Monday, January 18, 2010



I am ambivalent about ambition. In America, people generally think that ambition is a good thing. It reflects the urge to "do better" and to "get ahead" in society, or in any competitive endeavor. It only makes sense that "ambition" finds a cozy home in America. After all, this country perpetuates a myth that "anyone" can succeed here as long as they work hard and persevere through difficulty. Ambition is all they need to force their way to the top.

Or, at least, that's what the myth says. In my experience, I have learned that success in America is not so simple. Many things can go wrong. Ambition alone will not deliver success. Some people are born into the wrong families. Some suffer accidents and mishaps. Others just lose interest. Often, it's not their fault that they fail. Chance and timing have a tremendous influence on success. Ambition alone does not cut it.

Despite this, American mythology extols ambition. In most cases, Americans favorably use the word: "He is so focused and ambitious; he will be successful." Even those who already have achieved success say to others: "I was ambitious. I made it. You can, too." At funerals, eulogists sing hymns to ambition: "As a young man, he was so ambitious. He succeeded and he provided for his family." And some even equate ambition with progress. Abraham Lincoln alluded to ambition when he suggested awarding royalties to patent-seekers: "Patents add the fuel of interest to the fire of genius." Second Lecture on Discoveries and Inventions (1859).

If ambition is so great, why am I ambivalent about it? I'm ambivalent about it because there is a very dark side to ambition that reflects fundamental problems in our society's values. Lincoln's quote provides a good introduction. He uses a "fire" analogy to describe ambition-fueled "genius." Ambition is like a flame that consumes the individual, driving him toward a coveted goal. The goal might not be praiseworthy at all, but the ambitious man will burn until he fulfills it. Ambition is consumptive. It overwhelms the individual. It makes him ruthless, unscrupulous and uncompromising. In short, it possesses him.

But consumptiveness is not the only thing that makes ambition problematic. It is also problematic because it has an exclusively external focus. Grammatically, ambition requires an object. In almost every case, that object is external "success." People are ambitious for fame, wealth, advancement, recognition, praise, influence and power. They want to be seen by others in a particular way, or they want to possess things that give them authority over others. To achieve these things, they must focus their energy outwardly. They need not look within themselves for strength or meaning. They do not even need to be true to themselves. No, their fulfillment comes from external success--and the tangible rewards it brings.

Ambition is about recognition. It is about the audience. After all, only the audience can decide whether to recognize the performer. And only the audience can give the coveted ovation.

Ambition bothers me because I believe that external success frustrates individual virtue. To win recognition, you need to play by others' rules. You even need to be unscrupulous. A truly ambitious person "stops at nothing" to achieve his goal. That makes it difficult for him to adhere to principles that would constrain his actions. Honor requires a person to think as much about how he achieves a goal as the goal itself. But ambition drives a person to disregard everything as long as he achieves the goal. In this sense, ambition and honor exclude each other. Virtue is honor. That is why ambition frustrates individual virtue.

Aristotle supports my position on this point. While analyzing the Spartan Constitution in The Politics, Aristotle strongly criticizes Sparta's legislative body--the Board of Elders--because election to the Board required ambition. See The Politics, Book II, ch. ix ¶1271a9. He writes: "[I]t is all wrong that a person who is going to be deemed worthy of the office should himself solicit it. Whether he wants it or not, the man to hold office is the man who is fit for it." Id. In other words, Aristotle found a flaw in Sparta's decision to entrust politicians with a choice whether to run for office, because only ambitious people would ever make that choice. For Aristotle, personal virtue was much more important than personal ambition. Only personal virtue makes a man "fit" for office--or any other honor in life.

This may seem unreasonable to a modern American reader. After all, we learn that ambitious people are the ones who make all the money and win all the success. To the American mind, it is only natural that the most ambitious man would nominate himself to hold political office. In America, personal virtue is irrelevant next to ambition. Personal virtue does not amass fortunes or start businesses; ambition does. In a strange transmutation, ambition became virtue in America. Ambition makes a man "fit," not adherence to metaphysical principles. The fact that only "really successful" people win high office reveals how strongly commerce has infiltrated American culture. Commerce has drowned all personal virtue. And it has supplanted honor with ambition as the most essential social characteristic.

In commercial America, people want power. It takes money to get power. And it takes ruthless ambition to make money in our brutally competitive free market system. In this environment, honor does not stand a chance. Ambition is the only thing that can steel men enough to survive it.

This is not a good development. When ambition overtakes honor in society, we can expect bad things. Aristotle warned about ambition in strong terms: "Yet the truth is that men's ambition and their desire to make money are among the most frequent causes of deliberate acts of injustice." The Politics, Book II ch. ix ¶1271a9.

Aristotle knew what he was talking about. He correctly equated ambition with "deliberate acts of injustice" because ambition necessarily overshadows honor. Honor imposes limits on the means by which people achieve goals. Ambition lifts those limits. When men no longer observe honor in dealing with others, they gladly commit injustice. Their burning desire to make money overwhelms all other considerations; results are everything. They are not afraid to bend rules, dissemble, exploit and cut corners to achieve the results they seek.

By contrast, an honorable man would refuse to do these things. He would insist on "justice." But in commerce, this places an honorable man at a material disadvantage; an honorable man will always lose to an ambitious one. An ambitious man does not tie his hands with "ethics;" he is not even afraid to fight dirty when he must. In the end, the ambitious man achieves the goal, wins the power and ultimately takes high office. When ambition leads to such tangible rewards, who wouldn't want to be ambitious?

Probably not many. Nonetheless, I venture that honor offers its own rewards. Success can be measured in ways beyond salaries and fame. Some success is purely internal. Some success flows from personal excellence and adherence to personal standards. Put differently, it can be rewarding to be ethical. Although ethics may impede ambition and external success, it leads to virtue. It may be an antiquated sentiment to say that success means being honorable. But I really think it does.

External success is overrated. I leave it to the ambitious to chase external recognition and rewards. For my part, I am content to live according to my own heart and my own principles. I strive to do wrong to no one, not to make a certain salary. I strive to help those who need it, not to win praises from a supervisor. I burn to express my own personality, not to tailor my speech for a money prize. Call me old-fashioned--or even antiquated--but honor is very important to me.

But I can't be ambitious for honor. True honor exists without a need for external recognition or reward. Honor does not bestow career advancement, at least not consciously. No, ambition only works for those who crave external rewards. By contrast, honor is an internal reward. It is inwardly fulfilling. As such, ambition will not help you find honor--or "achieve" it. In fact, while it may be an achievement to live with honor, there's no trophy or plaque to commemorate the day you became honorable.

That's what an ambitious person will never understand.

1 comment:

MaxThrust said...

This reminded me a lot of Ernest Becker's book "Denial of Death." He said a lot of what drives people, instead of Freud's ideas of sex, is a fear of death. People often subconsciously create immortality projects for themselves, and I'd imagine ambition is partially a result of that.

It's interesting that ambition has become an end on its own in today's society. Nobody asks the important question, "ambitious for what?" Or even better, "what are you compensating for?"

Great article!!