What We Talk About When We Talk About Ambition

When it comes to ambition, it sometimes seems that feeding our egos means starving our souls. The Onion highlighted this ambivalence with an article headlined “Unambitious Loser with Happy, Fulfilling Life Still Lives in Hometown.” Quote: “Sources close to Husmer reported that the man, who has meaningful, lasting personal relationships and a healthy work-life balance, is an unmotivated washout who’s perfectly comfortable being a nobody.” This Onion piece juxtaposes the language of worldly success with the language of personal satisfaction for comic effect. But humor can be revealing. In his 2004 book Status Anxiety, Alain de Botton picks apart our culture’s values and offers comfort to those plagued by worry about their own social standing. He observes that, for moderns, adequate food and shelter do not entitle us to happiness, nor do even a steady paycheck and a stable home life. Instead, we are driven to compare ourselves with others and push ourselves to achieve an ever-growing number of status markers.

From a material perspective, this status competition makes little sense. One might suspect that the sheer abundance of our collective resources—current debates about their distribution notwithstanding—would result in a decline in worry about our relative positions in the social hierarchy. Of course, such anxiety would persist for those on the margins of society, but why should it trouble upper middle class academics like Botton?

As we have ascended Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the demands of our vanity have steadily grown. Throughout Status Anxiety, unchecked ambition is the elephant in the room. And although Botton’s dis- cussion of our difficult relationship with self-esteem and social standing is illuminating in many respects, I found it ultimately unsatisfying for this very reason: the criticism is socially perceptive but ethically empty. If we acknowledge that our thirst for approbation is difficult to slake, ought we not to consider whether the desire itself is out of order?

And we do have our suspicions. Even in America, where the “rags to riches” myth has often thrived, we remain wary of certain kinds of success and especially of snobs—even the self-made ones. We like doctors but  not bankers, movie stars but not oil tycoons, and our taste in politicians is strongly correlated with the “beer test.” Yet success in any of those fields is evidence of an ambitious streak. This is just one example of how our talk about good and bad ambition is fundamentally incoherent.

When we talk about ambition, we have overachievers and underachievers, burnouts and try-hards, slackers and gunners, sell-outs and townies. These terms suggest some “golden mean” in terms of ambition, but in practice, any attempt at drawing a line quickly proves futile. We all agree that “work-life balance” is desirable, but—we would hasten to add—everyone has a different idea of what constitutes “balance.” We must all pursue “meaning” in our work, which of course “means” something different to everyone, and therefore, not much at all. Ultimately, any attempts to place moral limits on our ambitions appear to be illusory, as what initially appear to be objective standards dissolve into subjectivity.

We are left with two choices. On the one hand, we can deny that ambition has moral content. We have our aspirations, great or small, others have theirs, and “there is no disputing about tastes.” On the other hand, we can look for a better ground on which to have the conversation. What do we talk about when we talk about ambition, and how can we talk about it more clearly?

From Vice to Virtue

A recent book by William Casey King provides some historical context for our mixed feelings about ambition. Ambition, A History tracks its subject’s evolution from the sin that caused humanity’s Fall to the virtuous vice that drives its Progress. While King’s history stretches back into Classical antiquity, most of the action he describes takes place in the late medieval and early modern period. From our (post)modern vantage point, we can identify developments from this period that continue to affect our daily struggles with social status and personal identity.

To describe the original conception of “ambition as sin,” King relies heavily on the Geneva Bible of 1560 and its marginal notes. As King explains, the Geneva Bible was a massively influential translation, and its notes represent the most significant contemporary authority on popular interpretations of Scripture and its moral application. Notes from the Geneva Bible concerning ambition include those on Genesis 3:22 (“By this derision [God] reproacheth Adam’s miserie, whereinto he was fallen by ambition.”), Isaiah 39:6 (“God detesteth ambition.”), and 1 Corinthians 3:16 (“ambition is not only vaine, but also sacrilegious”). In all, the Geneva Bible contains 76 references to ambition, and as King tells us, “By all references in the Geneva Bible, it is a most dangerous evil: capable of driving men to war, polluting man’s relationship with God, corrupting Jesus’s disciples, and even disrupting the Divine Order in Eden.”

As the medieval period gave way to modernity, philosophers and scientists sought new grounds for moral and ethical judgments, because the metaphysical tradition in which they were formerly rooted had fallen into disfavor. While a full account of the causes and effects of this trend are beyond the scope of this essay, it may be said in general terms that elite thinkers came to reject notions of “teleology”—the idea that natural objects, including people, have built-in functions and an ideal nature or purpose. In his seminal treatise, After Virtue, Alasdair MacIntyre describes how, as teleological ethics was abandoned, morality was re-envisioned as an attempt to justify acts based upon unregenerate (that is, sinful) human nature. From a MacIntyrean perspective, this effort is doomed to failure: a house built from crooked timber will collapse no matter how ingenious the design; the right way of building is to shape the raw materials so that they conform to an architect’s plan.

We do not need a full understanding of the teleological tradition or the philosophical quagmire that replaced it to draw connections between the larger trends in moral thought and the particular trajectory of ambition. And King largely ignores this intellectual history in favor of more concrete historical contexts. At any rate, in the early modern period, ambition came to be seen not as a sin—a poison to be purged—but a disease to be treated. In light of MacIntyre’s thesis, this is entirely logical: without reference to an ideal, a vision for objective spiritual health, we must simply work with what we have, managing moral defects so they cause the least amount of harm. King shows how by analogy to contemporary medical science involving the balance of the humors, Francis Bacon proposed that ambition could be made safe, perhaps even useful. If a man is ambitious, says Bacon, it is best “if they find their way open for their rising… [so that] they are rather busy than dangerous.” Furthermore, Bacon proposes that ambition can be treated by “countervailing,” that is, by pitting one passion against another: “There is use, also, of ambitious men, in pulling down the greatness of any subject that overtops… [the] means to curb them is to balance them by others as proud as they.”

Bacon’s initial foray into the taming of ambition laid the foundation for its next stage of development. Whereas in medieval Europe, the ambitions of an individual or nation always came at the expense of a neighbor, with the discovery of the “New World,” ambition could be directed abroad with less internal conflict. In fact, to encourage emigration and thereby reduce crowding at home while extracting wealth from the colonies, both England and Spain created new titles of nobility for ambitious members of the middle class. As King writes, “In this New World, commoners could become kings, cities could be planted on ‘empty’ hills, and laborers could be reborn as New World nobility, with vassals, title, land, and wealth… America became a place where ambition could be not only safely realized but harnessed to benefit God and crown.”

King concludes his history of ambition with the American Revolution, which represents the final stage in its evolution from vice to virtue. According to King, “The War for Independence was not just a political struggle, it was a contest over the very definition of good and evil.” Whereas morality had previously condemned overstepping one’s bounds as “ambition,” condemnation was now redirected at the imposition of such bounds as “tyranny.” This is the essence of Thomas Paine’s argument in Common Sense, that restraints upon liberty are a worse evil than “taking liberties.” It is in this sense that King can credibly describe the redefinition of ambition as “a necessary ideological precondition to the establishment of the United States.”

From Liberty to Anxiety

On the whole, King is rather sanguine about America’s status as the land of unbridled ambition. He depicts the Revolution as part of a continuum of liberation extending through Abolition and the civil rights movements of the twentieth century. But by ending his history in 1776, he avoids the complicated legacy of “Icarus Unbound.” Without rehearsing two centuries of social criticism, suffice it to say: there are reasonable reservations to be had about the grand experiment in “meritocracy” that has given us robber barons and tiger moms.

The cracks in the liberal democratic theory did not take long to show. In Democracy in America, Alexander de Tocqueville recorded his observations of American society a few decades after the Revolution. He wrote, “In America, I saw the freest and most enlightened men placed in the happiest circumstances that the world affords; yet it seemed to me as if a cloud habitually hung upon their brow, and I thought them serious and almost sad, even in their pleasures.”

Why was the prosperous American also restless and anxious? Tocqueville identified several interrelated causes. First, Americans were inordinately concerned with the acquisition and accumulation of material goods: “He who has set his heart exclusively upon the pursuit of worldly welfare is always in a hurry, for he has but a limited time at his disposal to reach, to grasp, and to enjoy it.” Second, “If in addition to the taste for physical well-being a social condition be added in which neither laws nor customs retain any person in his place… [they] will then be seen continually to change their track for fear of missing the shortest cut to happiness.”

Finally, the flattening of the social hierarchy into a level playing field resulted in a dramatic expansion in the individual’s expectations: “When all the privileges of birth and fortune are abolished, when all professions are accessible to all, and a man’s own energies may place him at the top of any one of them, an easy and unbounded career seems open to his ambition and he will readily persuade himself that he is born to no common destinies.” Yet, these expectations were bound to be frustrated, because social inequality had not been eradicated, only the mechanism for apportioning it had been changed from the lottery of birth to the market of performance: “They have swept away the privileges of some of their fellow creatures which stood in their way, but they have opened the door to universal competition; the barrier has changed its shape rather than its position.”

Thus our inquiry comes full circle, because the mal- ady that Tocqueville describes is none other than Bot- ton’s status anxiety. In a world without limits, where “enough” is defined only by the competition, we are consumed by possibilities.

From Ambition to Vocation

From King’s and MacIntyre’s historical insights, we can see how ambition has been transformed: both what larger trends in intellectual history it has followed and what historical circumstances may have accelerated those trends. From Tocqueville and Botton we can glean some idea of the pernicious effects of deregulating ambition. In short, we have outlined a plausible narrative—though not an unimpeachable one—about both the source of our discomfort with respect to status (immoderate ambition) and the reason coherent moral reasoning about ambition is so difficult (lack of an objective standard). If MacIntyre is correct, the path to a solution lies through a recovery of teleology.

In this case, the lost teleological concept, which gave ambition its definition in a coherent ethical discourse, is “vocation.” The dichotomy between ambition and vocation is made clear in the margins of the Geneva Bible: “God hath not committed every thing to be done of every man: and therefore, he doeth backewardly… wearieth himself and others, which passeth the bounds of his vocation.” Vocation, the life-task appointed to each person by God, represents an individual telos, a moral destination to be reached through virtuous effort. In this light, we can understand that ambition, “the unlawful and restles desire in men to be of higher estate then God hath given or appoynted unto them,” is a sin against vocation, and therefore, a sin against one’s own nature.

With knowledge of one’s vocation comes a fixed standard for measuring status and limiting ambition. Botton writes, “Our judgment of what constitutes an appropriate limit on anything—for example, on wealth or esteem—is never arrived at independently; instead, we make such determinations by comparing our condition with… a set of people who we believe resemble us.” But Botton is correct only insofar as we ignore the possibility of vocation. The rejection of individual vocations forces us to view all human beings as essentially alike and interchangeable. We differ from one another not in quality—directed at many different angles toward our individual destinations— instead, we are arranged along a single axis of quantity. Embracing a vocational perspective frees us for relating to others in noncompetitive ways.

More than that, as the Geneva Bible teaches, the vocational perspective binds individuals together for the common good: “this diversitie & inequalitie of vocations and giftes, redoundeth to our commoditie: seeing that the same is therefore instituted and  appointed, that we should be bound to one another… no man ought to be grieved thereat, seeing that the use of every private gift is comon.” Botton dislikes comparisons between members of society and bodily members with their fixed roles, but such comparisons illustrate two important truths. First, that as Tocqueville pointed out, many functions being necessary to society, difference of position is ineradicable: we can- not all be eyes or all be hands. Second, that if we must be so arranged in interdependence, it would be better to be arranged in a spirit of cooperation than one of competition.

What to Talk About Next

If we are seriously concerned about the problem of ambition, then unlike Botton and other modernist critics, we should be open to a return to vocational thinking. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “Progress means getting nearer to the place you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turn, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about turn and walking back to the right road.” Several observations about how such a return must be undertaken—if it is to be undertaken—are in order.

First, a return to vocation entails choices that appear sacrificial from the perspective of modern culture, and which will be painful insofar as we have been culturally conditioned to privilege a non-vocational definition of success. That is, we must come to terms with looking like “unambitious losers” if we choose to pursue “happy, fulfilling lives” apart from collecting status symbols. Furthermore, because material goods are presently distributed through a market built on non-vocational values, a rejection of those values will almost certainly limit our access to such goods, at least compared with those who embrace them. Which is to say, if you choose to work within limits, you can expect to get paid within limits, too.

Second, a return to vocation entails (paradoxically) a rejection of individualism, insofar as a “diversitie and inequalitie of vocations” implies an interdependence of persons beyond what is commonly acknowledged in liberal economic theories. This may not appeal to those inspired by the American ethos of rugged independence. Fortunately for those otherwise enamored, interest in communitarian theories of society is already on the rise, and this provides a fertile context for a reengagement with vocation.

Finally, a working vocational order depends on widespread access to a process of discernment, which is essentially a lost art in the modern era. In religious life, vocational discernment is often limited to the “calling to ministry” and is arguably underdeveloped even in that narrow context. In the secular world, it exists only in recognition of certain innate talents, like mathematical or artistic ability. While the resources for vocational discernment doubtlessly exist in the Christian tradition, we have a long way to go in recovering this knowledge. In other words: How can we find our vocations? Well, that’s a good question. Let’s talk.

About Charles Clark

Charles Clark graduated from Dartmouth College in 2011 with a Classics major and English minor. He is Editor-in-Chief emeritus of The Dartmouth Apologia. He is currently a member of the class of 2014 at the University of Tennessee School of Law.