The Psychology and Philosophy of Ambition

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’.

Ambition can be defined as ‘a striving for some kind of achievement or distinction’. It involves, first, the desire for attainment, and, second, the motivation and determination to strive for its accomplishment even in the face of failure and adversity.

Some people achieve for the sake of achievement alone, or for the sake of developing skills and competencies, but ambitious people qua ambitious people achieve first and foremost for the sake of the rewards of achievement, such as money, honour, power, or fame, which elevate them above other people.

Ambition is often confused with aspiration. Aspiration derives from the Latin spirare, ‘to breathe’, and evokes a column of rising smoke. Unlike mere aspiration, which has for its object a particular goal, ambition (or degree and nature of ambition) is a character trait, and, as such, is persistent and pervasive. A person cannot alter his ambition any more easily than he might any other character trait: having achieved one goal, the truly ambitious person soon formulates another for which to keep on striving.

There are a number of variant conceptions of ambition. For example, in his Ethics (1677), Benedict de 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 spoken of in the same breath as hope, as in ‘hopes and ambitions’. Hope is the desire for something combined with some anticipation of it happening. In contrast, ambition is the desire for attainment combined with the willingness to strive for its accomplishment. So ambition, although arguably a type of hope, is both more specific and more self-reliant than hope in general. The opposite of hope is fear, hopelessness, or despair; the opposite of ambition is simply lack of ambition, which is not per se 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. However, in contrast to greed, which limits us to its object, ambition can enable us to flourish while also contributing to the greater good. Ultimately, the difference between greed and ambition is perhaps one of emphasis, with greed being limiting or destructive and ambition constructive or life-affirming.

In Eastern traditions, ambition is reviled for tying us to worldly goods and witholding us from spiritual practice and the virtue, wisdom, and tranquillity that spiritual practice can bring. In contrast, in the West ambition is generally lauded as a pre-requisite for success, even if this has not always or unmitigatingly been the case. For instance, in the Republic (4th century BC), Plato famously argues that, because good men care nothing for avarice or ambition, they are only willing to rule if there is a penalty for refusing, with the greater part of this penalty being that they should be ruled by bad men.

The State in which the rulers are most reluctant to govern is always the best and most quietly governed, and the State in which they are most eager, the worst… You must contrive for your future rulers another and a better life than that of a ruler, and then you may have a well-ordered State; for only in the State which offers this, will they rule who are truly rich, not in silver and gold, but in virtue and wisdom, which are the true blessings of life… And the only life which looks down upon the life of political ambition is that of true philosophy. Do you know of any other?

Plato’s student Aristotle has a more nuanced approach to ambition. In the Nicomachean Ethics, he defines virtue as a disposition to aim at the intermediate between deficiency and excess, in other words, as a disposition to aim at the mean, which, unlike the deficiency or excess, is a form of success and worthy of praise. For example, he who flies from everything becomes a coward, while he who meets with every danger becomes rash, but courage is preserved by the mean.

Aristotle affirms that, while it is possible to fail in many ways, it is possible to succeed in one way only, which is why the one is easy and the other is 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 list and discuss the principal virtues together with their associated vices, which correspond to the excess and deficiency of their associated virtue. In the sphere of ‘minor honour and dishonour’, he names ‘lack of ambition’ as the vicious deficiency, ‘ambition’ as the vicious excess, and ‘proper ambition’ as the virtuous mean.

Still today, people speak of ambition in the manner of Aristotle, as ‘healthy ambition’, ‘unhealthy ambition’, and lack of ambition. Healthy ambition can be understood as the measured striving for achievement or distinction; unhealthy ambition, such as, for example, the ambition of the tyrant, as the unmeasured or disordered striving for such. Healthy ambition is constructive or life-affirming, unhealthy ambition limiting or destructive and, in fact, akin to greed.

In the Politics, Aristotle advances that men’s ambition and their greed are among the most frequent causes of deliberate acts of injustice. In the Novum Organum (1620), Francis Bacon refines this thought: as long as ambitious men find the way open for their rising, they are busy rather than dangerous; but if they are checked, they ‘become secretly discontent, and look upon men and matters with an evil eye’. Bacon advises princes to exert restraint in employing ambitious people, and to handle them ‘so as they be still progressive and not retrograde’.

This touches upon an important problem with ambition: that ambitious people experience an almost constant sense of dissatisfaction coupled with frustration at resistance or failure. As with the mythological Sisyphus, there can be no end to their toils and cares. And as with the mythological Tantalus, they can never quite reach the golden fruit that can quell their hunger or the fresh water that can quench their thirst.

As part of his punishment, Tantalus also had a rock dangling over his head for all eternity. Similarly, ambitious people, in proportion to their ambition, live with failure hanging about their necks. Indeed, it is this fear of failure that checks and curtails the ambition of all but the most courageous of people.

Just as mania can end in depression, so ambition can end in despair. To live in ambition is also to live in fear and anxiety, unless, that is, ambition can be counterbalanced with gratitude. Gratitude, the feeling of appreciation for what we already have, is especially lacking in future-focused people. Yet, ambition is far more innocuous, indeed, becomes almost entertaining, if, even without it, life already seems worth living.

Another problem with ambition is that it calls for sacrifice: ambition without at least the willingness to sacrifice is not ambition but mere fantasy. Unfortunately, in many cases, the prize is not worth the sacrifice; indeed, an argument could be made that, when it comes to pure ambition, the prize is never worth the sacrifice. Fortunately, ambition is rarely pure but usually intermixed with more laudable ends, even if these may be more incidental than deliberate or determining.

In that sense, ambition is like the dangling carrot that pulls the donkey-cart. On average, ambitious people attain higher levels of education and income and have more prestigious careers, and, despite the pangs of their ambition, report higher overall life satisfaction. Of course most ambitious people fall short of their ambitions, but that still leaves them considerably ahead of their less ambitious peers.

In the Rhetoric, Aristotle says that the effect of good birth, that is, of ancestral distinction, is to make people more ambitious. He does however warn 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 have a role to play in the development of ambition. For instance, in a family of several children, the youngest child compares himself with his older siblings and, falling short, may become highly competitive and ambitious, or, to the contrary, withdraw in the conviction that he is fundamentally inadequate.

Purely psychological factors are also very important. Ambition can be thought of as an ego defence against psychogical stress, but if a person lacks the strength or the courage to take responsibility for his actions, he may instead respond with less potentially productive forms of ego defence, for example, by deluding himself that he is a ‘team-player’ or that everything is unfair. If his ego is rather strong, he may, alternatively, become dismissive or destructive, the latter being a means both of attracting attention and of sabotaging himself.

In sum, ambition is a complex construct that is driven by a host of positive and negative factors, among which 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 considered by many to be the most successful of all ego defences. If a person feels angry with his boss, he may go home and kick the dog, or he may instead go out and play a good game of tennis. 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 (playing a good game of tennis) is an example of sublimation, the channelling of uncomfortable feelings into socially condoned and often productive activities, which is a much more mature ego defence.

An example of sublimation pertinent to ambition is the person with sadistic or homicidal urges who joins the army to provide an outlet for these urges, or, like Justice John Laurence Wargrave in Agatha Christie’s novel And Then There Were None (1939), becomes a judge who liberally awards the death penalty in murder cases. At the end of the novel, in the postscript, a fishing trawler finds a letter 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. Though he longed to torture, terrify, and kill, he could not justify harming innocent people; so instead he became a ‘hanging judge’ and thrilled at the sight of convicted (and guilty) people trembling with fear.

Another example of sublimation pertinent to ambition is that of the middle-aged protagonist of Thomas Mann’s novella Death in Venice (1912), Gustav von Aschenbach. Aschenbach, 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 increasingly 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, but, rather, their good and bad depend on what we are able to make, and not make, out of them. People with a high degree of healthy ambition are those with the insight and the strength (strength that is often born of insight) not only to control but also to tap into the blind forces of ambition, to shape and mold their ambition so that it aligns with their interests and ideals and fires them without at the same time diminishing them or others. A person and the life he leads shrinks or expands into his ambition. Ambition needs to be cultivated and refined, and yet has no teachers.


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Tung nguyen
    Jul 03, 2015 @ 13:06:47

    A very good read, thank you. I wonder thoug – do you think it is possible to be ambitious, or least have that feeling of being ambitious, but not having any specific goal or idea or what one wants to achieve?


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