“Ambition” has long been an elusive word for an equivocal trait. It is an insistent vice, and yet its presence assures us that something in society is alive and kicking. It is also a necessary but dangerous virtue. The pejorative sense of the word goes back to the accusations by the Roman republicans Cato the Younger and Brutus against usurpers whose lust for power created an empire of limitless pride. A history that started there might predictably close with a paradox of democracy first propounded by Tocqueville. A revolution, he said, always appeals to large ambitions, but a democratic revolution multiplies the rewards while diminishing their size. Tocqueville spelled out his view of the result in a famous chapter title of Democracy in America, “Why There Are So Many Men of Ambition in the United States But So Few Lofty Ambitions.”
William Casey King’s Ambition, a History: From Vice to Virtue began as a dissertation in American history, but it travels an unexpected path before returning to its origin. Essentially, King has written a history of ambition from the sixteenth century through the mid-eighteenth. Along the way, he composes a sort of time-lapse photograph of the idea, with pauses at a few distinct episodes. The most eccentric of his stopping points is a summary of the legend of Dick Whittington, the “poor boy who comes to London and rises from obscure origins to become a wealthy merchant and lord mayor.” The interest of the legend is that it is domestic and middle-class through and through. Whittington’s luck commences when the king of Barbary, in order to cure a plague of rats, is willing to pay an immense sum for Whittington’s cat.
A more stimulating discussion here turns on the publication of the Geneva Bible in 1560. This was the English version (based on the translations of William Tyndale and Myles Coverdale) most commonly used by sixteenth-century Protestants—the text familiar to the Puritan settlers of North America, as it was familiar also to Shakespeare, Milton, and Bunyan. The word “ambition,” King is quick to concede, occurs nowhere in the Geneva Bible. Yet the marginal notes on the text refer to ambition seventy-six times.
King believes that this is a revealing sign of the early Protestant view of ambition as a vice. It was by ambition that Adam fell; and the argument goes both ways: absence of ambition may be a sign of grace. In the Geneva commentary, a proof of the purity of the heart of Jesus is said to be that, in curing the leper (Mark 1:44), “He was not mooued with ambition, but with the onely desire of his Fathers glory, and loue towardes the poore sinners.” King has gone through the marginal notes of the Geneva Bible with ambition steadily in mind; and he has found that the commentaries all work toward a cautionary fable against it.
King rightly picks out …