Hercules's (and Hamilton's) Choice
By Amy Willis
Fans of the hit musical Hamilton must have been most excited to find this EconTalk episode. Host Russ Roberts welcomed University of Chicago philosopher Martha Nussbaum to talk about Hamilton and an essay she wrote for the Boston Review in January, “Hamilton’s Choice.”
According to Nussbaum, Hamilton presents us with a retelling of the Choice of Hercules, the choice to live a virtuous life filled with hard work and risk, or a life of happiness and worldly renown. In the musical, Nussbaum argues Lin-Manuel Miranda portrays a more subtle version of this choice for his protagonist’s life in politics, a life of service versus a life of preeminence. What can this smash musical teach us about politics, philosophy, and how to live a good life?
1. Roberts, quoting Adam Smith, argues that “Hercules Choice” may be a choice we all face, though Nussbaum counters that the choice is starker in some careers than others, and especially in politics. What makes this choice so difficult in politics, and why might it be even more difficult in democratic versus autocratic regimes?
2. How does the character of Alexander Hamilton compare to that of his rival, Aaron Burr? Who would be likely to go further in politics today, Burr or Hamilton, and why?
3. In discussing how best to combat a culture of envy (as distinct from jealousy), Roberts and Nussbaum agree on the importance of civil discussion. Nussbuam says, “…to encourage real discussion is what I think would counteract this cult of evanescent celebrity.” How does this “cult of celebrity” foment envy today, and what sort(s) of discussion would actually be helpful in counteracting it? How might people be encouraged to engage in such conversation, and how optimistic are you regarding the probabilities of success?
4. Is politics the best way to make the world a better place? What other means are available? To what extent ought we all be concerned about this end?