the male body. The Greco-Roman demi-God also has uniquely American pedigree with even Founding Fathers such as John Adams focusing on him. But the Hercules that John Adams lauded is not quite the same that movie executives have banked on today.
In John Adams's day, Hercules was in fact not the most muscular man on the block. Such a physique symbolized excess, even danger -- a sign of weakness, of sorts, at a time when manhood emphasized self-restraint and moderation. Even artists at this time depicted Hercules as less developed than he is today in popular culture.
Adams actually proposed the image of Hercules for the Great Seal of the United States. Adams served with Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin on a committee tasked with proposing a seal for the new nation. They worked with an artist and each put forth their own suggestions -- none of which were accepted by the designer or the Congress. Adams's committee gets credit for the motto "E Pluribus Unum" but the design of an eagle clutching arrows was produced by a later group.
In John Adams' world, Hercules nonetheless symbolized power. Through the eighteenth century, the name Hercules was a favored one for ships. It was also used for male slaves perhaps to ironically underscore their degraded status.
But when Adams invoked Hercules, his idea of power was one of morality and virtue -- he did so only using the particular story of "the Choice of Hercules." The story focused narrowly on young Hercules's confrontation with two women or goddesses, Virtue and Pleasure. Hercules must decide between taking the proper path for his life. Pleasure unsuccessfully attempted to seduce Hercules from the hard path of virtue. The story thus emphasized a moment in the life of young Hercules when he chose virtue and a moral path over a life of pleasure and indulgence.
For Adams, the "Choice of Hercules" captured the fortitude needed for the success of individual man but also of the United States, as a collective Republic of virtuous men.
For Adams, the choice of Hercules was fitting because it captured the central need of the nation -- virtuous men who would choose a life of moral service over self-serving indulgences.
Writing to his wife, Abigail, in 1780, Adams also used the story of the "Choice of Hercules" to describe his assessment of life in Paris. For Adams, it was a place full of temptations and indulgences that individuals needed to resist, by following the model of Hercules.
We're a long way from Adams's embrace of Hercules as a man who chose the path of morality and self-service to today's view of him as an action hero of extraordinary hunkiness -- to be featured in muscle and fitness articles and magazines.
The objectification of women has long been criticized by the feminist movement but it may seem that in response, our culture moved toward also objectifying men (although not to the same degree) -- rather than away from objectifying anyone.
You've come a long way, Hercules, and I suspect we all have a long way further to go.
Thomas A. Foster is the author of Sex and the Founding Fathers: The American Quest for a Relatable Past (Temple University Press)
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