The Heights and Pitfalls of Ambition

DC-Skyline-Night

It was a very DC moment… I was sitting on the National Mall admiring “The Dome.”  Contemplating the US Capitol, ambition practically emanates from the building.  It’s very name, spelled consciously with an “o,” reaches for antique splendor.  It’s a reference to the “CapitOline Hill” center of the greatest empire in western history, Rome.  But back to the 21st century… Ambition oozes from the place: the desire to serve our country, and all-to-often a desire to serve one’s career.  Both of these desires typify life in our city.  The fact the both these desires typify life in our city frustrates many, but it shouldn’t surprise.  To be clear: this post isn’t about pointing fingers, judging, or apportioning good and bad desire to any group(s) of people.  Rather, it might be good to look at the concept of ambition itself through eyes of faith.  For this we turn to an old friend, St. Thomas Aquinas.

Thomas tells us (ST II.IIae q131 a1) that ambition is the seeking of honor, and that “honor denotes the reverence due to a person in witness of his excellence.”  Not so bad, really.  In fact it has a ring of justice to it.  If I do something excellent, it ought to be recognized.  That’s certainly what Aristotle thought in his Ethics.  And if that’s where ambition ended it’d be a purely good thing… but as with most of life, ambition is more complicated than that.  Why?  Because: (a) We tend to take more honor to ourselves than our excellence deserves… and (b) If we become concerned only with taking honor to ourselves, we fail to give anything to anyone else (whether it’s honor, or basic necessities like food, or love).  As always, Thomas talks about this twisting of ambition in terms of “inordinate” ambition.  It’s not that ambition is always evil, but when we pursue it in “inordinate” ways it can ruin us and fail to serve our neighbors; everyone loses.

It’s something we all do… and I do mean ALL of us.  St. Augustine talked about it recalling a childhood incident when he stole a pear.  It wasn’t even a ripe pear (he tells us), so why’d he do it?  In the end, he wanted to receive the praise and honor of his pals who watched the whole thing happen.  One doesn’t have to work under the dome to understand ambition.

DC’s stoney edifices are sprouting evergreen boughs.  Shop windows magically fill with gift ideas.  Maybe all of us can use the signs of the season as inspiration to turn inordinate ambition back toward the generosity that characterizes us and our hometown at our very best.