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Posts tagged ‘Plutarch’

A timeless story: Plutarch > Böll > us

Heinrich Böll (click for credits)

Let’s have a few minutes of fun tracing the genealogy of a story to illustrate the concept of archetypes — the Jungian idea that we tell each other the same timeless stories again and again, in infinitely many variations.

(My book is based on that idea: namely, that we see ourselves in the stories of others, whether they lived 2,000 years ago or 2 years ago, or whether they lived at all.)

On pages 140-142 of Hannibal and Me, I tell two versions of a short story. (This is the very end of the chapter called Tactics and Strategy in Life, which is about the fiendish difficulty of telling ends from means in life and the consequences of getting it wrong, as I hinted in this post for the Harvard Business Review.)

So I end the chapter with this:

A few years ago, one of those chain-letter emails landed in my inbox. It told the story of a fisherman who was lying in the warm afternoon sun on a beautiful beach, with his pole propped up and his line cast out into the water. An energetic businessman walked by.

“You aren’t going to catch many fish that way,” said the businessman to the fisherman. “You should work harder.”

The fisherman looked up and good-naturedly asked, “And what would I get for that?”

The businessman replied that he would catch more fish, sell them for more money, save the surplus, and invest in a boat and nets, which would let him catch even more fish.

Again the fisherman asked, “And what would I get for that?”

Somewhat impatiently, the businessman explained that he could then reinvest the even greater surplus and buy more boats and hire staff, becoming a small business and catching ever more fish.

Again the fisherman asked, “And what would I get for that?”

Now the businessman lost it. “Don’t you understand that you can become so rich that you never have to work for a living again? You could spend the rest of your days sitting on this beach, just enjoying this sunset!”

The fisherman’s eyes lit up. “And what do you think I’m doing right now?”

In the chapter, I then go on to tell another, and much, much older version of that story, which I’ll repeat in a minute. But here is what my cousin Bettina realized the other day as she was reading the above passage in my book: The story I was retelling from a chain email in fact derives from a short story by Heinrich Böll, the Nobel-Prize winning giant of postwar German literature.

Böll’s story, written in 1963, was titled:

Anekdote zur Senkung der Arbeitsmoral

I love that sardonic mock-bureaucratic tone. It translates into something like:

Anecdote for the Diminishment of the Work Ethic

Here is the German text, very simply and beautifully written. The Wikipedia page tells me that

The story, with its several adaptions, has been circulated widely on the Internet, and has been quoted in many books and scholarly papers. In one of the most popular versions, the tourist is an American (an MBA from Harvard in some versions), and the fisherman is Mexican.

Clearly, Böll’s story has a timeless kernel. So where might Böll himself have gotten the idea? (And by the way, he may not have realized where he got it, for we usually do not recall what influenced our ideas.)

Well, I think he got it from a story written about 2000 years ago about events more than 300 years before that. The author was Plutarch. The story was about Pyrrhus, the one who gave us “Pyrrhic Victories“.

You can compare it to the original here. But on page 141 of my book, I retell it this way (with anything in quotation marks directly sourced from Plutarch):

Pyrrhus was making preparations to invade Italy and attack Rome when Cineas struck up a conversation.

“The Romans, sir, are reported to be great warriors,” said Cineas. “If God permits us to overcome them, how should we use our victory?”

“But that’s obvious,” said Pyrrhus. “We will be ‘masters of all Italy’ with all its wealth.”

“And having subdued Italy, what shall we do next?” asked Cineas.

“Sicily,” replied Pyrrhus without missing a beat. “A wealthy and populous island, and easy to be gained.”

“But will the possession of Sicily put an end to the war?” asked Cineas.

“God grant us victory and success in that,” answered Pyrrhus, “and we will use these as forerunners of greater things; who could forbear from Libya and Carthage then within reach?” Once we have those, will anybody anywhere “dare to make further resistance?”

“None,” replied Cineas, which leaves us to “make an absolute conquest of Greece. And when all these are in our power, what shall we do then?”

Pyrrhus smiled and said, “We will live at our ease, my dear friend, and drink all day, and divert ourselves with pleasant conversation.”

“And what hinders us,” said Cineas, “from doing exactly that right now, without going through all these troubles?”

Pyrrhus suddenly looked “troubled” and had no answer. Then he went ahead and invaded Italy anyway — without success.

Genius through observation: Alexander & Bucephalus

The other day, I was reading to my kids from a children’s book about Alexander the Great, which caused much merriment and took much time because, as you would expect, I had to embellish every sentence with the real or the full story.

But honestly, what inadequate storytelling! Here is how that book delivered the famous anecdote about Alexander taming his horse Bucephalus:

There is a story about a black stallion that one day started running wildly through the courtyard. Five trainers chased it but were unable to mount it. All of a sudden the horse stopped short. Not a soul dared to approach except young Alexander, who moved swiftly, mounting and mastering the steed. Henceforth the proud horse belonged to Alexander and was called Bucephalos, which means “The One with the Head of an Ox.”

I had to intervene. So I closed the book and said, “OK, kids, here is what really happened, and it is much more interesting.” (And the next day, I checked my memory against Plutarch, as you can do here.)

The real story, and the lesson

Alexander was only 12 or 13 at the time, and he had quite a tense relationship with his father, a bit as Hannibal and Hamilcar later did, and as most successful sons and fathers do.

In any case, Alexander’s father, Philip, was given a splendid horse. But nobody could tame it, and everybody, including Philip, was making rather a fool of himself.

Alexander, meanwhile, was just watching. Really observing. Because that’s what the adults were not doing. They were too busy being brave to observe the horse.

And so Alexander noticed that the horse was not angry, and was not even fighting against the Macedonian men. No, the horse was afraid and panicking. It was scared of its own shadow.*

So Alexander stepped up and dared his dad to let him try to tame the horse. He looked precocious and arrogant, and the men had a good laugh.

Alexander then took the stallion by its bridle (much more gently than the painting above suggests) and turned him to face into the sun, so that their shadows were now behind them. At this, the stallion calmed down a bit. Alexander then (and I quote from Plutarch now), let

him go forward a little, still keeping the reins in his hands, and stroking him gently when he found him begin to grow eager and fiery, he let fall his upper garment softly, and with one nimble leap securely mounted him, and when he was seated, by little and little drew in the bridle, and curbed him without either striking or spurring him.

Philip and his friends

all burst out into acclamations of applause; and his father shedding tears, it is said, for joy, kissed him as he came down from his horse, and in his transport said, ‘O my son, look thee out a kingdom equal to and worthy of thyself, for Macedonia is too little for thee.’

So, you see, the story is really about Alexander’s finesse and, more, about his genius of observation. (And kids get that! They can handle the real story.)

In this sense, I believe Plutarch chose this anecdote for the same reason he chose the other famous vignette about Alexander: his untying of the Gordian Knot. As I argued in this post, that story, too, was proof of Alexander’s superior powers of observation. In that case, Alexander espied a simple solution to a complex situation.

But we can, as Plutarch would urge us to do, extend this much further. What made Alexander so great?

In his major battles, Alexander was usually the last to arrive at the battlefield. His enemy was already waiting, and had prepared his army for a particular battleplan. Alexander, by arriving late and keeping his mind supple, could observe that situation and infer his enemy’s plan, thereby devising his own, superior, plan on the fly.

In his administration of the conquered lands, from Egypt to Mesopotamia, he again observed the locals and their customs. He observed how they differed from Macedonian and Greek customs. And he observed how the Macedonians and Greeks were reacting to his observation. So Alexander ruled Egypt as a divine Pharaoh, the former Persian Empire as a Persian king, the Greek city states as a Philhellenic “first among equals”, and his own Macedonians as a brother in arms.

The man’s greatness — and the lesson in all these anecdotes — is found in his powers of observation.

Oh, and Bucephalus became Alexander’s beloved charger. When the stallion died from battle wounds (in what is today Pakistan), Alexander named a city after him, Bucephala, and died three years later.


* A famous autistic woman, Temple Grandin, has vividly described how cows and other animals, like autistic people, do sometimes get frightened by such things, whether a colored piece of plastic or a moving shadow.

My other posts about Alexander so far:

The Alexandrian Solution

A lot of people have a very famous story … wrong.

The story is that of the Gordian Knot and precisely how Alexander the Great loosened it. Most people imagine Alexander slashing the knot with his sword, as pictured above. But he did not.

In the nuance of how he really untied the knot lies hidden a worldview: the supremacy of simplicity and elegance over brute force and complexity. The true “Alexandrian Solution” was, for example, what Albert Einstein was looking for in his search for a Grand Unified Theory — a formula that was simple enough (!) to explain all of physics.

I’ll give you the background and the nuance of the story in a moment, but first another fist bump to Thomas for reminding us to make the association.

We are, remember, talking about complexity. The Gordian Knot is the archetypal metaphor for mind-numbing, reason-defying complexity; Alexander’s triumph over the knot is the archetypal metaphor for triumphing over complexity. Now read on…

I) Background

a) Phrygia

The Gordian Knot was, as the name implies, a knot in a city called Gordium. It was in Phrygia, an ancient kingdom in Anatolia (today’s Turkey).

The Phrygians lived near (and may have been related to) those other Anatolians of antiquity: the Trojans and the Hittites. They were Indo-European but not quite “Greek”. Their mythical kings were named either Gorgias or Midas (and one of the later Midases is the one who had “the touch” that turned everything into gold). Later, they became part of Lydia, the kingdom of Croesus. And then part of the Persian Empire. And then Alexander showed up.

b) The knot

Legend had it that the very first king, named Gorgias, was a farmer who was minding his own business and riding his ox cart. The Phrygians had no leader at that time and consulted an oracle. The oracle told them that a man riding an ox cart would become their king. Moments later, Gorgias parked his cart in the town square. In the right place at the right time. ;)

So fortuitous was this event and Gorgias’ reign that his son, named Midas, dedicated the ox cart. He did so by tying the cart — presumably by the yoke sticking out from it — to a post.

And he made the knot special. How, we do not know. But Plutarch in his Life of Alexander tells us that it was tied

with cords made of the rind of the cornel-tree … the ends of which were secretly twisted round and folded up within it.

It was a very complicated knot, in other words, and seemed to have no ends by which to untie it.

Lots of people did try to untie it, because the oracle made a second prophesy. As Plutarch said,

Whosoever should untie [the knot], for him was reserved the empire of the world.

II) Alexander, 333 BCE

Alexander, aged 23 and rather ahead of me at that age, arrived in (Persian) Phrygia in 333 BCE. The knot was still there, un-untied.

Alexander had already subdued or co-opted the Greeks, and had already crossed the Hellespont. But he had not yet become divine or conquered Egypt and Persia. All that was to come in the ten remaining years of his short life. And it began with the knot, since he knew the oracle’s prophesy.

Here he his, his sword drawn, approaching the knot:

Did he slash?

No, says Plutarch (ibid,. Vol. II, p. 152, Dryden translation):

Most authors tell the story that Alexander finding himself unable to untie the knot, … cut it asunder with his sword. But … it was easy for him to undo it, by only pulling the pin out of the pole, to which the yoke was tied, and afterwards drawing off the yoke itself from below.

III) Interpretation

I leave it to the engineering wizards among you to re-create the knot as it might have been. But what we seem to have here is a complex pattern that was nonetheless held together by only one thing: the beam.

It was, Einstein might say, like quantum physics and gravity: intimidatingly complex and yet almost certainly reducible to one simple reality.

Alexander, being Great, understood this. He saw through the complexity to the simple elegance of its solution, and pulled the peg.

This is how I understand “the Alexandrian Solution.” I intend to look for it in all of my pursuits. ;)

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Pyrrhus meets Rome; the world takes note

Let me now start to unravel some of the mysteries I have been setting up in my recent thread about Carthage, Rome and Hellenism–the historical backdrop for the main plot in my coming book.

The first mystery, in brief, is this: Why did two powers, which had been very alike and on friendly terms for centuries, start fighting some of the most brutal wars in all of history, ending in one of them (Rome) completely erasing the other (Carthage)?

In this post, let’s first look at how Rome even came to the attention of the Mediterranean world as a whole. Recall that Rome had been an obscure and small land power in central Italy of which Alexander had apparently never even heard!

Well, that’s because the Romans had been busy for several centuries fighting their immediate neighbors in Italy. As they subdued them piecemeal, these tribes–such as the Samnites and Etruscans–essentially disappeared from history. But with each victory, the Romans got closer to the tip, or “boot”, of southern Italy. And, this being the Hellenistic era, this brought the Romans into contact at last with the Greek world. The first great city of the Greeks in Italy to take offense was Tarentum (modern Taranto).


As it happened, there was at this time a very colorful and strapping young king just across the Adriatic in today’s Albania, which at that time was a Hellenistic kingdom called Epirus. His name was Pyrrhus. He is one of my favorite characters in ancient history (as I told you when I talked about Pyrrhic victories).

Pyrrhus had a bit of a complex. The Epirotes, like the Macedonians next door, were sort of, just barely, Greek. Which is to say that the “real” Greeks couldn’t quite make up their minds whether the Epirotes were really barbarians masquerading as Greeks. So Pyrrhus was forever overcompensating.

He claimed that he descended from Achilles, the greatest Greek hero ever. And he wanted to be as grand as Alexander, the Macedonian who had made himself the lord of all Greeks and conquered their old enemies. So Pyrrhus was constantly getting into wars here and there to prove his mettle.

His big break, or so he thought, came in 281 BCE, as Tarentum invited him to come over to help fight off some barbarians (the Romans). Pyrrhus, the defender of the Greeks! Pyrrhus, the descendant of Achilles fighting Trojan War 2.o against the descendants of Troy! He was thrilled. He packed his bags and swords, along with 20 war elephants and a huge, splendid army of Greek hoplites. And off he was to Italy.

Call me Achilles

Let’s pause briefly to grasp what kind of man Pyrrhus was. Here is Plutarch, describing a moment when Pyrrhus was wounded in the head once and his enemies were closing in for the kill:

one of them advancing a good way before the rest, large of body and in bright armour, with an haughty voice challenged him to come forth if he were alive. Pyrrhus, in great anger, broke away violently from his guards, and, in his fury, besmeared with blood, terrible to look upon, made his way through his own men, and struck the barbarian on the head with his sword such a blow, as with the strength of his arm, and the excellent temper of the weapon, passed downward so far that his body being cut asunder fell in two pieces.

Pyrrhus was more than brawny and brave; he was also a great tactician and general, perhaps the best of his time. So now, for the first time ever, Roman legionaries clashed with the famous phalanxes of Greek hoplites.


This picture actually does not do it justice. The hoplites in the phalanx stayed in tight formation, each holding his long spear so that the phalanx as a whole advanced as though it were a deadly porcupine with its quills pointing forward.

The Romans gave way. Then Pyrrhus’ elephants did the rest. And so Pyrrhus won victories, but they were “Pyrrhic”–which is to say that they did not help him win the war and cost him so much in lives that he himself said that he could not afford another.

Roman and Greek: Clash of Civilizations

But there was more going on here than battles. This was the first time that these two cultures actually met en masse. And the Greeks did not know what to make of these Romans.

In the Greek (Hellenistic) world, war was a higher form of sport and art. One or two victories on the battlefield, and the gentlemanly thing to do was to make a treaty, call it quits and go to the gymnasium to get oiled. So Pyrrhus was waiting for the Romans to cry Uncle.

But they didn’t. And the Greeks just did not understand. Why did the Romans just keep coming, and coming and coming, when they were dying in such large numbers? Who, or what, were these people?

There were more surprises. In the Greek world, you opened diplomacy with a gift or two, and perhaps the equivalent of a discreet brown envelope to the right persons. So Pyrrhus sent an envoy to talk to the Romans. But when he offered his gifts to the Roman senators, they were so shocked at the implication of venality that all diplomacy ended abruptly.

Bizarre! Even stranger, the Romans then saved Pyrrhus’ life. The king’s own doctor was a traitor and offered the Romans to poison Pyrrhus. The Romans, far from accepting the offer, promptly informed Pyrrhus, who had his doctor taken care of. There was nobility in these barbarians, he thought!

Long story short, Pyrrhus, after some distractions in Sicily, eventually left Italy and went home to Epirus, to keep looking for adventures and glory there.

Rome had survived its first encounter with the Greeks unbeaten and was now master of all Italy. All over the Mediterranean, people sat up and held their breath. Wow. A new power, living by exotic values and playing by incomprehensible rules, had arrived on the scene.

Even Rome’s old friends in Carthage suddenly realized that these Romans were now awfully close to Sicily, and rather more menacing than Carthage had ever thought. Whatever Rome was now, it was certainly no longer obscure.

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Oh, he says, like Plutarch

I was catching up with Orville Schell, one of my mentors, last night. That’s always fun, but I was especially delighted by how he immediately got the plot of my book as I told it to him. (I’m not quite ready yet to start giving it away on the Hannibal Blog, but I’m getting closer.)

At one point, Orville says: “Oh, so it’s like Plutarch.”

Now, if you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know why this made me happy. First, to be compared to Plutarch is tall praise for any writer. But in my particular case, it means a lot more.

Plutarch, you recall, was the first biographer. More to the point, what he did was to pair one Greek and one Roman at a time in order to draw lessons and comparisons from their lives. Alexander and Caesar, for instance. He assumed that we would be able to apply these lessons to our own lives.

One way to express the idea for my book is to call it a “modern Plutarch”–although I would never say so unless prompted, since “Plutarch” doesn’t mean much to most Americans. But the idea is quite similar:

I don’t have pairs in the sense of twos, but I do follow my main characters–Hannibal, Fabius and Scipio–through their whole lives and, in each chapter, pair them with other figures. (Amy Tan, JK Rowling, Tiger Woods, Eleanor Roosevelt, Ludwig Erhard, Cleopatra, the Dalai Lama, and so forth.)

In each case, or so I hope, it will be so obvious what the theme of the chapter is that the segues are fluid and natural. Hannibal went through X; and so did Einstein. Scipio responded with Y, and so did Steve Jobs. You get the point.

So, for Orville to listen to some of these individual comparisons and instantaneously blurt out “Plutarch” is a great vote of confidence that I executed my idea well. But I’m still waiting for my editor’s reaction; he has the manuscript right now.

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Can a storyteller make stuff up?

Truman Capote making stuff up

Truman Capote making stuff up

The book manuscript that I’ve just sent off to my editor at Riverhead happens to fall into the genre of “creative non-fiction.” It is a story built on actual lives–ancient ones and modern ones–that illustrate various themes around the great mystery of success and failure in life, including yours and mine.

The job of creative non-fiction, as Ira Glass would agree, is to make true stories riveting and small stories grand. It is, in short, simply good story-telling.

Still, you would have to lack all sense of irony not to smirk at that phrase. Creative non-fiction. Say what?

Creative means making stuff up. Non-fiction means not making stuff up. The very notion would seem to be an oxymoron. Or perhaps not?

Herodotus and Thucydides walk into a bar….

This particular question happens to be the oldest controversy in non-fiction writing. Recall that Herodotus believed in embellishing history to make it more palatable and (ironically) realistic, whereas Thucydides took him to task for telling lies and promised to stick to just the facts, ma’am. But even Thucydides then found that he had to “make stuff up” to get at the actual truth, because if he had used only, for instance, dialogue that he himself had actually overheard (while taking notes), he would have painted the wrong picture of the Peloponnesian War altogether.

By the time, we get to the era in which my main characters–Hannibal, Fabius and Scipio–lived, Polybius is the one who tries to stick to just the facts (but again doesn’t quite manage), whereas Livy is the one who says ‘Oh Heck’ and just tells a good yarn. By the time we get to Plutarch, we essentially throw out the rule book and just enjoy–even as we, paradoxically, come away with the impression that we have finally gotten closer to the truth of the characters involved. And so the controversy bubbles on, down the ages.

… and Truman Capote serves them a drink

Jean Ku, a friend of ours, just passed on a fascinating essay on the topic by her writing teacher, David Schweidel, the author of two books. Schweidel begins his history of creative non-fiction more recently. One strand, which Schweidel calls reportage, started with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and continued with Tom Wolfe and The New Journalism. The other is memoir.

So what makes reportage creative non-fiction? Schweidel thinks that

Creative nonfiction, I’d say, attempts to convey the feeling as well as the facts. Clearly, Truman Capote does a lot of work to convey feeling.

It does this by using the techniques of fiction, which are

  • dramatized action
  • dialogue
  • the point of view of a participant
  • the presentation of specific details, … such as gestures, habits, manners, customs, styles of furniture, clothing, decoration, styles of traveling, eating, keeping house, ….

And what makes memoirs creative non-fiction? Well, the fact that they

are works of memory. Memory is selective, self-serving, often mistaken. People lie to make themselves look better. Sometimes people lie to make themselves look worse… Or simply misremember. Most readers understand that story-tellers, especially when they’re telling stories about themselves, take such liberties. In the words of Grace Paley: “Any story told twice is fiction.”

And so, concludes Schweidel,

In theory, creative nonfiction has to be an oxymoron. Creative means made up, and nonfiction means not made up. Hence, oxymoron. In practice, though, creative nonfiction is a redundancy. Why? Because virtually every work of nonfiction is creative.

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Look who reads Plutarch

I’ve told you about Plutarch, the father of biography, who has an important place in my bibliography. A lot of people of course love Plutarch. J.K. Rowling does, Truman did. And so does Sam Donaldson, who recommends the Parallel Lives here:

Plutarch’s Lives is simply the biographies of people back in an ancient era, Caesar and the Antonines. You study how they lived and what they did, and how they thought. I can’t tell you I came away from it saying, “Now I’ll pattern myself after this guy, and this guy.” But I came away with the sense that some of the people who were very ordinary when they started out could make something of themselves. … But lives, what is it about various people’s lives who are successful, who make something of themselves, who make a mark on history and on the world? That book influenced me.

The father of biography



Let’s get back to the bibliography for my book.

Right now–while we’re still dealing with the ancient sources–I’m going through the texts in chronological order. And after Polybius and Livy, that brings me to Plutarch.

You recall that Herodotus was the father of history. Well, Plutarch must be the father of biography. Like Herodotus, Thucydides and Polybius, he was Greek. But Plutarch lived much later, in the first and second century AD–three centuries after Hannibal and Scipio. So I don’t use Plutarch because I think he has any scoops over Polybius, or more accurate information. Why, then, do I use (and love) Plutarch?

Because he was the first to take an interest in character. That’s what he wanted to capture: the characters of the great Greeks and Romans. For that he used the big events and deeds in their lives and, just as much, the tiniest but telling details. Occasionally, he may have stretched the facts a bit, but, hey, let’s relax about that and just enjoy.

In that respect, of course, Plutarch does exactly what I aspire to do in my book. I too want to capture how characters respond to success and failure, ups and downs.

Plutarch’s main work was his Parallel Lives (which we usually read in the John Dryden translation), in which he paired one great Greek with one great Roman. Alexander the Great, for instance, is paired with Julius Caesar, and so on.

Hannibal was neither Greek nor Roman, so we don’t have a Life with his name as title. But Hannibal, who is my main character, features prominently in several of Plutarch’s Lives: Fabius (who also plays a big role in my book), Marcellus (a Roman consul killed by Hannibal), Cato the Elder, Flamininus (conqueror/liberator of the Greeks and the man who finally hounded Hannibal into suicide).

Plutarch’s life of Pyrrhus, which I’ve quoted from, is one of my favorites, by the way.

The tragedy is that many of his lives are lost. And the loss that hurts most is, of course, the Life of Scipio, my other main character.

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Pyrrhic victories

Heard about my victory?

Heard about my victory?

You’ve heard of Pyrrhic Victories, which are defeats disguised as triumphs–in other words, Kipling-esque impostors of the sort that I will be describing in my book. But do you know why they are called that?

It’s thanks to Pyrrhus, who is well worth five minutes of your time.

Pyrrhus was the ancient world’s equivalent of a dumb jock whom all the girls loved, who bashed the equivalent of Budweiser cans on his forehead and beat up the enemy football team but never quite figured it all out.

Put differently, he was the King of Epirus in northern Greece, and wanted to be like Alexander the Great, who died a couple of generations before him. (Pyrrhus in turn died a generation before Hannibal was born.) He wanted to be a hero and to conquer. Basically, that’s all there was to it. And he was great at it–brave, courageous, strong. Plutarch says that once, when he was thought dead on the battlefield, he just got up and cleft an enemy soldier in two pieces with one blow of his sword.

One day, an opportunity came up: Tarentum, a Greek city in southern Italy that was fighting the Romans, invited Pyrrhus to come over and fight Rome on their behalf. Pyrrhus was thrilled. As he was preparing to leave for Italy with his army and his war elephants (sounds a lot like Hannibal, doesn’t it?), he had a conversation with the wise Cineas. This is one of my favorite exchanges in antiquity. Here is Plutarch’s version:

Cineas: If we beat the Romans, what should we do next?

Pyrrhus: Why, then we’ll be masters of all Italy.

Cineas: “And having subdued Italy, what shall we do next?”

Pyrrhus: “Sicily.”

Cineas: “But will the possession of Sicily put an end to the war?”

Pyrrhus: “We will use that as the forerunners of greater things” such as Libya and Carthage. Would anybody resist us after that?

Cineas: “None,” for then we can take Macedon and even all of Greece. “And when all these are in our power what shall we do then?”

Pyrrhus: “We will live at our ease, my dear friend, and drink all day, and divert ourselves with pleasant conversation.”

Cineas: “And what hinders us now, sir,” from doing exactly that?

At this Pyrrhus was nonplussed. But left for Italy anyway!

Next, he had his Pyrrhic victories. He beat the Romans, but each time he lost so many men and gained so little that once, when congratulated on yet another victory, he sighed: “Another such victory over the Romans and we are undone.”

Eventually, as he was wont, he got distracted. There was another opportunity for glory in Sicily, so he sailed around a bit there and bashed a few heads. You can see on that map what that trip (dare I say his life?) looked like.

Courtesy PIOM, via Wikimedia Commons

Courtesy PIOM, via Wikimedia Commons

In any event, Sicily also failed to make him happy, so eventually he made his way back to Greece.

Once home, he kept fighting wars here and there. I mean, it’s a hard habit to kick! His end came as it had to come (irony alert): He was in the middle of some vicious street fighting in a Greek city, when an old woman on a rooftop dropped a tile, which landed on his heroic pate and knocked him dead. So it goes, as Vonnegut would say.

Have you ever been a Pyrrhus in your life? Do you know any Pyrrhuses?
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Biden and Demosthenes: A tale of two stammerers

As I was watching Beau Biden (video below) and his father Joe at the Democratic Convention today, I was struck by a stunning parallel between Senator Biden’s remarkable life story and that of the ancient Greek orator Demosthenes.

Both were stammerers in their youth. Both were taunted for it with cutting nicknames–”dash” for Biden, since he left his words hanging with a dash; batalus for Demosthenes, which meant both asshole and stammerer.

But both defined themselves by overcoming this impediment, and thus turning their greatest weakness–speaking–into their greatest strength–oratory. Demosthenes went on to become the single greatest orator not only in Greece but in all of history. Statesmen from Cicero to Disraeli and Churchill looked to him for lessons in how to move a political audience with speech. Joe Biden, too, became an effective–and, if anything, a garrulous–senator and may now become vice president.

As always, it is how they overcame that is the story. Joe Biden’s story is all over the news this week. But you may not know Demosthenes’ story. Here is the brief version, as Plutarch tells it:

Once, after Demosthenes was once again laughed out of the forum of Athens for his slobbering, panting attempts at speech, he was walking in dejection around the port. An actor followed him and caught up. He asked Demosthenes to recite passages from Euripides and Sophocles. Demosthenes recited them. As soon as he stopped, the actor would deliver the same passage, but with full force and feeling, with gesture and emotion.

Demosthenes was so inspired that he built himself a sort of cave underground where he hid for months at a time, just practicing his speech. He shaved one half of his head, then the other, so that he would be too ashamed to come out. With laser-like focus, he stayed in that dungeon and worked on his tongue, his vocal cords, his gestures, his cadence, his logic.

Eventually he came out of his cave and set his hurdles higher. He recited speeches while running up hills. He went to the shore and orated against and over the breaking waves. When even that became easy, he put pebbles under his tongue and then enunciated over the roaring surf. Here he is, as the painter Jean Lecomte du Nouÿ imagined him:

In time, he became the greatest orator, and then the greatest statesman, of his country and time, Athens in the fourth century BCE. It would be Demosthenes who roused the Athenians against the menace of Philip of Macedon, the father of Alexander the Great.

Were the early failures, setbacks and shortcomings of Joe Biden and Demosthenes impostors, in Kipling‘s sense? Do they belong in my book, which is about how the two impostors, triumph and disaster, work? Stammering, for Biden or Demosthenes, was not a liberating event, as failure was for Steve Jobs, J.K. Rowling, or Hannibal’s nemesis, the great Scipio. Their stammer was more like a gauntlet that life threw before their soul. Success in life can be about picking such gauntlets up and then going deep, way deep, to find the strength.

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