Farnam Street helps you make better decisions, innovate, and avoid stupidity.

With over 400,000 monthly readers and more than 93,000 subscribers to our popular weekly digest, we've become an online intellectual hub.

A Parable of Contentment and Happiness

“Who is rich?
He who is satisfied with his lot.”
— Ben Zoma


A short parable on contentment today, from Plutarch’s Life of Pyrrhus, one of a series of biographies by the great Greek historian Plutarch that were later collected as Plutarch’s Lives.

Pyrrhus was the King of Epirus, a region of Greece. As he lays out his plan for a conquest of Rome, his advisor Cineas decides to take a step back and help Pyrrhus see himself in a mirror — to do a second-step analysis of his goals. Contained in that conversation is a great deal of wisdom about life. We suggest thinking deeply about what it means for your own.

“The Romans, sir, are reported to be great warriors and conquerors of many warlike nations; if God permit us to overcome them, how should we use our 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 after a little pause, “And having subdued Italy, what shall we do next?”

Pyrrhus not yet discovering his intention, “Sicily,” he replied, “next holds out her arms to receive us, a wealthy and populous island, and easy to be gained; for since Agathocles left it, only faction and anarchy, and the licentious violence of the demagogues prevail.”

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

“God grant us,” answered Pyrrhus, “victory and success in that, and we will use these as forerunners of greater things; who could forbear from Libya and Carthage then within reach, which Agathocles, even when forced to fly 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 forces 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 live at our ease, my dear friend, and drink all day, and divert ourselves with pleasant conversation.”

When Cineas had led Pyrrhus with his argument to this point: “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?”

Cineas is saying, in so many words: Why go to all the trouble of trying to own the world when you can be happy and content right now? Unfortunately, Pyrrhus fails to heed the advice.

The great Scot Adam Smith, after recounting the above story in his Theory of Moral Sentiments, uses it as a way to remind us to be very careful with our continual discontentment:

The great source of both the misery and disorders of human life, seems to arise from over-rating the difference between one permanent situation and another. Avarice over-rates the difference between poverty and riches: ambition, that between a private and a public station: vain-glory, that between obscurity and extensive reputation. The person under the influence of any of those extravagant passions, is not only miserable in his actual situation, but is often disposed to disturb the peace of society, in order to arrive at that which he so foolishly admires.

The slightest observation, however, might satisfy him, that, in all the ordinary situations of human life, a well-disposed mind may be equally calm, equally cheerful, and equally contented. Some of those situations may, no doubt, deserve to be preferred to others: but none of them can deserve to be pursued with that passionate ardour which drives us to violate the rules either of prudence or of justice; or to corrupt the future tranquillity of our minds, either by shame from the remembrance of our own folly, or by remorse from the horror of our own injustice.

Wherever prudence does not direct, wherever justice does not permit, the attempt to change our situation, the man who does attempt it, plays at the most Unequal of all games of hazard, and stakes every thing against scarce any thing.

(H/T to the economist and interviewer Russ Roberts for pointing out this wonderful parable in his magnificent short book How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life.)


Still Interested? Check out some other thoughts on human happiness.