Monday, August 8, 2011

Pyrrhic Victory

Most people at school, including me, think my friend Mike Lee knows everything. He has both the experience and the aptitude for knowledge: he took 240 hours for his bachelor's degree, and his mind is, as they say, like a sponge. His interests include everything from from alchemy to Zen Buddhism, from European history to monster movies, from Shakespeare to Dungeons & Dragons. He remembers all the nuances of motivations in minor scenes of movies, scenes that I usually didn't understand to begin with. He quotes lines from books and plays verbatim. He remembers what level he got to with a Neutral Good human druid he played when he was fifteen. So he really surprised me one day several years ago when I said something about a Pyrrhic victory and he asked, "What's that?"

Today I got to read more about Pyrrhus and his many victories, Pyrrhic or otherwise, in Plutarch's Lives. Hannibal said Pyrrhus was the third greatest general who ever lived, and his military record seems to bear out that reputation, although his ambition and political obtuseness hindered him from achieving much worldly success. All in all, his story provides Plutarch with the perfect opportunity to do what Plutarch does, and I love the results.

As I began reading today, I learned about Cineas, a student of the great orator Demosthenes and a counselor to and ambassador for Pyrrhus. Cineas asks Pyrrhus: "What will you do when you defeat the Romans?" "Take Sicily," the general replies. Cineas asks: "And after that?" "Macedonia." Cineas presses: "And after that?" "After that," says Pyrrhus, "we will enjoy an easy, pleasant life free from enemies." "Well, then," Cineas asks, "why not just stay at home and enjoy a carefree life without going to war and making enemies to begin with?" This question lingers over the rest of the biography: Why fight at all? I keep asking Pyrrhus this question often enough, I begin to ask myself; without ever issuing blatant challenges, Plutarch has a way of making his reader apply his moral lessons introspectively.

Pyrrhus must ask himself the question after a couple of victories against the Romans, especially in a battle near Asculum. Here he finally realizes that with every victorious battle, his own forces dwindle, while Rome simply uses its loss to call up more men and more determination from a seemingly bottomless supply of both. "Another such victory," says Pyrrhus, "will undo us." And thus the phrase Pyrrhic victory was born: a tactical victory so costly that it nearly loses the larger war. So why did he fight? Oh, yeah, a life of pleasure. When Caius Fabricius, the ambassador from the serious-minded Roman Republic hears of Pyrrhus's preference for this Epicurean philosophy of pleasure, he shouts a prayer to Hercules, expressing his wish that Pyrrhus may hold that destructive philosophy for as long as he makes war with the Romans. What a great reminder that if we fight for freedom, that word needs to mean something more profound than just being able to do whatever we want.

The life of Pyrrhus has many thrilling moments; the story includes baby princes hidden from a usurping king, shipwrecks in a violent storm, and an elephant charge that creates an earthquake so terrifying it makes even the mighty Roman legions demonstrate the better part of valor and retreat. But the most amazing stories involve the Roman sense of honor. After approaching within thirty-seven miles of Rome, Pyrrhus asks the Roman Senate for a treaty of alliance. He returns all the prisoners of war he has captured in the previous battles as a gesture of good faith: it is time for all good Romans to celebrate Saturnalia. But he stipulates that they must come back into custody if the Romans don't agree to vote on peace. After Saturnalia, the Romans decide not to settle for peace, and they send all the prisoners back, not wishing to have any advantage obtained dishonorably. Similarly, when one of Pyrrhus's advisors tries to betray him by sending information to the Romans, Caius Fabricius sends a letter to Pyrrhus revealing everything. "We do not disclose this to you out of any favour to you," he explains, "but lest your ruin might bring a reproach upon us, as if we had ended the war, by treachery, as not able to do it by force." I couldn't help thinking of Bonhoeffer's observation that some modern nations had rejected such devotion to honor in favor of a view that victory justifies any cost and any means (spies, treachery, assassination).

Because the world works the way it does, Mike Lee has encountered the phrase "Pyrrhic victory" several times since I first mentioned it to him. He usually lets me know about it when it comes up, and he laughs and says he wouldn't have understood it if I hadn't told him about the third greatest general of ancient times. By the way, Hannibal considered himself at the top of the list of three. If you want to know who was second, ask Mike Lee. I'll bet he knows.

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