Pyrrhus and Cineas – The True Story Behind The Origin Of The ‘Fisherman’s Parable’

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Ferdinand Bol, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Ferdinand Bol, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

If you search “Fisherman’s Parable,” you’ll find dozens of sites repeating what is commonly labeled in terms of the parable of the “Mexican” fisherman. In truth, most of these sites merely repeat a variation on a theme akin to the “Sicilian” variation told to me by my grandfather.

These sites tend to declare the original author of this story is “anonymous.” A few of the more honest ones cite a specific source, namely Heinrich Theodor Böll, a German writer who received the 1972 Nobel Prize for Literature.

Böll wrote a short story in 1963 titled “Anekdote zur Senkung der Arbeitsmoral” (“Anecdote Concerning the Lowering of Productivity”). Rather than a Harvard MBA, the interlocutor is a “smartly-dressed enterprising” tourist. Instead of being Sicilian (or Mexican, for that matter), the “shabbily dressed local” fisherman was found resting at an unnamed harbor on the west coast of Europe. The rest of the story, including its ironic conclusion, remains very similar.

Still, we can’t credit Böll with an original philosophical insight. In fact, the original source was so old, two decades earlier, Simone Lucie Ernestine Marie Bertrand de Beauvoir, a French existentialist philosopher (is there any other kind of French philosopher?) paid homage to the true source of this tale by, in Böll’s terms, making the tourist the smart one, not the fisherman.

Her 1944 essay “Pyrrhus et Cinéas” (“Pyrrhus and Cineas”) focuses on this original passage from Part Two of the “Life of Pyrrhus” in Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans (commonly referred to as “Parallel Lives” or “Plutarch’s Lives”) written in the early part of the second century AD:

There was one Cineas, a Thessalian, considered to be a man of very good sense, a disciple of the great orator Demosthenes, who, of all that were famous at that time for speaking well, most seemed, as in a picture, to revive in the minds of the audience the memory of his (Demosthenes’) force and vigour of eloquence; and being always about Pyrrhus, and sent about in his service to several cities, he verified the saying of Euripides, that–

As much as trenchant blades, in mighty hands may do.

So much can skill of eloquence, achieve and conquer too.

And therefore Pyrrhus would often say that Cineas had won him more towns with his eloquence than he himself had done by the sword: for which he did greatly honour and employ him in all his chief affairs.

This person, seeing Pyrrhus eagerly preparing for these wars of Italy, led him one day when he was at leisure into the following reasonings: “The Romans, sir, are reported to be great warriors and conquerors of many warlike nations; if it please the gods we do overcome them, what benefit shall we have of that victory?”

“You ask,” said Pyrrhus, “a thing evident of itself. The Romans once conquered, there is neither Greek nor barbarian city that will resist us, but we shall presently be masters of all Italy, the extent and resources and strength of which any one should rather profess to be ignorant of than yourself.”

Cineas, pausing a while, replied: “And when we have taken Italy, what shall we do then?”

Pyrrhus not finding his meaning yet, said unto him: “Sicily next holds out her arms to receive us, a wealthy and populous island, and easy to be gained; having no head that governs them since Agathocles left it, more than orators only that are their councilors, who will soon be won.”

“You speak,” said Cineas, “what is perfectly probable, but will the possession of Sicily put an end to the war?”

“The gods grant us,” answered Pyrrhus, “victory and success in that, and we will use these are forerunners of greater things; who could forbear from Libya and Carthage then within reach, which Agathocles, even when forced to flee from Syracuse, and passing the sea only with a few ships, had all but surprised? These conquests, once perfected, will any assert that of the enemies who now pretend to despise us, any one will dare to make further resistance?”

“None,” replied Cineas, “for then it is manifest we may with such mighty force regain Macedon, and make an absolute conquest of Greece; and when all these are in our power what shall we do then?”

Said Pyrrhus, smiling, “We will then, good Cineas, be quiet, and take our ease, and make feasts every day, and be as merry one with another as we can possibly be.”

Cineas having brought him to that point, said again to him: “And what hinders us now, sir, if we have a mind to be merry, and entertain one another, since we have at hand without trouble all those necessary things, to which through much blood and great labour, and infinite hazards and mischief done to ourselves and to others, we design at last to arrive?”

Such reasonings rather troubled Pyrrhus with the thought of the happiness he was quitting, than in any way altered his purpose, he being unable to abandon the hopes of what he so much desired.

Beyond this, we don’t know the original source of this exchange between Pyrrhus and Cineas. In either case, it doesn’t matter if it’s war, business, or life, the Fisherman’s Parable contains a modernized version of an ancient lesson we must all learn: Before making your first move, know how you define success.

By the way, Pyrrhus, the only man to never lose a battle to the Romans, never heeded Cineas’ advice. Instead of being remembered as the world’s greatest general, we know him today for the term “Pyrrhic Victory” – i.e., winning the battle but losing the war.

Remember, it doesn’t matter how many stumbles or setbacks you suffer along the way on the critical path to your Lifetime Dream. Victory means only one thing: Achieving your Lifetime Dream. If this sounds Machiavellian to you, it’s only because you haven’t finished reading this work.

…to be continued…

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