“Ambition” is a difficult trait to pin down because it is so human: On the one hand, we want to reward ambition, yet on the other hand, we want to warn against it. Literature, especially, has taken the latter interesting approach to examining ambition; however, the term itself was originally relatively neutral, coming from the Latin ambito or ambitus, meaning “going around, circuit, edge, border.” Initially, this referred to a “going around” in the early Roman republic as a means of collecting votes or of canvassing for various political positions. Over time, however, the word ambition would take on other connotations, such as when the Roman poet Lucretius stated, “Angustum per iter luctantes ambitionis,” referring to ambitious men who were “struggling to press through the narrow way of ambition,” usually in a desire for honor, popularity, and power. It is perhaps because of these very human qualities—to desire love, honor, knowledge, and power—that the theme of ambition has been so prevalent in literature. Whether in Greek mythology or a 20th-century novel such as Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, literature often highlights the consequences of ambition gone awry. The dangers of ambition have been a popular theme not only in literature, but also through religious and mythological texts. In the book of Genesis in the Old Testament, for example, ambition is given much attention.
The earliest consequence of ambition occurred when Adam and Eve decided to eat the fruit from the tree of knowledge, so that their “eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5), even though God had warned them that they would die if they ate of the tree. The result of such ambition? Adam and Eve were granted knowledge, but they were banished from the Garden of Eden. Later in Genesis, ambition is once again punished when the Tower of Babel is constructed, so that the people may “build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth” (11:4). The result of the Babylonians’ ambition was exactly what they had built the tower to defend against: God causes them to speak in different languages and to be scattered across the land, resulting in confusion. Similarly, in Greek mythology we see the consequences of foolishly following ambition. In his Metamorphoses, Ovid tells the story of Phaethon, the son of the sun god Helios. Phaethon succumbs to his ambition for pride and reputation and brags to his friends that he is the son of Helios. Angered, Phaethon meets with his father and takes advantage of his father’s goodwill, securing permission to drive Helios’s chariot (the sun) for a day. Phaeton’s ambition exceeds his grasp, however, as he loses control of the horses, scorching the earth and turning Africa into a desert. The chariot is so out of control that Zeus is forced to intervene, striking down Phaethon with a lightning bolt. Phaethon was not the only character to “fall” due to his ambition, however.
John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost tells the story of the fall of man, but also of the fall of Satan. Satan, filled with ambition and pride, wages war against God, thinking to supplant him. Satan is defeated and cast out of heaven; his ambition does not leave him, however, as he quickly decides to bring about “the fall of man” by introducing evil to the world. But beginning with the romantics in the 19th century, the character of Satan was not seen as an antagonist but as a protagonist, celebrated for his flawed but idealistic nature. In his 1932 essay on Dante, T. S. Eliot would refer to the character of Satan as a “Byronic Hero,” strengthening the image from 17th-century Britain to the romantic poets to the modern world. Since ambition is such a human struggle between making choices—and dealing with the consequences that result from these choices—philosophers, psychologists, and academics have been attempting to understand how and why we are driven by ambition. Perhaps one of the earliest examinations came when Plato presented his concept of the “tripartite soul” in Phaedrus (the concept of which he would later refine in The Republic). Plato’s analogy depicts the soul as a charioteer, noble horse, and base horse. Essentially, the charioteer (the individual) is always struggling to keep the two horses in control. In general, these three parts of the soul are taken to represent, respectively, reason, our noble desires (such as honor and courage), and our base or animal desires (such as ambition, lust, greed, avarice, and anger). In many ways, this way of thinking about human desires and ambitions is quite similar to the model the Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud proposed in his 1920 essay “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” in which he argues that the human psyche is divided into three parts: the id, the ego, and the superego.
The id represents the human unconscious, amoral desire to be satisfied, whether it is by food, sex, drugs, or power. The ego strives to mediate between the id and the superego—sometimes having to satisfy one or the other; the ego is a conscious attempt to balance primitive desires with a rational need to negotiate the “real world.” The superego essentially functions as an individual’s conscience, reminding him or her what the “real world” views as acceptable and moral—and what it does not; the super-ego is at odds with the potentially ambitious id. Shortly after Freud presented his model for the psyche, human desires—of which ambition is one of the most powerful—found itself being examined through the lens of psychology yet again. If we consider ambition as essentially a form of motivation, a manifestation of desires, then it was the American psychologist Abraham Maslow who, in 1943, first helped contextualize ambition within his “hierarchy of needs.” Within this hierarchy, Maslow argues that humans have several types of needs, ranging from the most basic to the most complex; these needs address physical (hunger, sleep), safety (housing, jobs), social (love, friendship), esteem (achievements, power), and self-actualization (wisdom and enlightenment) desires. Ambition can easily be considered a “desire for esteem,” which nicely aligns with the Oxford English Dictionary’s primary definition of ambition as an “inordinate desire.” No examination of ambition would be complete without considering potentially the most famous literary example of “inordinate desire,” Macbeth. Within William Shakespeare’s play, Macbeth (the central, tragic figure) claims “I have no spur / To prick the side of my intent, but only / Vaulting ambition, which o’erleaps itself / And falls on the other” (1.7.27–30). Macbeth faces an internal struggle between his noble, civilized desires (admirable ambition) and his more savage, primal desires (ambition as a tragic flaw).
Perhaps Lady Macbeth presents his struggle best when, pondering her husband’s character, she states: It is too full o’ the milk of human kindness To catch the nearest way. Thou wouldst be great, Art not without ambition, but without, The illness that should accompany it. What thou wouldst highly That wouldst thou holily—wouldst not play false And yet would wrongly win. (1.5.17–22) Macbeth, in order to achieve his goals, gives in to his uncivilized desires and becomes a tragic figure: someone who made the wrong moral choice. Ultimately, this costs him not only the power that he desires but also his life. This trend of identifying ambition as a central character trait—sometimes a strength, sometimes a flaw—proceeded from the Byronic hero of the 19th century to the more modern antihero. Perhaps one of the best examples in modernism of an antihero is the character of Stephen Dedalus in James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Dedalus even goes so far as to compare himself to Satan when he claims “non serviam,” or “I will not serve.” Like the character of Satan, Dedalus desires to be free from accepted constraints—in his case, family, religion, and country. Dedalus desires to be more, to be great. Indeed, at the conclusion of Portrait he presents himself as his namesake (Daedalus).
Other modern texts also highlight figures with conflicting desires. In Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, Willie Loman struggles with his failure to achieve what he perceives as the modern, post- World War II version of the American dream, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the ideal that every citizen of the United States should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and initiative.” In short, Willie’s ambition was to achieve success through owning his own business and making as much money as possible. But it is Willie’s ambition—or lack thereof—that makes the play an intriguing look at how ambition can affect our lives.An earlier text, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, revolves around the misunderstanding of the main character, Jay Gatsby, whose business success during the Roaring Twenties was probably caused by his ambition to achieve the American dream, to “do better” than his modest beginnings seemed to allow him to do. Gatsby’s rise in power and acquisition of wealth stand in stark contrast to Willie Loman’s failure to attain any of these things. Both characters, however, seem uncomfortable with their ambition and its consequences, remaining conflicted characters throughout the telling of their respective tales. In Achebe’s
Things Fall Apart we are presented with yet another example of a conflicted character and how the consequences of ambition can lead to ruin. In this case, Okonkwo (the main character) struggles with the past and the present, old cultural norms and new cultural norms, as British colonialism introduces itself to his home village in Nigeria, Africa. Okonkwo’s misguided ambition proves to be his downfall, likening Things Fall Apart to some of the Greek tragedies. In modern society and literature, ambition is no longer presented as a human struggle with gods (at least not solely) but as a struggle within the individual. However, while ambition has always been an internal struggle between an “honorable” approach or a “dishonorable” approach to a situation, our modern, globalized world presents new layers to this theme. Individuals no longer struggle only within themselves: They also struggle to understand how their ambition can—and should—be acted upon in a society that has new means of waging warfare, merging cultures, free-market economies, and evolving forms of communication. In such a world, ambition does not always need to be a tragic flaw. After all, without ambition the United States would not have pushed westward, eventually spreading from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.
Without ambition, the world would not have achieved spaceflight, prompting new questions and new discoveries. Without ambition, we would not have the wealth of knowledge available to us through the Internet. Without ambition we would not have had the Civil Rights movement. However, without ambition we also would not have had the Holocaust, the Water gate scandal, or the stock market crashes of 1987 and 2008. Ambition itself is not a “good thing” or a “bad thing,” but it is a human thing. Ultimately, it is up to individuals, whether through literature, politics, or daily life, to determine how they will use their ambition.
See also Aristophanes: Frogs, The; Dreiser, Theodore: American Tragedy, An; Hardy, Thomas: Jude the Obscure; Ishiguro, Kazuo: Remains of the Day, The; James, Henry: Portrait of a Lady, The; Marlowe, Christopher: Doctor Faustus; Plath, Sylvia: Bell Jar, The; Shakespeare, William: Julius Caesar; Shelley, Percy Bysshe: poems; Steinbeck, John: Cannery Row.