Is ambition evil? In an October 2011 essay in First Things that offers an otherwise insightful and provocative critique of Stephen Greenblatt’s theologically tone-deaf interpretations of Shakespeare, Anthony Esolen appears to say as much. This is an important mistake.
Esolen rightly calls out Greenblatt’s ignorance of—or insensitivity to—the great moral tradition of Western civilization. Yet Esolen goes too far, asserting, contra Greenblatt, that “ambition itself is evil. It subordinates others to the good of oneself and thereby inverts the whole message of both Judaism and Christianity.”
No doubt ambition is a dangerous thing, but Esolen’s remark here is an error. This excessive condemnation is inconsistent with common sense, with the classical and biblical tradition on which Esolen draws in his criticisms of Greenblatt, and even, I think, with Shakespeare as well. It is, moreover, a practically harmful mistake, one that undermines the classical and biblical tradition’s power to inform and improve our present culture.
In ordinary speech, the word ambition often indicates a desire to win the praise of one’s fellows. Such ambition can lead men astray, as when, for example, they seek to win praise through deeds that merely flatter the passions of an unreflective and enraged mob. Such ambition can also, however, be intimately bound up with a desire to do what is right and just, and a longing to serve others. This is the “ambition” that a young Abraham Lincoln, aspiring to political office, announced to his fellow citizens in 1832: “Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. Whether it be true or not, I can say, for one, that I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow-men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem.”
A different but related sense of the word ambition signifies a desire to rule. This is the meaning with which Esolen is more particularly concerned, and, again, it would be foolish to deny that such a desire is fraught with moral danger. Ambition can be wrong, just as it can be wrong to eat an apple if it belongs to someone else; it can be wrong to have sexual relations with a woman if she is married to another; and it can be wrong to seek to rule if the community already has a legitimate ruler. But none of this means that hunger, sexual desire, or ambition is in itself an evil.
Here, again, America’s greatest statesman provides an apt example. Of Lincoln’s efforts to win a seat in the United States Senate, his law partner, William Herndon, famously said “his ambition was a little engine that knew no rest.” In 1860, responding to a friend’s inquiry about his presidential intentions, Lincoln admitted that “the taste is in my mouth a little.” Lincoln wanted to be president, but this desire was inseparable from his intention to do good.
We learn from the greatest thinkers in our tradition that man is by nature a sociable animal. Such a being cannot help but to cherish the praise of his fellows, or to feel ambition of the sort that the young Lincoln expressed. Those who feel no such ambitions we call sociopaths. Moreover, as we learn from Aristotle, man is not merely a sociable animal but a political animal: men do not just live together, but they live in authoritative communities constituted by law and by relationships of ruling and being ruled.
Aristotle, indeed, presented magnanimity or greatness of soul—the disposition of the man who knows he is worthy of the greatest honors, especially the honor of ruling—as a virtue. Saint Thomas Aquinas, who noted that honor “is very desirable” and necessary to human life, did not disagree. Even the more otherworldly Augustine was careful to condemn the Romans for their excessive love of honor, holding not that the love of glory should be utterly abandoned, but surpassed by the love of righteousness.
As Esolen suggests, Shakespeare’s moral vision was informed by this tradition. It is therefore hard to believe Esolen’s claim that Shakespeare intended to teach that “ambition itself is evil.” Is this the meaning of Macbeth? Certainly Macbeth’s ambition was inordinate, and not only because he was willing to murder for it. Shakespeare, however, sets this perverse and selfish ambition alongside more wholesome versions. Is there not in Malcolm a just and noble ambition to overthrow the tyrant and assert his own legitimate claim to rule? Banquo also shows signs of ambition. Yet he is a faithful and noble subject who never lowers himself to a single wicked act.
Esolen’s disdain for ambition has practically harmful consequences. Now more than ever our culture needs the ennobling influence of the classical and biblical tradition, from whose wisdom we have wandered far. That tradition cannot exert this needed influence, cannot speak to our culture’s multitude of lost souls, unless it is presented in its true grandeur and beauty. This is impossible, however, if it is made to seem inhuman through unjust caricature.
Teaching the best citizens to shun social and political leadership seems a sure way to topple an already teetering civilization. Ambition is indeed dangerous, precisely because its objects—honor and rule—are so lofty that they may obscure our vision of what is even higher: love of God and of our fellow men. But this is a reason to purify our ambition, not to condemn it, any more than we would condemn erotic love, patriotism, piety, or any other good that can be perverted.
Carson Holloway is a political scientist and the author of The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity (Baylor University Press).
Anthony Esolen, Greenblatt’s Curious Omission
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