A Brief History of Ambition
Where did our modern conception of ambition come from?
In our last exploration of the topic, we maintained that ambition is one of the most pervasive, yet polarizing and misunderstood concepts in Western culture. The few historians and psychology researchers who study the concept echo this idea. One such exponent is William Casey King, executive director of the Yale Center for Analytical Sciences. In Ambition, a History: From Vice to Virtue, King discusses ambition's history and the mercurial, ever-evolving attitudes surrounding it. This article supplements King's fascinating history with independent research and analysis.
Ambition, it turns out, was not passed down through the centuries undisturbed like a precious heirloom. Something approximating ambition appears in antiquity, a blurry but provocative concept. Seismic political and religious shifts cast it into a dark age where it was suppressed, oversimplified, and demonized. But ambition slowly rose from its underworld as it was dissected and discussed by great thinkers and statesmen, regaining its nuance and potentiality. Then, with the discovery of the New World, it entered a new stage of life. Ambition became a vivid and substantial concept, albeit one with complex, diametrical connotations.
Here we’ll explore ambition’s journey through the ages, the origins of its puzzling duplexity, and the important implications for us today.
Ambition in Antiquity
From fictional characters like Gilgamesh and Achilles to the real-life sagas of Alexander and Caesar, ancient narratives are rife with tales of ambition. The world has long been fascinated by glory-hungry heroes who launch themselves into epic adventures, tests of will, and tragic struggles, admiring their superhuman tenacity while studying their hamartia. In these stories, every rise gives way to an equal and inevitable fall, leaving us with dramatic ambivalence toward the protagonists' plot-driving ambition.
The archaic Myth of Icarus encapsulates our thorny relationship with ambition. Failing to heed his father's warning, young Icarus flies too close to the sun and melts the wax on his fabricated wings. He plummets into the sea and drowns, becoming an enduring warning against hubris and untempered ambition.
However, there is a conveniently neglected counterwarning: Icarus was also advised against flying too low, for fear that the ocean mist would clog his wings.
The ancient Greeks recorded Myth of Icarus over two thousand years ago, yet we still live with the same muddy, contradictory attitudes toward ambition. Within those centuries, attitudes have transformed, blurred, lost and regained their nuance, and grown in complexity, all without ever losing their import.
The ancient Greeks had no exact equivalent of the word ambition. In an early example of its eternally discordant nature, ambition was expressed by the Greeks across three different terms: philotimia (“the love of honor”), eritheia (“rivalry” or “strife”), and philodoxia (“love of acclaim”). Hellenistic philosophers were divided in their views on "passions" like ambition. Aristotle and the Peripatetic school saw them as winds that moved human beings from inertia into action. The Stoics, however, perceived them as violent, destructive currents within the human spirit.
In ancient Rome, the Latin ambitio was used to describe political candidates who traveled around canvassing votes. Modern Latin dictionaries variously associate ambitio with “a going about - especially of candidates for office;” “the soliciting of votes;” a striving or desire for honors, favor, adulation, pomp, and popularity. However, in ancient Roman law, charging a public figure with ambitus meant accusing them of political corruption.
Rome, of course, is one of the ancient civilizations most closely associated with ambition. The glory-obsessed Romans celebrated something akin to modern ambition, and actively cultivated it. For example, in the atrium of their homes Roman families would often display imagines, or lifelike statues and funeral masks depicting their ancestors. These imagines maiorum ("images of the great ones") detailed the honors and accomplishments of their lineage with the intention, in part, of stoking descendants’ ambition. Importantly, the honorable ambition they fostered had a collectivist hue - anything done for the “Glory of Rome” - which no doubt helps explain Rome’s preoccupation with politics, commerce, expansion, and conquest.
However, the Romans were acutely aware and wary of ambition’s duality. Cicero described ambition as a “malady,” albeit one that draws “the greatest souls” and “most brilliant geniuses.” Similarly, Quintilian wrote “Though ambition may be a fault in itself, it is often the mother of virtues.” Seneca’s Stoic view was more dogmatic, conjoining ambition with avarice and describing them both as outright “ills of the human soul."
One could very well make the case that ambition not only fueled Rome’s ascension to greatness, but also engendered its demise. In the fourth century, as Rome began its catastrophic fall, Saint Ambrose described ambition as a pestis occulta (“hidden plague”). Thus began a shift toward a more rigid version of ambition, one not only devoid of nuance but also turned against the populace.
Ambition as Sin
A more modern conception of ambition appears as antiquity gives way to Christendom, and the Roman vice blurs into Christian sin.
The Geneva Bible, England's primary Bible through the 16th century, contained abundant marginal notes intended to help the average reader interpret the text. In these annotations, ambition is condemned from the start, blamed for precipitating original sin itself: In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve violated God's most important decree when they ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The Geneva interpretation explained that Adam ate the fruit “Not so much to please his wife, as moued by ambition at her persuasion.” God reproaches their corruption and banishes them from paradise. Throughout the marginal notes that follow, ambition is associated with hostile terms like “malice,” “wicked desires,” “rage,” and “crueltie.” For the avoidance of doubt, one note explicitly declares that “God detesteth ambition.” To address sinful ambitious impulses, the annotators suggest not tempering it with virtues like humility or charity, but resignedly embracing “mediocritie" .
Up through the sixteenth century this rhetoric was rampant in Western culture. Homilies, stories, poetry, and ballads propagated an ideology that men were bound to their station, whether he was a king by God-given right or a lowly serf like his forbearers. A restless desire to divert from the status quo, to rise above the “estate” which “God hath geven or appoynted,” was akin to rebellion, not unlike Adam and Eve’s rebellion against God. It was an era of fixed mindsets, and ambition was implicitly and explicitly condemned. Not even Machiavelli, of all people, would try to save it — writing around the same time, he also vilified ambizione, coupling it with unsavory qualities like violence, corruption, and envy.
In the medieval world, the ruling class maintained power in part through hegemony. They subverted any sense of ambition among the lower classes and created conditions that made upward mobility unfathomable. The interlinkage of church and state meant moral and religious misconduct was considered criminal activity, and brutal punishments and penalties were imposed to reinforce the community's behavioral expectations. Economic conditions were difficult for the lower strata, made worse by ever-increasing taxation to support domestic and foreign wars. When the climate became truly intolerable and peasant uprisings ensued, they were suppressed in the most violent manner. Pitifully, such revolts were not driven by the desire for ascension or dominion, but often merely for gentler treatment and, as if foreshadowing revolutions to come, a more reasonable approach to taxation.
Was hegemony an illustration of wicked ambition among the ruling class? Not quite. As we've explored, there is an important distinction between ambition and the desire for power. The dogged maintenance of the status quo was a tyrannical expression of power, the desire of the ruling class to maintain their place in the status hierarchy through propaganda and pressure rather than competence and achievement. To maintain their dominion they suppressed ambition among the lower classes, sacrificing any invention and ingenuity that might accompany it.
The hegemonic “Ambition as sin” ideology persisted through seventeenth century. It helped sustain a vast socio-economic class disparity and rigid status hierarchy built not on merit, but hereditary entitlements. Like “communist” in the Cold War era United States, in early modern England ambition was a loaded, contemptible buzzword.
At this stage in history, ambition is examined in drama. Picking up where the classical Greek tragedians left off, Elizabethan and Jacobean theater often featured ambitious anti-heroes subverting the natural order, rising above the prescribed limits of their birth, and leaving a trail of chaos in their wake. With their enemies waiting in the wings, the hero's virtues inevitably melt away, leaving only a raw, cankerous underbelly of passions, vices, and overplayed strengths. Fate tugs them back to earth like a cosmic reverse-bungee cord, and order - or some version of it - is once again restored. Macbeth, for example, succumbs to the siren call of ambition and becomes its slave, losing his humanity before his rival beheads him. On the Ides of March, the illustrious Caesar is betrayed and stabbed to death by his jealous companions. After a Machiavellian rise to power, the initially amusing King Richard III suffers a short, paranoid, chaotic reign before dying on the battlefield. Shakespearean scholar Robert Watson explains that in these tragedies, ambition is a “Sisyphean task… a perpetual quest for elevation that is baffled by some moral equivalent of the law of gravity.”
However, English historian Lawrence Stone labels this same period as England’s “century of mobility.” It is debatable the extent to which these tragedies portrayed ambition as an irreconcilable sin versus a potentially virtuous vice. On the surface, the dramatists portray ambition as the bringer of corruption, timult, and tragedy. However, a more nuanced interpretation suggests that they warned against unbridled ambition, and drew a Macbeth-shaped line in the sand with the notice DO NOT CROSS - STEEP DROP OFF.
Either way, we can envision an uneasy audience reflecting after the show, keenly aware of that latent fire in their own belly. We can imagine their guilt, their fear of divine retribution, their frustration at the futility of repressing that all-too-human drive of ambition. But perhaps, like their ancient, fire-harnessing progenitors, they imagined a way to corral and channel the flame of ambition. But how?
Ambition as Illness
For much of human history, illness was viewed as the embodiment of sin. Disease was often interpreted as divine retribution for immorality and the corruption of one’s character.
Beliefs about the divine origins of pestilence stretch back at least 4,000 years to the Ancient Egyptians, who wrote that gods, demons, and spirits caused illness and often prescribed prayer as a remedy. Ancient medical writing also suggested that illness - whether physical, spiritual, or moral - could be treated by bringing the body into balance, or what the ancient Greeks called eucrasia. Humoral theory posited that human beings were made up of four humors, bodily fluids which must be kept in equilibrium. Significantly, this is paralleled in Traditional Chinese Medicine, with Yin and Yang, its famous doctrine of balance, and a focus on the Five Elements within the body. Even in the modern era, all manner of supplements, drugs, health regimens, and other remedies are successfully marketed under the pretense of “restoring balance.”
According to humoral theory, the slight dominance of one humor manifested itself in an individual’s temperament, but a significant imbalance caused disease. Strategies for promoting and restoring balance and wellness fell into four categories:
Clearing “stoppages” and allowing humors to properly “vent,” which was thought to prevent putrefaction
Draining excessive humors through infamous methods like purging, bleeding, or leeching
Neutralizing imbalances by introducing a positive element, like healthful remedies, herbs, medicines, and prayer
Employing the principle of countervailing, where disease was neutralized with equally powerful toxins and “passions." This often literally meant poison was used to counteract poison — perhaps a primitive ancestor to the practice of immunization.
Francis Bacon was an English philosopher and statesman who deeply influenced America’s Founding Fathers. He wrote extensively on the humoral basis of the bubonic plague, which was rampant in his lifetime, proposing the aforementioned strategies to combat it. For example, he recommended carrying ““little bladders of quicksilver, or tablets of arsenic, as preservatives against the plague,” explaining that “being poisons themselves, they draw the venom to them from the spirits.” In accordance with the view that sin and sickness were interlinked, Francis Bacon applied this same framework to address mankind’s vices and passions, especially ambition.
“Ambition,” Bacon explained, is a “humor that maketh men active, earnest, full of alacrity, and stirring, if it not be stopped.” He explains that if ambition is stifled, it becomes “malign and venomous,” causing people to “look upon men and matters with an evil eye” and be “best pleased, when things go backward.” However, “if they find the way open for their rising, and still get forward, they are rather busy than dangerous.” The argument aligns with the belief that a humoral blockage could cause distemper, and suggests the strategy of “venting” as a remedy. The influential philosopher also promoted to statesmen the idea that ambitious men, while not ideal servants, could be quite useful in certain circumstances. For example, he recommended employing ambitious men as commanders and soldiers in war, or in “matters of danger and envy” where their desire for glory would supplant their instinct for self-preservation. Significantly, Bacon also suggested that ambitious men could be used to curb other ambitious men, claiming that “the best remedy against ambitious great-ones” who might threaten the existing power structure is to “balance them by others, as proud as they.” This parallels the aforementioned stratagem of countervailing, fighting poison with poison.
Significantly, while Bacon’s writing emphasized the perils of ambition, it also highlighted its potential virtues. In Novum Organum, Bacon explicitly discussed the potential existence of a “noble ambition,” which he described as any “endeavour to establish and extend the power and dominion of the human race itself over the universe.”
Francis Bacon was not the only intellectual who merged physical and spiritual ailments and their treatment. In that era remedies for both were discussed side-by-side in medical works without any suggestion of incongruity. A seventeenth century medical text by Thomas Adams describes ambition and its treatment in parallel with the physical maladies of choler and “immoderate thirst." "To cure the immoderate Thirst of Ambition," Adams explains, "let him take from God this prescript: He that exalteth himselfe, shall be brought low: but he that humbleth himselfe, shall be exalted… the first step to heaven’s court is humilitie.”
This illustrates a major shift in the conception of ambition — rather than a sin and rebellion against God, ambition is framed as a treatable ailment and admitted to have potentially productive implications. Thus ambition regained some of its ancient nuance, and the previously black-and-white concept once again showed shades of gray.
Let’s rewind back to our imaginary Shakespearean audience. We can picture them leaving the theater after a showing of Macbeth or Julius Caesar, reflecting on the overt moral of the story — the dangers of unchecked ambition. But their unease is palpable. Domestically, there is a burgeoning possibility of economic mobility, and somewhere within them the long-stifled wick of ambition begins to smoke. But just over the horizon lives an even more seductive possibility: the New World, a massive, uncharted continent, ripe with abundant resources, unbounded opportunity, and the possibility of new beginnings. It’s enough to set even the most temperate, God-fearing man's ambition ablaze.
To exacerbate the cognitive dissonance, in a complete one-eighty various national governments began reviving the common man’s ambition. They hoped the formerly sinful trait would encourage colonization, and stoked the populace’s ambition with propaganda and incentives. Stories spread about the vast, unclaimed tracts of land, the plethora of precious metals all around, and the ease with which crops grew in America’s fertile soil. Both the Spanish and English created new noble titles for certain emigrants, like “Knight Baronet of Nova Scotia,” to bait enterprising individuals into setting sail. In fact, these monarchies even sold titles to well-off residents to bolster the royal treasury and fund expansion.
Prestige and fortune motivated Columbus and his sponsors. The Jamestown colony was established by London's Virginia Company to turn a profit for investors. Spain grew rich by way of the conquistadors' incursion in South America. France established trading posts throughout present-day Canada to export furs to Europe. The Netherlands, a small country but a naval powerhouse, established the Dutch East India Company which became, according to many accounts, the largest company in recorded history. All along the way, missions were established throughout the New World to convert Native Americans to Christianity. Once an unspeakable win, the common man's ambition became an instrument for winning territory, saving pagan souls, and accumulating resources in service of the state.
Following a trajectory openly endorsed by monarchs, ambitious individuals could suddenly buy or colonize their way into the aristocracy, making upward mobility more accessible and accepted than ever. God, gold, and glory catalyzed the ambition of governments and individuals alike. The quality was not explicitly recognized or recommended, but it was rewarded and exploited nonetheless. It was an unprecedented change with deep repercussions for the all involved.
Once ambition was unleashed, like the opening of Pandora's box it could not be undone.
Ambition and the Birth of a Nation
The American Revolution was, as Yale’s William Casey King describes, one of history’s “most audaciously ambitious acts.” By then ambition's negative reputation had been watered down. Once scorned as a rebellion against God's designs, ambition became an ambivalent concept. Thus, an act of rebellion against the throne might be viewed with ambivalence rather than complete disdain. The changing zeitgeist made the pursuit of independence more palpable.
However, ambition retained much of its negative connotation, so the Founding Fathers made every effort to frame the Revolution not as a reach for power and dominion, but as a virtuous imperative, a last resort, an inescapable battle of good versus evil. John Hancock made the case that "Resistance to tyranny becomes the Christian and social duty of each individual." In Practical Agitation, John Jay Chapman wrote that drastic action "is sometimes needed, and wisdom then approves it after the event. People who love soft methods and hate iniquity forget this,—that reform consists in taking a bone from a dog." According to the Founders, real freedom could not be won without a fight. America was the virtuous underdog who, after years of injustice and harassment, punches back against the overreaching bully.
The founders painted themselves as sympathetic, unambitious citizen-servants caught in the midst of a noble struggle. George Washington was no ambitious general, he was a modern-day Cincinnatus. Benjamin Franklin was not a power-hungry politician, he was a rustic "natural man." Jefferson's ideal government was not an all-powerful empire. It was small, hands-off, and "rigorously frugal and simple."
Inevitably, it was a Sisyphean task to play down ambition's role in the endeavor. Thus America's forefathers began a wholesale rebranding campaign for ambition, promoting the virtue of a more altruistic version of the trait - not unlike Francis Bacon's "noble ambition" - while doubling down on the argument that England forced their hand. Thomas Paine's Common Sense contended that America did not start the war, "the first musket that was fired against her." He insisted that the War of Independence was not "drawn by caprice, nor extended by ambition; but produced by a chain of events, of which the colonies were not the authors." He characterized monarchy as a false, tyrannical system of government, and accused the church that supported it of corruption, castigating ambition's two biggest detractors in one fell swoop.
Writing in 1777, John Adams went further still, saying:
"Ambition in a Republic, is a great Virtue, for it is nothing more than a Desire, to Serve the Public, to promote the Happiness of the People, to increase the Wealth, the Grandeur, and Prosperity of the Community. This, Ambition is but another Name for public Virtue, and public Spirit."
Addressing the Pennsylvania Legislature, George Washington echoed the sentiment:
"It should be the highest ambition of every American to extend his views beyond himself, and to bear in mind that his conduct will not only affect himself, his country, and his immediate posterity; but that its influence may be co-extensive with the world, and stamp political happiness or misery on ages yet unborn."
Together they insisted that freedom, not hereditary succession, was a God-given right. Monarchical sovereignty, not ambition, was the real sin. The United States of America became proof positive of ambition's massive constructive potential.
Muddy, Modern Ambition
While the Founding Fathers publicly endorsed a noble, benevolent ambition, to further complicate its reputation they remained privately conflicted about the notion. John Adams, writing confidentially to Samuel Adams in the midst of the war, claimed that "The two Passions of Ambition and Avarice, which have been the Bane of Society and the Curse of human Kind, in all ages and Countries, are not without their Influence upon our Affairs here." His rhetoric mimics Seneca's almost exactly — unsurprising given the classical influences on America's founders. "Great ambition," Alexander Hamilton wrote to James Bayard, "unchecked by principle, or the love of Glory, is an unruly Tyrant... Ambition without principle never was long under the guidance of good sense." In a discarded draft of his inaugural address, President George Washington warned that the great Republic could be toppled by the combination of boundless ambition and corrupted morals. In his view, future Americans should be guided "by principles of true magnanimity" while guarding against the false ambitions of previous nations to elevate themselves "at the expence of the freedom & happiness of the rest of mankind."
Outwardly they celebrated ambition, but secretly they stressed the necessity of tempering it with virtue and principle. They also put enacted structures to keep ambition in check, mirroring the old method of countervailing humors. In the Federalist papers James Madison famously said that "Ambition must be made to counteract ambition." He advocated for a government predicated on a system of checks and balances to prevent any individual's overreaching ambition from wreaking havoc on the fledgling nation.
Ultimately, in the Declaration of Independence, the Founding Fathers cemented their views around the appropriate aims for American citizens, describing the unalienable rights of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. On one hand the sentiment recognizes that throughout history governments skewed toward violating these rights when in fact their role was to protect them. It also memorializes the expectations of every individual — pursue what makes you happy so long as it does not encroach on others' life and liberty. Under the surface, it also shows that the Founders recognized the natural ambition of every individual, and cemented principles which they hoped would funnel it in the most positive conceivable direction. To America's forebears, ambition was a simultaneous virtue and a vice, a core component of the national character yet a potentially corruptive force, a powerful driver that required unyielding checks and balances on both an individual and collective level.
Hypocritically, many of the founders who publicly denounced British tyranny and the colonies' lack of representation in governmental affairs were owners of slaves and husbands to women who could not vote. Centuries would pass before the descendants of enslaved people could even consider pursuing their ambitions. Women had to wait longer still to obtain the right to cast their ballot. In a bitter irony, both endeavors required years of toil and struggle, supporting the sentiment that only a brutal fight could beget freedom — that reform was akin to taking a bone from a dog.
Potential in Action
So what are the present-day implications of ambition's chaotic history?
Much of ambition’s confusing, controversial reputation is unjustified and illegitimate. But it is controversial nonetheless, so it is treated like a pariah. Academics ignore the topic. Journalists use it as merely as a buzzword. Professionals specializing in human development take it for granted. Ambition mainly sees the light of day when it is summoned as a clumsy scapegoat to explain political misdeeds, criminal business ventures, and mad dashes for power.
The cost of ignorance around ambition is high. It is a scientific axiom that to study and influence a problem it must be clearly formulated and deeply comprehended. Without truly understanding the trait, we can’t pinpoint how to appropriately cultivate and channel it. As human beings we are destined to contend with possibility. In the story of our lives, at any moment we exist in a certain place and are heading to another. Our beliefs are instrumental in dictating the nature of that “other place.” Our fragmentary understanding of ambition and its convoluted, controversial history undoubtedly fuels the presumption, even if it is subconscious, that it is an untrustworthy guide in our story. Does this decrease the likelihood that our future state is superior to the present? Does guilt around our own ambition bleed into unhelpful attitudes like perfectionism and “impostor syndrome?” How much of our potential are we leaving unrealized?
Like anything powerful but misunderstood, naivete around our own ambition also means we are especially vulnerable to its hazards, like overplaying the strength, ignoring the implications of “flying too low,” and failing to temper it with the right prescription of virtues, behaviors, and values. We can't define what magnitude of ambition is right for us, nor understand the associated repercussions and responsibilities. Worse, rather than master our own ambition, we risk becoming its slave and overcommitting to the wrong pursuits, pursuing money, acclaim, or achievement for their own sake, and allowing that potent energy to leak into unproductive diversions like accumulating likes, followers, possessions, and hollow admiration.
This muddy conception also impacts how we see the world and those around us. Some remnant of the “ambition as sin” and “virtuous vice” ideology persists. Does it make us more likely to discourage others - to cut down tall poppies, pull down other crabs in the bucket, enforce the “Law of Jante,” warn people not to get too big for their britches, and perpetuate other mediocrity-enforcing mechanisms? Does it lead us to falsely conflate ambition with the desire for power, avarice, and Machiavellianism? Does it leave us with unsympathetic attitudes toward high achievers, yearning to see them fall, poking holes in their reputation, and basking in schadenfreude when their wings are burned by the sun?
We've inherited a version of ambition so full of contradiction and confusion that we don't know what to make of it. We're uncertain about our own striving instinct. No two people can agree on its character. No two definitions are the same. It is recognized but seldom recommended. It drives our personal pursuits, economic system, and cultural narrative, but we speak about it in euphemism and hushed tones. We're left to believe our central ambition is some type of flaw in the human condition. That it is a driver of behavior yet a source of shame. These attitudes toward ambition are not only false, but mean we are, individually and collectively, failing to make the most of our gifts, energy, and ingenuity.
Ambition is human potential in action. It is a constant undercurrent in the story of our species. Perhaps it plays a role in amplifying our flaws, but it is certainly responsible for every great breakthrough, discovery, and improvement in our quality of life. Ambition is the fuel of our progress. It inspires us to innovate, explore, persevere, and rise to challenges. If we learn anything from this brief history, it is that we have no real reason to be ashamed of our striving instinct. There is no valid reason to sweep it under the rug. We should temper and regulate it, not because it is "bad," but because it is powerful. We should discuss and explore it, not to warn others, but because it is distinctly human.
In the end, the true sin is not ambition — it is the suppression of human potential.
P.S. — This article explores ambition's journey from antiquity to the American Revolution, but it is only the beginning of the story. We will continue to examine ambition's history, the implications for the present day, and what it means for us individually. To stay updated as we publish more on the topic, click here or enter your email below to subscribe to the Bring Ambition Newsletter.
This is not intended to be a knock on religion. Religious life offered many benefits in medieval England — to name a few, it helped buffer the experience of adversity, fostered a strong sense of community, provided a sense of meaning in an otherwise precarious existence, and encouraged a sense of mutual support, generosity, and obligation toward others. As we will continue to explore, religious thinking actually offers productive strategies for tempering and channeling our human ambition.