Pyrrhus of Epirus was one of the many Greek or Macedonian warrior monarchs, known as the Diadochi, who emerged during the chaos following the death of Alexander the Great. His life, recounted brilliantly by the 1st Century historian Plutarch, is one long story of battle and political intrigue. At times he was the King of Epirus and occasionally made himself King of Macedonia as well (half of it, anyway). He was a bit of a freelancer, fighting on behalf of Greek colonies in Italy against the Romans and in Sicily against the Carthaginians. He is most famous today as the source of the term "Pyrrhic Victory", which is used to describe a victory gained at such cost that it might as well be a defeat.
Pyrrhus comes across to me as a restless, unfocused man driven by intense ambition. A story recounted by Plutarch speaks not only to the ambition of the man himself, but the very nature of ambition in general. It has to do with one of the king's chief advisors, a Thessalian named Cineas, speaking to Pyrrhus on the eve of his departure for Italy to fight the Romans. Cineas asks what Pyrrhus intended to do once he has conquered the Romans. The king replied that, naturally enough, he intended to conquer the rest of Italy. Cineas then asked what he intended to do after that. Conquer Sicily, of course. And after that? Conquer North Africa. And after that? Conquer Greece and Macedonia. And then what? Pyrrhus, having run out of potential conquests, airily replied that he and Cineas could then spend their days and nights talking about philosophy while enjoying good food and fine wine. Cineas, perhaps a bit smugly, pointed out that there is nothing stopping them from doing that already.
There's nothing wrong with ambition, of course. Some of my greatest heroes - Cicero, Lincoln, Churchill, to name the first three that pop into my head - were men of extreme political ambition. Cicero sought political office because he was ambitious, to be sure, but he also did it because he wanted to save the Roman Republic from disintegration. Lincoln entered politics out of personal ambition, of course, but also because he wanted to help stop the spread of slavery into the American West. Churchill was destined by his family name to go into politics, and his ego knew no bounds, but he also had a vision of Britain's place in the world that he was determined to defend. Ambition, coupled with vision, can be a force for tremendous good in history.
Place ambitious historical figures with vision next to those without vision and you can see the difference. Pyrrhus was a general who simply liked to fight battles. He went off to fight the Romans in Italy because he had become bored with the fighting in Greece. When he grew bored in Italy, he went off to fight the Carthaginians in Sicily. In his later years, almost because he had nothing better to do, he went off to fight the Spartans in the Peloponnese, a decision that cost him his life. As Cineas realized, there was no vision behind what Pyrrhus was doing, any more than there is a vision in the minds of a dog chasing a fire truck down the street. Pyrrhus wanted to win battles, but not to any real purpose. Had he achieved his dream of conquering the Mediterranean, he would have had no idea what to do with it.
The subject of ambition is on my mind these days, because we are in the midst of an election year. There are literally thousands of political candidates running for every office from the presidency down to the state legislatures and local municipal offices. Unrestrained ambition is covering the ground so thickly that one will slip on it and fall flat on their face if they're not careful. Candidates are swamping us with television and radio ads, Facebook posts and website ads, messages on Twitter, images on billboards, direct mail, automated telephone calls, and sending out their armies of idealistic volunteers to knock on our doors and hand us their pamphlets. As a man who made his living in politics between 2004 and 2009, I know how it's done.
What frightens me about the ambition of the average American office-seeker is that it is very rarely linked to any worthwhile vision. The vast majority of men and women seeking office in this year's election have no vision beyond getting themselves elected and, once that it is accomplished, being reelected as long as possible, preferably until they die. To this end, to win office and to stay in office, the average American politician will lie to their voters, prostitute themselves to special interest lobbyists, push legislation making it harder for citizens to vote against them, and adopt positions on issues based only on polling data and not at all on practical or moral considerations. Making what is already bad even worse is the fact that the personality types which are most likely to seek political office are exactly those personality types most dangerous to the people when they obtain positions of influence. If a person has no vision, but only an ambition to win and then keep political power, then how can they be trusted by the people they ostensibly represent?
When I look at political candidates, I see them repeat the conservative or liberal talking points given to them by their handlers, thoroughly vetted by pollsters and focus groups. Very rarely do we see a member of Congress articulate anything original or anything that might leave them politically vulnerable. There is never any display of any real vision, any real purpose for which these office-holders strive. America, which once produced men like Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt, is now led by a gaggle of corrupt crooks or vacuous nonentities, who possess ambition in obscene quantities but possess not even the barest ounce of vision. It reminds me of Proverbs 29:18: "Where there is no vision, the people perish."
My question is this: if a person has no vision, if they don't really care about political ideals of any sort, why do they bother running for office at all? Is it just they they enjoy the trappings of power, rather in the same manner as French aristocrats did before 1789? Do they just enjoy having people wait upon them and laugh at their unfunny jokes? Do they just enjoy they police escorts to and from the airport and the congressional gym, barbershop, salon, and dining room, all paid for by the taxpayers? Do like just enjoy the junkets overseas, dubiously framed as being in the national interest, and the flights on private jets paid for by special interest lobbyists? Do they have some hidden demons in their soul that drive them to seek public acclamation, rather than be content with an honest and virtuous life?
If so, they are to be pitied, for they are throwing away the priceless opportunity to do something good for their fellow citizens and thereby make a good name for themselves in the annals of history. You can't take any the power, glory, and material wealth with you when you die, but you can leave behind the knowledge that you did something good for the world. By all means, be ambitious, but do it for the sake of a worthwhile vision, not merely in the service of your own vanity or aggrandizement.
That, I think, is what Cineas was trying to tell Pyrrhus and I think that it what he would tell us.