A man’s worth is no greater than the worth of his ambitions. —Marcus Aurelius

Ambition derives from the Latin ambitio, ‘a going around (to solicit votes)’, and, by extension, ‘a striving for honour, recognition, and preferment’. It can be defined as a striving for some kind of achievement or distinction, and involves, first, the desire for achievement, and, second, the motivation and determination to strive for its attainment even in the face of adversity and failure. To be ambitious is to achieve first and foremost not for the sake of achievement itself (which is to be high-reaching) but for the sake of distinguishing ourselves from other people. Were we the last person on earth, to be ambitious would make little or no sense.

There are a number of variant concepts or definitions of ambition. For instance, in his Ethics, Spinoza remarks that ‘everyone endeavours as much as possible to make others love what he loves, and to hate what he hates’: 

This effort to make everyone approve what we love or hate is in truth ambition, and so we see that each person by nature desires that other persons should live according to his way of thinking...

Ambition is often confused with aspiration. Unlike mere aspiration, which has a particular goal for object, ambition is a trait or disposition, and, as such, is persistent and pervasive. A person cannot alter his ambition any more than he can alter any other character trait: having achieved one goal, the truly ambitious person soon formulates another for which to keep on striving.

Ambition is often spoken of in the same breath as hope, as in ‘hopes and ambitions’. Hope is the desire for something to happen combined with an anticipation of it happening. In contrast, ambition is the desire for achievement or distinction combined with the willingness to strive for its achievement. Generally speaking, ambition is more self-referential and more self-reliant than hope. The opposite of hope is fear, hopelessness, or despair; the opposite of ambition is simply lack of ambition, which is not in itself a negative state.

Ambition is sometimes thought of as a form of greed, or the acceptable face of greed, which can be defined as the excessive desire for more than is needed or deserved, not for the greater good but for one’s own selfish interest. Greed reduces our focus to the pursuit of its object. Ambition, in contrast, is more flexible and far-reaching, and can enable us to flourish and contribute to the flourishing of others. Ultimately, the difference between greed and ambition may simply be one of emphasis, with greed being reductive and destructive, and ambition expansive and adaptive. 

In Eastern traditions, ambition is seen as an evil that, by tying us to worldly pursuits, restrains us from the spiritual life and its fruits of virtue, wisdom, and tranquillity. In contrast, in the West, ambition is lauded as a precondition or precursor of success, although the Western canon tends to fall against it. For instance, in the Republic, Plato contends that good men care so little for avarice or ambition that they would only be willing to rule if they were to be punished for refusing.

Aristotle had a more nuanced take on ambition. In the Nicomachean Ethics, he defines virtue as a disposition to aim at the intermediate, or mean, between excess and deficiency, which, unlike the excess or the deficiency, is a form of success and worthy of praise. For example, he who runs headlong into every danger is rash, and he who flees from every situation is a coward, but courage is indicated by the mean. While it is possible to fail in many ways, says Aristotle, it is possible to succeed in one way only, which is why failing is easy and success difficult. By the same token, men may be bad in many ways, but good in one way only.

For in everything it is no easy task to find the middle ... anyone can get angry—that is easy—or give or spend money; but to do this to the right person, to the right extent, at the right time, with the right motive, and in the right way, that is not for everyone, nor is it easy; wherefore goodness is both rare and laudable and noble.

Aristotle proceeds to name and dissect the principal virtues together with their associated vices. In the sphere of ‘minor honour and dishonour’, he names ‘proper ambition’ as the virtuous mean, ‘ambition’ as the vicious excess, and ‘lack of ambition’ as the vicious deficiency. To this day, people still speak of ambition after Aristotle, as ‘healthy ambition’, ‘unhealthy ambition’, and lack of ambition. Healthy ambition can be understood as the measured striving for achievement or distinction, and unhealthy ambition as the immoderate or disordered striving for such. Healthy ambition is life-enhancing, but unhealthy ambition is reductive and destructive and more akin to greed.

In the Politics, Aristotle contends that men’s avarice and ambition are among the most frequent causes of deliberate acts of injustice. Several centuries later, Francis Bacon refined this proposition: as long as ambitious men go unchecked, they are busy rather than dangerous; but if they are held back, they ‘become secretly discontent, and look upon men and matters with an evil eye, and are best pleased, when things go backward’. Bacon advised princes to be cautious in employing ambitious people, and to handle them ‘so as they be still progressive and not retrograde’.

Highly ambitious people are sensitive to resistance and failure, and experience an almost constant dissatisfaction or frustration. As with Sisyphus, their task is never finished, and, as with Tantalus, the water than can slake their thirst is always in sight but always out of reach. Just as Tantalus had a rock dangling over his head for all eternity, so ambitious people live with the noose of failure hanging about their necks. Indeed, it is the fear of failure that checks the ambition of all but the most courageous, or rash, of people. Just as mania can end in depression, so ambition can end in anguish and despair. To live with ambition is to live in fear and anxiety, unless, that is, the weight of our ambition can be relieved by gratitude, which is the feeling of appreciation for past and present goods. Although gratitude is especially lacking in future-focused people, ambition is much less toxic if even without it life can still seem worth living. 

A person is not truly ambitious unless he is willing to make sacrifices in the name of his ambition—even though the end of his ambition may not be worth his sacrifices, and not only because it may never be reached or even approached. Indeed, the argument could be made that with pure ambition, the end is never worth the sacrifice. Happily, ambition is rarely pure but usually intermixed with unselfish aims and motives, even if these may be more incidental than deliberate and determining; and it may be that man’s greatest achievements are all, or almost all, accidents of ambition. Thus, ambition may be akin to the dangled carrot that goads the donkey and pulls the cart. Studies have found that, on average, ambitious people attain higher levels of education and income, build more prestigious careers, and, despite the nocuous effects of their ambition, report higher levels of overall life satisfaction. Owing to chance and foolishness, most ambitious people end up falling short of their ambitions, but that still lands them far ahead of their more unassuming peers.

In the Rhetoric, Aristotle asserts that the effect of good birth, that is, ancestral distinction, is to make people more ambitious. He does however caution that to be wellborn is not to be noble, and that most of the wellborn are wretches nonetheless.

In the generations of men as in the fruits of the earth, there is a varying yield; now and then, where the stock is good, exceptional men are produced for a while, and then decadence sets in.

Both nature and nurture play a role in the development of ambition. For instance, in a family of several children, the youngest child compares himself to his older siblings, and, falling short, might become highly competitive and ambitious, or, conversely, withdraw in the belief that he is fundamentally inadequate. From a purely psychological perspective, ambition can be thought of as an ego defence, which, like all ego defences, serves to protect and uphold a certain notion of the self. Rather than respond with ambition, a person who lacks the strength and courage to take responsibility for his actions is likely to respond with less mature ego defences, for instance, by rationalizing that ‘life is unfair’ or that he is ‘less of a star and more of a team-player’. If his ego is much bigger than his courage, the person might become dismissive or even destructive, the latter also being a means of attracting attention and sabotaging himself so as to furnish a concrete excuse for his failure. In brief, ambition is a complex construct born out of a host of factors including but not limited to parental role models, intelligence, past achievement, fear of failure or rejection, envy, anger, revenge, feelings of inferiority or superiority, competitiveness, and the instinctual drives for life and sex.

One ego defence that merits particular exploration in this context is sublimation, which is among the most mature and successful of all ego defences. If a person is angry with his boss, he might go home and kick the dog, or he might instead go out for a run in the park. The first instance (kicking the dog) is an example of displacement, the redirection of uncomfortable feelings towards someone or something less important, which is an immature ego defence. The second instance (going out for a run) is an example of sublimation, the channelling of uncomfortable feelings into socially condoned and often productive activities, which is, of course, a much more mature ego defence.

An example of sublimation pertinent to ambition is the person with sadistic or homicidal urges who provides an outlet for these urges by joining the army or, like Justice Wargrave in Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None, becoming a judge. At the end of the novel, in the postscript, a letter is found in a bottle just off the Devon coast. The letter contains the confession of the late Justice Wargrave, in which he reveals a lifelong sadistic temperament juxtaposed with a fierce sense of justice. Although he longed to terrify, torture, and kill, he could not justify harming innocent people. So instead he became a ‘hanging judge’ who thrilled at the sight of convicted (and guilty) criminals trembling with fear.

Another example of sublimation pertinent to ambition is that of Gustav von Aschenbach, the middle-aged protagonist of Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice. Aschenbach, who is the alter ego of Mann, is a famous writer suffering from writer’s block. While staying at the Grand Hôtel des Bains on Venice’s Lido Island, he is taken by the sight of a beautiful adolescent boy called Tadzio who is staying at the hotel with his aristocratic family. Aschenbach becomes more and more obsessed with Tadzio, even though he never talks to him and still less touches him. Instead, he sublimes his longing, which he eventually recognizes as sexual, into his writing. Thus, in Chapter 4:

... he, in full sight of his idol and under his canvas, worked on his little treatise – those one-and-a-half pages of exquisite prose, the honesty, nobility and emotional deepness of which caused it to be much admired within a short time. It is probably better that the world knows only the result, not the conditions under which it was achieved; because knowledge of the artist’s sources of inspiration might bewilder them, drive them away and in that way nullify the effect of the excellent work.

In life, few things are either good or bad. Rather, their good and bad depend on what we can or cannot make of them. People with a high degree of healthy ambition are those with the insight and strength (strength that is often born of insight) to control the blind forces of ambition, that is, to shape their ambition so that it matches their interests and ideals, and to harness it so that it fires them without also burning them or those around them.

A person shrinks or expands into the degree and nature of his ambitions. Ambition needs to be cultivated and refined, and yet has no teachers. 

Adapted from Heaven and Hell: The Psychology of the Emotions.

Neel Burton is author of Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-DeceptionThe Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guideand other books.

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