Put Away All Covetousness
“A man’s desire and determination to accomplish a difficult task will blind him to the chances of failure.” So says Callimaco, the anti-hero of Niccolò Machiavelli’s great immoral morality play, The Mandrake Root. The men of that play are possessed by wild, impossible desires. Callimaco wants to sleep with a virtuous married woman, Lucrezia. Lucrezia’s elderly and infertile husband, Nicia, wants an heir. Callimaco, with knowledge of Nicia’s yearning for issue, assumes the disguise of a doctor and convinces Nicia to drug his wife with a potion derived from mandrake root and then have a young man impregnate her. The potion ensures pregnancy and also kills the first person to sleep with the woman under its administration. Nicia agrees and seeks out mandrake, the key to all his worldly desires. This decision does not end well for him.
Napoleon’s mandrake is Moscow. He is possessed by an unhealthy compulsion to conquer and possess the capital. Moscow’s promise of wealth and riches and glory prove too strong a temptation for him. So much so, in fact, that he falls victim to Callimaco’s dictum. He becomes absolutely blind to the problems presented — so obvious in retrospect as Tolstoy points out — of so deeply penetrating into Russia without first establishing proper supply lines.
Napoleon is, then, the author of his own ruin. He empowers his own misfortune, like Nicia, by lusting after impossible desires and craving what does not properly belong to him.
Put away all covetousness and seek contentment; for the covetous hath ever been deprived, and the contented hath ever been loved and praised.
Bahá’u’lláh, The Hidden Words