Talent and ambition. Having the first without the second is a tragedy. The latter without the former leads to comedy. Ambition is the catalyst that allows us to achieve many great things, yet it remains a curiously unexamined emotion in modern life.
A new book, Ambition: An Essay on the Burning Desire to Rise, by Eckart Goebel, offers an historical and philosophical examination of this emotion and how the West has viewed it over the centuries.
Goebel traces how authors from Homer through to Tocqueville, Nietzsche, Kafka, and Freud have tackled the topic of ambition and its consequences. These authors explored the potentials and pitfalls that accompany the desire to achieve. Too often they found themselves in a terrible bind. Alive to the dangers that ambition posed, they were unable to imagine a world without it.
Is ambition a virtue or a vice? Success clearly requires some form of self-belief and motivation, but it is all too easy for self-belief to turn to selfishness and for motivation to transform into a one-eyed fanaticism indifferent to the suffering of others.
The debate about the value of ambition has raged since classical antiquity. Aristotle classified it as a virtue, but then adds so many qualifications you begin to wonder whether he wasn’t starting to regret this decision.
The Greek poet Hesiod had a bet each way, arguing there are in fact two forms of ambition, which he regards as a form of strife or envy: a productive one and a destructive one.
The productive one is the motivating factor that inspires the farmer or potter to try and best their rivals, so fuelling progress. The destructive form of ambition leads to spite, cruelty, and conflict.
What are the origins of ambition?
Where did this desire to always be first come from? Goebel cites evolutionary biologists who attribute the origins of this craving to the competitive advantages given to speedy members of a species. In the natural world, it is good to be fast on your feet. You are always either chasing something or being chased. The winner was the person who managed to capture the prey or avoided being it.
In many cases, there were no prizes for coming second. The evolutionary biologist Josef H. Reichholf in his book Why we Want to Win compared our circumstances to the gibbons that swing through the jungle in search of fruit.
It was a quest in which timing is everything. The gibbon that reaches the crop of ripe fruit first can normally consume it before all the other gibbons arrive. In a similar way, early hominids who existed primarily on eating carrion were advantaged if they managed to reach the carcass before the others could. Through the process of natural selection, the desire to triumph over others was hard-wired into us.
Like most evolutionary explanations, this account for the origins of ambition appears superficially attractive. There is something pleasing about seeing today’s politicians vying for power as the direct descendants of barely upright apes fighting over a rotting corpse.
Yet given the extraordinary range of ways ambition can manifest itself and the complex effects it has on the human psyche, it feels like there is more at play here than just genetics. As we contemplate humanity’s journey from a mango-munching mammal launching itself from tree to tree to Jeff Bezos launching himself into space, it is hard not to think that it is the intervening steps, rather than the first ones, that matter.
Certainly, Freud thought there was more to locating the cause of ambition. Freud saw ambition as a reaction against the deep sense of powerlessness we experience as we move from the complete narcissism of infancy, in which every demand is met, to the trauma of childhood and adolescence when we realise just how inferior we are to adult members of the community. As we progress through the world, we seek opportunities to reassert ourselves and refute the dread that inferiority is our natural condition.
Sometimes, even the smallest achievements are what we need to help us get through the day. Goebel quotes Freud’s friend and associate, Ernest Jones, on how this sense of powerlessness can manifest itself as an ambition in an individual. The analyst recounts the story of the strange compulsion a young man had on entering a public bathroom.
He would rush straight to the first urinal and proudly declare “first before all others”; if it was occupied and he was obliged to take the second urinal, he would remark loudly “second to none”; if he could only obtain the third, he would console himself by saying “in the top three”; and if forced to take the last urinal, he would announce to everyone that he was “last but not least”.
Only by celebrating these triumphs could he feel good about his place in the world. If nothing else, the story is a salutary warning to all parents toilet-training their children. You might want to go a little easy on the praise, lest you warp your child’s priorities and set them up for a lifetime of awkward encounters in public conveniences.
How productive is ambition?
An overwhelming desire to get the first stall in the toilet is clearly pathological. Yet, it does raise a question about what a suitable target for ambition should be. An ambition for virtue or to improve everybody’s social conditions is obviously laudable. Yet such ambitions are rarely found outside of the truly saintly.
On the other hand, apart from a few hard-core advocates of the free-market, the ambition to accumulate great wealth has for centuries been viewed as deeply problematic. Gordon Gekko in the film Wall Street may have declared that “Greed, in all of its forms … has marked the upward surge of mankind,” yet few have been happy to openly endorse these sentiments.
A more difficult question is raised by how we should view an ambition for the good opinion and praise of others. Wanting to be well regarded may lie behind some of the greatest acts of philanthropy, but it is also productive of much anxiety and social problems.
The Greek hero Achilles was offered the choice of living a long life of anonymity or an early death at Troy and spectacular fame. He chose fame.
We regard Achilles’ choice as heroic, but at its core his death is no more heroic than that of the surprising number of Instagram influencers who have died falling off cliffs or in other dangerous locales trying to take a spectacular selfie in a desperate pursuit of “Likes”.
The conditions under which the ambitious thrive is an area of concern. Alexander the Great wept because there were no more worlds to conquer. The operative word here is “conquer”. Consensus and ambition do not make easy bedfellows. Conflict and strife provide the greatest opportunities for the ambitious man.
Nobody doubts Putin’s ambition. Is the war in Ukraine the inescapable result? Certainly, Nietzsche saw violence as the inevitable result of ambition. For him, all competition was a form of sublimated or idealised war. Gymnastics was nothing but the battlefield translated onto parallel bars.
Ambitious individuals tend to encourage environments of intense competition because they thrive in them. When Alexander the Great was dying, he was asked to name his successor. He said that he would bequeath his empire to “the strongest” and he died leaving his generals to fight it out amongst themselves as to who this would be.
Similarly, Abraham Lincoln constructed a cabinet dubbed the “Team of Rivals” because of the intensity of their struggles with each other and Lincoln.
More recently, the management-style of Donald Trump has been criticised because of his tendency to pit his advisers, and even according to some accounts his own children, against each other. In such circumstances, some rise to the occasion, but others do not. The problem with a “sink or swim” approach is that people drown.
A ‘manly’ trait
Ambition has proven to be a deeply gendered concept. Aristotle remarks in the Nichomachean Ethics that, “We praise the ambitious person as manly.”
Ever since, ambition has been seen as a fundamentally masculine trait and, by correlation, a rejection of ambition as central to femininity. Goebel quotes author Christina Henríquez from her essay in the book Double Bind: Women on Ambition:
Ambition is active, not passive; it’s forceful, not meek; it’s stubborn, not yielding. It’s everything that society tells woman not to be. It’s unfeminine, for goodness sake!
The tradition of seeing the ambitious woman as a monster is a long one. Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth has proven to be paradigmatic in this regard. From practically the very first time we see her, she is casting off her womanhood in order to advance herself and her husband. Inflamed by ambition, she renounces her femininity,
Come, you spirits that tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here, and fill me from the crown to the toe top-full of direst cruelty! … Come to my woman’s breasts, and take my milk for gall.
It is a great role, but it has had important consequences for perceptions of female leadership and ambition.
The shadow of Lady Macbeth continues to cast its pall even to this day. Female politicians on all sides of politics know too well the dilemmas created by the gendering of ambition. Show none and nobody takes you seriously. However, show a dose of healthy ambition as a woman and you are portrayed as freakish and unfeminine, cold, lacking in empathy, calculating, and ruthless.
A few politicians lean into the stereotypes. It was initially a Russian propagandist who dismissed Margaret Thatcher as “The Iron Lady”. Thatcher embraced the title with gusto. Only a week after the Russian Defence Ministry was attributed to using the term, she held forth in a speech in London,
I stand before you tonight … my face softly made up and my fair hair gently waved, the Iron Lady of the Western world, a Cold War warrior, an Amazon philistine … Yes, I am an iron lady.
It was a persona that she used to great advantage. Iron is brutal in its inflexibility and strength. When Thatcher declared that “the lady’s not for turning”, people knew that she meant it.
However, for most female leaders, the refusal to regard ambition as a naturally feminine trait has proved a tiresome impediment to getting things done and getting their message across. Hillary Clinton, Penny Wong and Julia Gillard all suffered from allegations of lacking feminine warmth.
In Gillard’s case, her lack of children was seen as symptomatic of her burning lust for power. The Liberal Senator Bill Heffernan accused Gillard of being “deliberately barren”, echoing criticism Gillard faced from both her opponents and even those on her own side of politics.
As she joked in friendly terms with Barack Obama,
I tell him, “you think it’s tough being African-American? Try being me. Try being an atheist, childless, single woman as prime minister”.
Are we becoming more suspicious of ambition? The last election produced many compelling stories. One of the most discussed was the failure of Kristina Keneally to win the seat of Fowler in western Sydney.
Among the reasons given for her rejection was the feeling amongst voters that her desire to win the seat was merely the product of her ambition rather than a genuine desire to serve others. Her ambition was too naked.
Our current ambivalence towards ambition seems to be reflected in our cinemas as well. So far the most popular and critically successfully movie this year has been Top Gun: Maverick.
It tells the story of Pete “Maverick” Mitchell (Tom Cruise), a man who “should be a two-star admiral,” but has never risen above the rank of captain. Not interested in a successful career, Maverick only lives to fly. He is a modern-day Icarus who only feels “the need for speed”.
Maverick’s desire for speed seems a return to the supposedly evolutionary roots of ambition, and maybe audiences are reacting to the purity and primordial nature of it.
Alternatively, perhaps the greatest ambition that unites us all is the desire to loop and roll in a fighter jet at Mach 3 and emerge, like Cruise, with perfect hair.
Alastair Blanshard does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.