Martha Nussbaum’s essay recovers for us the ancient myth of the Choice of Hercules, a favorite of the Stoics and Cynics. Nussbaum shows that this story is as relevant to modern Americans as it was in antiquity, since it deals with the all-important question of how to live our lives when we desire to make a difference. She situates this question at the core of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s portrayal of the lives of two political titans of American history, Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, in his Broadway hit Hamilton.
The choice before Hercules, as Xenophon presents it in his Memorabilia, is between a life of pleasure or gain without effort and a life of hard work aimed at high and noble deeds. Nussbaum applies this scheme to the more complex case of Miranda’s characters. Hamilton and Burr are presented in Nussbaum’s analysis as (imperfect) paradigms of two opposing approaches to political life in a democracy: one represents the life of real political creativity, devoted to “creating something fine” to leave for posterity, while the other exemplifies the life of external honor, devoted to mere “insider status.” Both lives, she says, “involve an ambition for preeminence and a desire to make a difference.” But Nussbaum focuses on “Hamilton’s choice” because in her interpretation it is Hamilton who, like Hercules, makes the right choice of a “difficult and risky” life by attempting to “create something fine that lives on after.”
The assumption that we need heroes to create solutions to our political problems is dangerous.
One of the main revelations of Nussbaum’s reflections is that no clear dividing line exists between the two paths of political life. On the contrary, the two seem to be mixed from the start, since in politics real creativity requires first having preeminence. We have heard this many times as a justification for the dubious alliances of some of our best politicians: political heroes need solid platforms to get things done, and they need to play by the rules of the game to reach the heights that will allow their projects to succeed. This is how Nussbaum explains the case of Hamilton: “He is able to leave a ‘legacy’ to posterity only because he gains preeminence.”
Nussbaum’s reading is illuminating in relation to contemporary examples of political lives, where high office and preeminence are clearly necessary for making a difference. There is, however, a tension within this analysis, which Nussbaum unveils at the end of her essay and I would like to bring to the fore. I think that the claim that one needs to first gain preeminence to create something fine hides a widespread and deleterious assumption about how each of us may make a difference.
We are accustomed to thinking about significant political impact from the “great men” or “great heroes” perspective, and have come to believe that historical changes depend on great leaders—those who, in the terms of Miranda’s play, are “in the room where it happens.” But the truth is that historic political changes do not happen in those rooms for the most part. Instead, they tend to be bottom-up phenomena, raised by the collective decisions of the nameless many. People, both individually and collectively, can make a difference and leave a legacy to posterity without having to first gain fame or external honor for themselves. And that is the real game of democratic politics, where being positioned to generate change should not require one to have properly scaled the ladder of prestige and office, but instead requires being connected as a member of one’s community, working together with others to achieve common goals.
The truth is that historic political changes tend to be bottom-up phenomena.
The dangerous assumption, which is not only lurking in parts of Nussbaum’s analysis but also in Miranda’s play—and in general seems to be a common assumption of our times—is that we need heroes to create solutions to our political problems. While the constant choices that we make in our everyday lives—as we strive toward or fail to achieve integrity, courage, and a better society—are relegated to a diminished status. As I see it, however, true political change rests precisely in these inevitable and constant decisions that shape our lives with others.
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Nussbaum’s formulation of Hercules’s choice is presented in terms of the moral psychology of two divergent paths: the path of Hamilton is the life of pride and love of honor without rivalry; while Burr’s path is the life of envy, with an obsessive focus on his position relative to others and “ill will toward the rival.” Whether Hamilton and Burr are true exemplars of pride or envy is, as Nussbaum acknowledges, complicated. While initially she presents Burr as a generally envious character, she sees some areas of his life in which real creativity happens (“envy in the domain of politics can coexist with real love and creativity in the domain of women and family”). And conversely, in the case of Hamilton “dedicated political creativity can coexist (and frequently does) with emotional stupidity.” In Miranda’s play at least, while Burr was a feminist who venerated his wife and educated their daughter as an equal to any man, Hamilton’s ultimate concern was for his political career, while he (unwittingly but not without guilt) steamrolled the lives of those around him, particularly his wife and his own children.
Hamilton’s failure to acknowledge the dignity of the lives of women is one way in which he perpetuates women’s oppression and makes a real (negative) political difference.
This point is minimized in Nussbaum’s account, and I think this is one of the ways in which the “great men” approach sneaks into her analysis. A tendency in this way of looking at history is to focus on “great deeds” and resist the importance of small, everyday actions. In regard to the advancement of women, people of color, immigrants, and marginalized people in general, for example, it is clear that small changes in individual behavior can make a significant difference. When sufficiently extended, these micro-transformations create the real revolution, without which legislative changes are mere formalisms. Thus, for example, Hamilton’s failure to properly acknowledge the dignity of the life of the women around him is not just a matter of “emotional stupidity,” as Nussbaum puts it, but instead is one way in which he perpetuates women’s oppression and makes a real (negative) political difference.
Nussbaum does gesture at these concerns as she concludes her essay. In her final paragraph, she proposes that Hercules’s choice belongs to the audience, and the spirit of her claim is, I think, that the choice between the life of effort and genuine achievement and the life of mere external recognition is for each of us to make in our individual lives. This final step is the one I find most critical, as it allows us to look back to our two heroes as ordinary individuals making life choices. What I would add is that Hercules’s choice is not reduced to one aspect or one moment of our lives, but involves all aspects and all moments, requiring from us a constantly renewed commitment to consistency or integrity (the highest Stoic aspiration). As a consequence, the choice takes the form of a “struggle, which is universal and daily,” as James Baldwin expresses it in his 1963 lecture “The Artist’s Struggle for Integrity,” and includes innumerable “choices one has got to make, for ever and ever and ever, every day.” It is therefore, I think, important to highlight how all those moments carry the weight of Hercules’s choice, as within each of them we are offered the opportunity to decide, again and again, how to live our lives by making a difference.