Ambition, the ‘Dangerous Vice’ and ‘Compelling Passion’

In reviewing William Casey King‘s Ambition, a History: From Vice to Virtue (‘Wanting More, More, More‘, New York Review of Books, 11 July 2013), David Bromwich writes:

Machiavelli thought ambition a dangerous vice…for Machiavelli ambition was also a compelling passion—a large cause of the engrossing changes of fortune that happen because “nature has created men so that they desire everything, but are unable to attain it.” All men, the grandees and the populace alike, are implicated in the “nature” that created this unreasoning desire….Francis Bacon was deeply influenced by both Machiavelli and Montaigne….a useful “means to curb” the ambitious, says Bacon, “is to balance them by others as proud as they.” The dry realism of that suggestion would be echoed by Madison in Federalist Number 51: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.”…Bacon made his acutest observations on ambition in another essay, “Of Great Place.” Men in great places, he writes, are servants of the state, of fame, and of business:

They have no freedom; neither in their persons, nor in their actions; nor in their times. It is a strange desire, to seek power, and to lose liberty; or to seek power over others, and to lose power over a man’s self.

The path to great place may involve base actions and so “by indignities, men come to dignities.” They buy their power at the price of their own liberty. There is a freedom of the spirit, Bacon seems to say, that has nothing to do with political leverage or social success.

The terrible irony of ambition, which Machiavelli and Bacon so perspicuously capture, is that the same drive that can make us happy by spurring us on to great, hopefully fruitful effort, can be the source of the greatest unhappiness as well. Not for nothing is it said that the time of the greatest melancholia in one’s life is when we come to realize we must downsize our ambitions, cease our endless prospecting, give up our illusions, and look around for a suitable bower on which to rest our heads and begin the process of reconciling ourselves to a life unfulfilled. The greater the original ambition, the steeper the fall into the darkest recesses of gloom.

Ambition does not just make the ambitious unhappy, of course. All those singed by its flame suffer: sometimes those who support the ambitious and are then cast aside; sometimes those whose ambitions must give way in the face of a greater one.

If ambition is to be a virtue, then it must be infected by yet another one, that of moderation. But the balancing of ambition with realism, the tempering of our drives, the recognition of the presence of the reality principle in our lives, is not an easy task. For we remain haunted by the worry that we might have simply fallen prey to weakness of the will, to laziness and indolence, and sought the easy way out. Homilies like ‘obstacles are what you see when you take your eyes off the goal’ don’t help. This cognitive dissonance might be even more painful than that caused by the dousing of the flames of ambition.

Bacon and Madison’s remarks about balancing ambition suggest a possible means of amelioration: when giving up one ambition, replace it by another, just as great. The ambitious artist may then, for instance look elsewhere, perhaps inward, considering himself a work in progress, or perhaps outward, finding in some other work a potential reward as great as the ones that drove him previously.

So, there might be no getting rid of ‘ambition,’ but that might be because it may only be a compound description of a host of other, necessary, life-sustaining drives.

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