Ambition

There is an item not much debated in our culture that I would like to examine.  It is ambition.  This seems an easy topic at first glance, after all, we are told all of our lives to be ambitious.  “Shoot for the moon and even if you fall short you will land among the stars”, they say.  (An ironic statement, for as we all know, the stars are farther away than the moon, but I digress).  My question is: do we value ambition too much?  Do we value it too little?  Why do we value it?

I believe our culture is very interested in “how?”, but not as interested in “why?”.  It is very apparent that ambitious people seem to do things that they are remembered for, and largely being a race that is scared to death of dying, we seem to find comfort in the idea that we will be remembered on earth.

When I think of an ambitious person, I immediately think of Napoleon Bonaparte.  It is hard to find a more ambitious man than he.  From the late 1700’s to the early 1800’s he went from being a nobody in the French Army to becoming the grand emperor of the French Empire.  He essentially conquered all of Europe and other territories as well.  At one point he fought against the Ottomans, the British, the Russians, and others all at the same time!  He is to this day considered to be one of the greatest commanders of all time as well as a father of modern military strategy.  The man was ambitious.

However, it was quite a shocking revelation to me, when I was studying Napoleon a few years ago, that he was not a hero.  Napoleon is a villain of history- one of the scourges of Europe.  He was an extremely ambitious man, but not a positive mark on the timeline.  Let us review.

Between five and seven million people died in the Napoleonic Wars (and that includes many civilians).  The democracy of France was overthrown by Napoleon, the economy was ruined, and Western civilization was kept in a state of perpetual war for a quarter of a century.  But why?  What was the cause for all of this war and destruction?

Simple ambition.  Napoleon wanted to do something great, and to him that meant ruling the world for France.  It was ambition for ambition’s sake.

There is a danger, I believe, in arriving at another destructive conclusion: that one should do nothing but scrape by and spend all of one’s free waking hours in front of the television, never accomplishing anything.  We all know that this is not the best way of living.  When we have a friend who has fallen into a pattern of laziness we tell him to get some ambition.  He needs some drive to go out and accomplish something.  So we are then left with the question: which is it?  Is ambition bad or is it good?

The answer lies in purpose.  We are told that life has no purpose, that there is no great purpose in much, if not all, of what we do.  This is a dangerous philosophy, and one that leads to a road stained red with consequences.  For if nothing has a purpose, we begin to ignore consequences.  We become selfish.  Selfish, ambitious men are very dangerous, as history has shown time and time again.

One can have great ambition to build orphanages in Africa.  One can want to provide clean water to every neighborhood in the country, or in the world.  One can be ambitious to find the cure for cancer and save millions of lives!

Are these not good things?

The things themselves are.  But I assure you, even Napoleon thought that he was doing good.

The conclusion I arrive at is this: selfish ambition is incredibly destructive, leads to harming others, and creates a dissatisfied individual.  Napoleon’s life was filled with frustration, pain, and disappointment, despite his great accomplishments.  Do you want to be the first to find a widespread cure for cancer?  Excellent, but why do you want that?  Do you want to save the sick and the hurting?  Do you enjoy a challenge, and you want to see if the enigma has a solution?  Or do you merely want to be seen?  If you could find the cure, but your name would never appear on it, never be published, would you still do it?

Our knee-jerk reaction is “Of course!”, but would you?

Ambition is a volatile chemical.  Accomplishing great things is all well and good, and if you have a positive, constructive desire, I encourage you to work hard at achieving it- but not for yourself.  People who have great ambition for themselves lose sight of what is important, and tragedy always seems to follow.  Everything has a purpose, whether we acknowledge it or not.  Consideration of “why?” should precede any great undertaking.

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2 comments on “Ambition

  1. My guess would be that people tend to portray ambition as a good thing because it’s currently more common to be too unambitious rather than too ambitious. So, on average, more ambition would be helpful. I don’t know if this is correct, but we could probably test it by looking other times or cultures where ambition is more frowned upon.

    I don’t think you can say that selfish ambition is always destructive. It is very possible to do the right thing for the wrong reasons. If someone cures cancer because they want to be known as the person who cured cancer, then cancer still gets cured. Selfish ambition doesn’t have to be destructive. But it definitely has more of a tendency to go horribly wrong.

    • I would agree that people possibly endorse ambition partly because they wish to counteract laziness, but I think this is a poor choice. I didn’t have time to get into it on this post, but I don’t think that “opposite” vices counteract each other. At the end of the day, selfish ambition and laziness are really the same thing: selfishness.

      I do think it’s always destructive. That’s not to say that sometimes bad things have good side-effects (in your cancer example, a rather large side-effect.) But the point is what is the purpose behind the goal? If it is simply ambition, the desire to make oneself great, I guarantee it will be destructive, if only by creating a vacuous hole in the soul of the individual we speak of. More is never enough for one who is trying to enlarge their borders for their own sake. It eats away at them, and in the process, tends to reveal the deeper desires by way of compromise. In the cancer example, suppose an individual wishes to cure the disease simply to become famous. If he can find a shortcut, why would he not take it? Perhaps this leads to rash decision-making, or under-reporting side-effects of his treatment, leading to further disease and suffering. Obviously, we deal with a complicated world and we try to make it relatable on the whole by use of models, but there are always a thousand paths to compromise (as you say, selfish ambition has a tendency to go horribly wrong). The goal of treating cancer is a good one, but if you’re going to have a good goal, you should also have a good reason.

      Thanks for your comment!

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