Ambition and Friendship with Cyrus and George
or, "It's a Wonderful Education"
Is ambition good?
It’s an old question, and one that recurs perenially among my friends.
The instinctive answer, at least to an American who grew up admiring cowboys and astronauts in equal measure, is a resounding “yes”. Could we have built the skyscraper without ambition? The railroad? The airplane, or the Internet? Could we have gone to the moon without ambition? Could we have built the country? No. It seems ambition was necessary for many good and wondrous things, so ambition must be good.
Of course, it’s not that simple. Ambition is the motivation towards greatness, but there’s a reason that the words “great” and “terrible” are old friends. Ambition leads dictators and tyrants to claim power, it ignites needless wars that extinguish innocent lives, and generally encourages disruption without any guarantee of making change for the better.
This question is tough; let’s try an easier one. What about friendship? Is friendship good? The consensus seems to be “yes”.
Here I consider two classics that deal with these questions: Xenophon’s The Education of Cyrus (as translated by Wayne Ambler), and Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. They might seem to be an odd couple, but they share some remarkable parallels.
[spoiler warning: naturally, spoilers follow. if you’re concerned about that, you should probably go read/watch these and come back.]
The Education of Cyrus
The Education of Cyrus (or Cyropaedia) is a pretty old book written by this Greek guy, Xenophon, around 370 BC. I have an unusually large number of friends who are into philosophy and still subscribe to the wisdom of the ancients, and when I asked them for a recommendation, as someone who has neither read the ancients nor previously expressed much interest in doing so, this is what they gave me.
The book opens by asking a question about political systems: namely, how to have a stable one. That is, how can we create a government that avoids the cycles of turmoil that regularly ensue as elites vie for power and others rebel and start revolutions? Or, how can we overcome the basic nature of humans, which is to resist rule by other humans?
The question posed, Xenophon spends the remainder of the book describing the life of one man who apparently answered this question by example: Cyrus of Persia, who went on to conquer just about his entire known world and rule over it as king. To give the briefest account of this narrative: Cyrus is a kid in Persia, which at the time was a pretty small country. Like the rest of the boys in Persia, he trains constantly, learns justice, and lives a rather
Spartan Persian life. Then, when he’s maybe 12 or so, he visits his grandpa, the king of nearby Media.1 Grandpa, unlike the Persians, lives resplendently, and introduces Cyrus to a life of luxury. Also, Cyrus learns horseback riding and makes a bunch of Median friends. Eventually, grandpa dies and Cyrus goes back to Persia, where he manages to convince everyone that he hasn’t gone soft from his extended stay in the Comfy Kingdom.
When Cyrus is a young adult and a good Persian citizen, a threat approaches: Persia’s unfriendly neighbors are amassing allies and resources to put Persia and Media in their places. The Persian Jedi Council nominates Cyrus to amass the Persian army and go handle it. Cyrus meets up with his uncle Cyaxares, the current Median ruler, and then handle it he does. To make a medium-length story short, Cyrus then goes the extra mile, and a few thousand extra miles beyond that, and ends up conquering Assyria and installing himself as the king in its capital of Babylon.
At the end of his life and after many more exploits and conquests, Cyrus presides over an obscenely large kingdom. Despite its size and geographic spread, the kingdom is entirely in good order and under his control, and his efforts have led to a remarkable era of peace, prosperity, and stability for his subjects. On his deathbed, Cyrus implores his two sons to be good lads, not to tussle pettily over power, and to take good care of the kingdom. Having said his piece, Cyrus dies and of course the kingdom immediately falls apart, with many warring regions and factions vying for power and control.
A touching story. On to the next one.
It’s a Wonderful Life
It’s a Wonderful Life is a beloved piece of American cinema and a classic Christmas film, produced and directed by Frank Capra in 1946. In case you haven’t seen it, I’ll give a brief rundown here.
George Bailey is a kid in Bedford Falls, New York. He performs various heroic tasks in his childhood, including saving his younger brother’s life (at the expense of his hearing in one ear) and preventing a bereaved pharmacist from accidentally killing someone by giving them the wrong drug. As a young adult, he gets sidetracked from his grandiose plans of college and traveling the world by his family’s Building and Loan business, which presents the townspeople’s only alternative to the enterprises of the nefarious slumlord and notorious rent-seeker Henry Potter, the richest man in town. Ultimately, George gets married to the love of his life, takes over the family business, and has kids (in that order). His ordinarily happy life is interrupted when his scatterbrained uncle misplaces $8,000 ($110,000 today), which is enough to put the old Building and Loan out of business and — due to Potter’s influence on the town and the law — potentially get George locked up for mismanagement.
This brings us to the crux of the movie, where a drunk, suicidal George is visited by Clarence, an angel trying to save him. George wishes he’d never been born, and Clarence makes it happen, leaving a confused George to stumble around a darker-timeline version of Bedford Falls called Pottersville. George realizes that a lot of people would be worse off without him, and begs to have his life back. In the end, George (along with the old Building and Loan) is saved by a flood of gifts from the many grateful people in the community that he has helped over the years. The film ends with Clarence’s reminder that “no man is a failure who has friends”.
There’s one scene in The Education of Cyrus that really got my attention, as a kind of weird parallel to It’s a Wonderful Life. Cyrus, having taken the magnificent city of Babylon as his own, has made a habit of gift-giving and generosity, frequently gifting friends and associates with fine valuables and excellent food. In fact, Cyrus is so generous that his adviser/defeated buddy Croesus warns him that he’s going to go broke and suggests that he save more instead. In response, Cyrus makes a “beautiful display” to Croesus, which I will simply quote here because it’s funny (emphasis mine):
And Cyrus is said to have asked, “And how much money do you think that I would have now if I had been gathering gold together in the way you bid for as long as I have been ruling?”
And Croesus mentioned a very big number.
[Cyrus instructs his pal Hystaspas to go around and ask all of Cyrus’s friends to write down how much money they can give him.]
[Hystaspas comes back with many gifts, in addition to the amounts that Cyrus’s friends wrote down.]
And Cyrus said, “He is already one treasury for us, Croesus. Examine the others and calculate how much money is ready if I need to use any.”
It is said, of course, that on calculation Croesus found that there was many times as much as he had told Cyrus he would now have in his treasuries if he gathered it together.
This so struck me because it’s almost exactly the ending of It’s a Wonderful Life. George Bailey is in dire straits due to his absentminded uncle misplacing $8,000, but the community of Bedford Falls — many of whom George has personally helped over the years — eagerly rallies behind him to make up the difference. In fact, Potter (the Scroogey business man/slumlord/antagonist) embodies the “very big number” approach of Croesus’s financial plan (hoarding), while George unwittingly subscribes to the “many times as much” Cyrus plan.
By being good to other people, George has accumulated something beyond money: social capital. Many townspeople people like him and feel personally indebted to him due to his generosity and good nature. What’s more, this social capital can in fact be traded in for cold, hard cash, as Cyrus tests and George puts into practice!
The obvious contrast here is that, as far as the audience can tell, in George’s case it’s entirely unwitting. He’s just inclined to be a good person. Whereas Cyrus knows exactly what he’s doing. After his little demonstration to Croesus, he goes on the explain his methodology:
I … make these friends on mine wealthy and believe they are treasuries and, at the same time, they are more trusthworthy guards of myself and our good things than if I appointed garrisons of mercenaries [to guard them].
I too am insatiable for money, just as others are.
By enriching and benefiting human beings, I acquire goodwill and friendship, and from these I harvest safety and glory.
And on his deathbed, his concludes his instructions to his sons with:
And remember this last thing from me, that by benefiting your friends, you will be able to punish your enemies.
So a key difference between George and Cyrus is how they think about friendship: Cyrus views every good or kind act as a matter of strategy, while George simply views it as a good thing to do. Cyrus makes friends to make allies, while George makes friends to make… well, friends. In the end, though, their behavior — along with the outcomes they reap from it — is identical.
On friendship, we’ve seen that Cyrus and George have contrasting views but identical outcomes. With ambition, it’s just the opposite: George and Cyrus have basically the same inclinations, but their behavior and outcomes couldn’t be more different.
George is ambitious by nature. This is best established when George and his father are having dinner:
George’s father, Peter: I suppose you’ve decided what you want to do when you get out of college.
George: Oh well, you know what I’ve always talked about… build things… design new buildings… plan modern cities… all that stuff I was talking about.
Peter: Still after that first million before you’re thirty.
George: No, I’ll settle for half that in cash.
[Peter asks his son about the prospect of coming back to work at the Building and Loan after college]
George: I couldn’t. I couldn’t face being cooped up for the rest of my life in a shabby little office…
Oh, I’m sorry, Pop, I didn’t mean it that way, but this business of nickels and dimes and spending all your life trying to figure out how to save three cents on a length of pipe… I’d go crazy.
I… I wanna do something big and something important.
George has already been working at Building & Loan for a few years since graduating, saving up for tuition, and he’s antsy to get out. He plans to travel across Europe, go to college, and finally go on to do big and important things on the world stage.
But again and again, George’s ambitions are foiled by his better nature. Just as he is about to leave for Europe, his father has a fatal stroke and George has to take over the business for a few months to keep it in order, canceling his plans to see the world. Then, just as he’s about to leave for college, Potter makes a move to shut down Bailey Building and Loan, eliminating the only institution in town that can stand up to him. The rest of the board votes to keep the business open, on the condition that George stay at the helm. Thus, George’s college plans are canceled too, as his sense of responsibility impels him to stay for the good of the town.
George gives his college money to Harry, enabling him to go immediately, and Harry in turn commits to taking over the B&L after graduation to enable George to go to college. But Harry ends up getting a wife and an amazing job offer, and George cannot bear to make him give it up for his sake. Later, George himself marries and plans to go on a fabulous honeymoon with his wife Mary, but even this is interrupted, now by a Potter-generated bank run. George and Mary stay to calm the masses and hand out their own honeymoon cash so people can get by in the meantime, canceling George’s plans once again.
Finally, Potter, disturbed by the fact that Bailey Building & Loan is enabling the tenants in his slums to get out and into their own houses, tries to win over George with an amazing job offer. George, briefly enticed by the prospect of an exorbitant salary and all the travel he could want, snaps out of it and vehemently turns him down.
George is an ambitious man. He wants to see the world, to get an education, to build skyscrapers and get rich! But every single time he tries to get out of his hometown and pursue those ambitions, he is yanked back by his sense of responsibility to his family and community.
Cyrus is ambitious, too. Perhaps owing to his adolescence spent in the luxury of Media, Cyrus has a certain ambition beyond that of the ordinarily very restrained and moderate Persians. His ambition is demonstrated at a crucial moment early in his conquest. After solidly defeating the original threat to Persia and Media (the reason why Cyrus was granted an army in the first place), Cyrus and Cyaxares are quite pleased. But Cyrus is not content to end there. Consider Cyaxares’s response:
…perhaps it also seemed to [Cyaxares] to be fine that they not run further risks, for he, as it happened, was busy enjoying himself, and he saw many of the other Medes doing the same thing.
So he spoke as follows: “Cyrus, that of all human beings you Persians take the noblest care not be insatiably disposed toward any single pleasure I know both by seeing and by hearing. Yet it seems to me to be most especially advantageous to be continent in the greatest pleasure. And what provides human begins greater pleasure than the good fortune that has now come to us? If then, when we enjoy good fortune, we guard it moderately, it would perhaps be within our power to grow old in happiness without risk. Yet if we are insatiable in this, and try to pursue first one and then another [instance of good fortune], watch out that we do not suffer…”
The whole thing with the Persians of Cyrus’s time is their tough exercise of moderation and restraint, but here Cyaxares all but outright accuses Cyrus of being immoderate and incontinent: Cyrus is insatiable for victory and fortune. His ambition is out of control.
Cyrus is apparently always striving to be good, just, virtuous, and above all moderate, as a Persian should. But he appears to have become distinctly immoderate in his ambitions. Rather than celebrate his and Cyaxares’ early victory, he insists on riding his momentum further and further until he has conquered an empire. This certainly seems to work in Cyrus’s favor — he has a great life and dies contented. Ironically, though, all of Cyrus’s grand conquest and leadership ultimately works to the great detriment of his community. As Xenophon describes in the end:
When Cyrus died, however, his sons immediately fell into dissension, cities and nations immediately revolted, and everything took a turn for the worse.
I say that the present Persians and their associates have been demonstrated to be more impious regarding gods, more irreverent regarding relatives, more unjust regarding others, and more unmanly in what pertains to war than were their predecessors.
Corrupted by the power Cyrus attained and made decadent by their wealth, the once-moderate, hard-working, and perseverant Persians ultimately became worse in every respect due to Cyrus’s unmoderated ambition. This is particularly poignant in light of Cyrus’s own wishes; when he realizes he’s dying, Cyrus asks the gods grant happiness to his children, wife, friends, and fatherland.
And my fatherland, which before lived privately, I leave now as foremost in honor in Asia. Of what I acquired, I know of nothing I did not preserve.
But his family, allies, and even his fatherland are torn asunder by the power struggle that ensues immediately after his death.
The Education of Cyrus and It’s a Wonderful Life are, on the surface, two very different works: they are from different times, of different cultures, in different formats, and on different subjects. Despite these surface differences, these two classics have some striking parallels, and they both have something to say about ambition and friendship.
George Bailey is a man of ambition who puts his big dreams on the sideline every time duty calls, and in doing so greatly benefits his family and community. Cyrus of Persia is a man of ambition who successfully chases it to the edges of his known world, and in doing so inadvertently destroys everything he holds dear. George demonstrates the value of ambition moderated by love, while Cyrus illustrates the dangers of ambition unmoderated. Both Cyrus and George, acting with very different motives, are excellent at making friends of everyone around them, and in this sense both are men of great wealth — but while George helps bind his community together, Cyrus ultimately causes his to fall apart.
Edited 2023-07-02 to fix typos and complete the final sentence.
To clarify, Media was a place. Which is apparently where we get the words “Media” and “Median” from. Cyrus’s Median friends weren’t average: they were from Media! ↩