In 281 BC Pyrrhus, the king of Epirus (a part of Greece), was thinking about going to war with the mighty Roman Republic. He consulted Cineas, his most trusted advisor, on the idea. Cineas probed Pyrrhus’ plans:
"The Romans are said to be great fighters, and to be rulers of many warlike nations; if Heaven should permit us to conquer them, how would we use our victory?"
"Your question needs no answer; once Rome is conquered, there will be no barbarian or Greek city which is a match for us, we shall possess all of Italy, the great size and importance of which no man should know better than yourself."
After a short pause Cineas said: "And after taking Italy, my King, what are we to do?"
"We will head south to nearby Sicily, who holds out her hands to us, an island overflowing with wealth and manpower. It will be easy to capture for there are many factions there, her cities have no government, and demagogues are rampant."
"What you say is probably true; but will our expedition stop with the taking of Sicily?"
"If Heaven grants us victory and success; we will make these contests mere appetizers of our next undertakings. For who then could keep their hands off Carthage, once that city was within reach? And when we have become masters there, no one of the enemies who now treat us with scorn will offer any further resistance."
"It is clear that with so great a power we shall be able to recover Macedonia and rule all of Greece. But when we have everything subject to us, what are we going to do?"
Pyrrhus smiled at 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."
Cineas sprung the trap: "What stands in our way now if we want to drink bumpers and pass the time with leisure conversation? Surely this privilege is ours already, and we have at hand those things which you hope to attain through bloodshed and struggle."
Pyyrhus saw plainly what contentment he was leaving behind, but his ambition burned too brightly to be deterred, and he could not help himself from invading Italy.
Two years later, in 279 BC, Pyyrhus defeated Rome at the Battle of Asculum. In the pre-modern world most powers would capitulate after losing a single battle. Rome was not most powers. The victory came at a great cost for Pyyrhus. He lost some 3500 men including most of his generals.
When someone came to congratulate Pyyrhus on his victory he responded "If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined."
Four years later, with his treasury greatly depleted, thousands of his men’s corpses fertilizing Italian soil, and six years of his life lost, Pyyrhus limped back to Greece.
Don’t be like Pyyrhus.
This story is passed down to us by the Greek historian Plutarch in his magnum opus “Parallel Lives.”
“We have all the tools of contentment at hand already. You don’t have to conquer Italy to enjoy the fundamental pleasures of life. Stay human and subdue the rat within. Life’s not a race. It’s a journey to savor and enjoy. Ambition-the relentless desire for more-can eat you up.” - How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life
But doesn't a bumper taste better after a successful days work?