Pyrrhus and Cineas

One of my favorite quotes is from Plutararch’s Parallel Lives.  It’s from Pyrrhus’s life, the cousin of Alexander the Great, and the source of the phrase “Pyrrhic victory.”  He spent his life basically winning and losing brief empires, and died trying to conquer Greece.  In the below quote, he’s talking over matters with his advisor, Cineas, and planning what he’ll do next.

It was this Cineas, then, who, seeing that Pyrrhus was eagerly preparing an expedition at this time to Italy, and finding him at leisure for the moment, drew him into the following discourse. “The Romans, O Pyrrhus, are said to be good fighters, and to be rulers of many warlike nations; if, then, Heaven should permit us to conquer these men, how should we use our victory?” 

And Pyrrhus said: “Thy question, O Cineas, really needs no answer; the Romans once conquered, there is neither barbarian nor Greek city there which is a match for us, but we shall at once possess all Italy, the great size and richness and importance of which no man should know better than thyself.”

After a little pause, then, Cineas said: “And after taking Italy, O King, what are we to do?” 

And Pyrrhus, not yet perceiving his intention, replied: “Sicily is near, and holds out her hands to us, an island abounding in wealth and men, and very easy to capture, for all is faction there, her cities have no government, and demagogues are rampant now that Agathocles is gone.”

“What thou sayest,” replied Cineas, “is probably true; but will our expedition stop with the taking of Sicily?” 

“Heaven grant us,” said Pyrrhus, “victory and success so far; and we will make these contests but the preliminaries of great enterprises. For who could keep his hands off Libya, or Carthage, when that city got within his reach, a city which Agathocles, slipping stealthily out of Syracuse and crossing the sea with a few ships, narrowly missed taking? And when we have become masters here, no one of the enemies who now treat us with scorn will offer further resistance; there is no need of saying that.” 

“None whatever,” said Cineas, “for it is plain that with so great a power we shall be able to recover Macedonia and rule Greece securely. But when we have got everything subject to us, what are we going to do?”

Then Pyrrhus smiled upon him and said: “We shall be much at ease, and we’ll drink bumpers, my good man, every day, and we’ll gladden one another’s hearts with confidential talks.” 

And now that Cineas had brought Pyrrhus to this point in the argument, he said: “Then what stands in our way now if we want to drink bumpers and while away the time with one another? Surely this privilege is ours already, and we have at hand, without taking any trouble, those things to which we hope to attain by bloodshed and great toils and perils, after doing much harm to others and suffering much ourselves.”

By this reasoning of Cineas Pyrrhus was more troubled than he was converted; he saw plainly what great happiness he was leaving behind him, but was unable to renounce his hopes of what he eagerly desired.

I just absolutely love this quote.  It illustrates the folly of glory hunger.  Happiness should be our goal, and if you’re doing a lot of unnecessary stuff just to be happy, when it’s already available to you, why should you risk so much and harm others?  Extra stuff won’t make you happier.  Pyrrhus could have lived out his life in happiness in Epirus, but instead he wasted it pursuing an empire that never came to fruition, bringing the horrors of war to countless people who had done nothing to him.  We should all strive to be Cineas, and before a great undertaking, ask why we’re doing it.  It’s entirely possible that happiness lies close at hand, rather than at the end of a long and difficult road.

Sometimes, of course, happiness requires great efforts and sacrifices.  But just as often, if we think about what we truly desire, such as Pyrrhus’s desire to drink and have fun with his friend Cineas, we will realize that we don’t need to completely upend our lives to reach it.  He saw it as a sort of retirement after a career of making war and conquering nations, but all that was unnecessary.  He already had the power to fulfill himself.  He didn’t need to go out and endure so much risk and stress and harm to both himself and others.  All he had to do was realize that he could be happy right now if only he were willing to do so.

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3 Responses to Pyrrhus and Cineas

  1. charles says:

    “It’s entirely possible that happiness lies close at hand, rather than at the end of a long and difficult road.”
    “Sometimes, of course, happiness requires great efforts and sacrifices.”

    And how does one know which is the case? The result can be paralysis. Perhaps even when happiness lies close at hand, it still takes effort, just not the sort of effort that includes making big outward changes. It might be personal change. Change of perspective. As you said, “we will realize that we don’t need to completely upend our lives to reach it.”

    I really needed to hear this today. Thanks, John!


  2. Pingback: My Five Underknown Historical Figures | John Kutensky

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