Musée des Beaux-Arts, Alençon, France

Charles Paul Landon: Daedalus and Icarus, 1799

“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, in the same period, a good many warnings against ambition by literary voices not much associated with Protestant piety. A vast cross-section of Renaissance literature, from Christopher Marlowe in Doctor Faustus to Robert Burton in The Anatomy of Melancholy, testifies to the danger of the vice. The admonition may be given by a direct use of the word or by reference to the idea; Marlowe’s Faustus, for example, is compared to Icarus flying too close to the sun.

Homiletic literature on this theme had a fertile source in experience as well as fantasy. Recurrent sieges of the plague in England—King lists seven plague years between 1563 and 1625—tempted the theology of the day to look on the disease as God’s punishment for the sin of ambition. King remarks how frequently in these years, too, ambition is referred to as an “illness.” But an American scholar, familiar with the utterances of Pat Robertson and John Hagee on God’s vengeance in Haiti and New Orleans, ought not to make too much of this. At any time of the world, there is hardly a behavior that fanatics will not interpret as a divine punishment for some human lapse or deviation.

An inordinate emphasis on disease fails to do justice to the meanings of ambition current in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. For it was not altogether a matter of “illness”; the exemplars of high culture were ambitious. English court poets hunted for patronage with as constant a hunger as the great Venetian painters of half a century earlier. When Ben Jonson and Inigo Jones collaborated in their court masks, they were active participants in the world they allegorized. This is conspicuous in a career like that of Sir Walter Raleigh, who spoke of his pleasure at having arrived by his early thirties at a position “not inferior to any man”; and Stephen Greenblatt has written well of the éclat of Raleigh’s epitaph for himself and his conduct at his execution: the “feeling of preparation and control,” the “deliberate transformation of a dreadful trial into a triumphant act of will.” Ambition was never so thorough a vice that its energy might not glorify the ambitious, even under the glare of public challenge and rebuke.


Look again at the period between 1563 and 1625, and the half-century preceding, and think of its dominant figures. Not only explorers like Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake but the restless and intriguing state councilors of Queen Elizabeth, Leicester, Essex, and Cecil; the joint-stock companies, Levant, Muscovy, and East India, whose expansion would change the nature of the empire; the stripping of the altars and the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, and the counter-persecution under Mary, with the burning of Latimer, Ridley, Cranmer, and Hooper—a relentless contest of beliefs but also a battle for distinction and loot. “It was a violent time,” wrote Thom Gunn in “A Mirror for Poets.” “In this society the boundaries met/Of life and life, at danger.” The boundaries were always liable to be redrawn by the clashing of swords, and to a reader of history unaided by the Geneva moral gloss, it might seem that ambition meant a display of barbarous health as much as sickness.

A change in the moral understanding of ambition, King suggests, had already begun by the middle of the age of exploration. Cortés, Pizarro, and other self-made men of the New World were regarded by some contemporaries as guilty of insolence and overreaching. Yet the scale of their conquest and plunder conferred on them an ennobling stature that softened the roughness of their ascent. The English rank of baronet (between baron and knight) was created in 1611, writes King, partly to settle an accessible honor on such men, to “harness” their ambition and reward them for being bold but not too bold. Status thereby served to deflect the imputation that might be leveled against a sudden rise impelled by greed. Vainglorious men of action were more than pardoned when they returned with riches that enhanced the power of their aristocratic patrons.

The epilogue of Ambition, a History turns to the founding myth of the United States. King believes that the Declaration of Independence is properly understood as a compact of rising men whose love of freedom and property was moved by ambition. They sought, however, to assure that their motive would be interpreted benignly. Ambition can imply the sheer appetite for worldly gain; but considered as a social trait, ambition yields the energy required for any moral action of significant scope. “Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise,” wrote Milton in “Lycidas”; and it may not be possible to separate the honorable love of fame from ambition. The American founders were seeking to widen their prospects of personal gain, no doubt, but they also hoped to be judged by posterity to have acted for the benefit of all mankind. There need not be any self-contradiction in that double purpose.

King’s view of ambition and the American founders depends on his reading of a revision of the opening sentence of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson’s original draft had begun: “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for a people to advance from that subordination in which they have hitherto remained, & to assume among the powers of the earth the equal and independent station to which the laws of nature & nature’s god entitle them…” (italics added).

The point of this opening clause, according to King, was to acknowledge the desire for greatness shared by the signers, and to represent their ambition as a decent and civilizing virtue. Jefferson, in effect, was introducing them to the world as a corps of energetic but well-intentioned men, with the natural desire of the ambitious to throw off the yoke of subordination. Yet a majority of the signers thought better of so frank a disclosure, and they toned down the brashness of the claim. Hence the final version of their opening: “When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them…” (italics added).

The reference to “subordination” has vanished, and with it a possible hint of resentment. King finds the revision more startling than most readers will, and he makes his largest conclusion follow from this textual change: “Wresting ambition from the panoply of vice and reconstituting it as a virtue was a necessary ideological precondition to the establishment of the United States.” However we read the motives underlying the document, it is plain that the signers wanted the world to see them as acting from an ingenuous goodwill. In the eighteenth century, “design” was among the nouns most likely to be coupled with the adjective “ambitious.” The American founders wanted to be known as ambitious but not designing men.


Ambition, a History is a lively book and—if this can count as praise in the circumstances—an appealingly modest one. It advances but does not pretend to revolutionize the study of its subject. King is most engaged by the American materials at either end of his story; yet he gives more space to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe and Britain; and the emphasis is understandable since he means to trace the origins of the split between ambition as a virtue and as a vice. That split has lasted. Someone who speaks of ambition today may have in mind the self-serving instinct of a demagogue, but the word refers with equal ease to the glow of honorable emulation in a small businessman. When we say that a politician or a billionaire is driven by ambition—with the full force of the metaphor—we point to a possibility in human nature that is prodigious and frightening.


Arnie Sachs/CNP/Corbis

Bill Clinton, then sixteen years old, meeting president John F. Kennedy in the White House Rose Garden, 1963

“Ambition” does seem a word for a timeless quality. Shakespeare explored the idea more searchingly than any other writer of any time, but he had interesting precedents among his near contemporaries. In dealing with the Renaissance or the “early modern” period, as historians now like to call it, King is always looking in the right direction but sometimes in the wrong place. Thus, Machiavelli thought ambition a dangerous vice, and this book quotes at length his moralistic poem against its ravages. But for Machiavelli ambition was also a compelling passion—a large cause of the engrossing changes of fortune that happen because “nature has created men so that they desire everything, but are unable to attain it.” All men, the grandees and the populace alike, are implicated in the “nature” that created this unreasoning desire. Montaigne, by contrast, treated ambition as an alluring vice that springs from a human insufficiency. The ambitious are those who look out far because they cannot look in deep.

Francis Bacon was deeply influenced by both Machiavelli and Montaigne, and he often seems to be caught between their views of the subject. King attends closely to Bacon’s Advancement of Learning and sees the pertinence of his essay “Of Ambition”: a useful “means to curb” the ambitious, says Bacon, “is to balance them by others as proud as they.” The dry realism of that suggestion would be echoed by Madison in Federalist Number 51: “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” Yet Bacon made his acutest observations on ambition in another essay, “Of Great Place.” Men in great places, he writes, are servants of the state, of fame, and of business:

They have no freedom; neither in their persons, nor in their actions; nor in their times. It is a strange desire, to seek power, and to lose liberty; or to seek power over others, and to lose power over a man’s self.

The path to great place may involve base actions and so “by indignities, men come to dignities.” They buy their power at the price of their own liberty. There is a freedom of the spirit, Bacon seems to say, that has nothing to do with political leverage or social success. In this essay, he breaks clear of Machiavelli without exactly endorsing Montaigne’s renunciation of honor and worldly sway.

As for Montaigne himself, a writer whom King mentions but does not explore, his essay on glory and his two essays against cruelty are in a sense diversionary raids on the deeper enemy, ambition. But Montaigne attacks ambition most tellingly where he attacks it obliquely, in his essay “Of Presumption.” The ambitious man presumes and arrogates. He cannot live without the reflected gaze of other people. So, as Montaigne interprets it, ambition requires for its sustenance a perpetual distraction by outward things. This is an irresolvable dispute, and it might be the subject of a separate book, but Shakespeare had already looked at the arguments from every side when he came to write his two great plays about ambition.

Julius Caesar canvasses the errors of men who distrust ambition and extenuate their own violence because they presume themselves free of the vice. Antony robs them of their excuse and, playing to the Roman crowd, argues that Caesar’s generosity toward the people does not deserve to be called by the ugly name of ambition:

When that the poor have cried, Caesar hath wept.
Ambition should be made of sterner stuff.
Yet Brutus says he was ambitious,
And Brutus is an honourable man.

Antony has an ulterior purpose in denying that Caesar was ambitious. For ambition involves a quest for legitimate honors, and Caesar has been admired by the people of Rome because he did honorable things. The plunder he has brought from foreign wars will enrich the city. Whereas the conspirators who killed Caesar have so far done nothing visibly good, and they may not be honorable men. Better a generous ambition with honor than murderous ambition without it.

Honor, in Antony’s speech, bears the positive value and ambition remains largely negative. Yet Plutarch, who was Shakespeare’s major source here, is often more forgiving toward ambition. Comparing Alcibiades and Coriolanus—ambitious men who acted against the civic good of Athens and Rome—Plutarch almost pardons Alcibiades on the ground that he was affable. He “had a trim entertainment and a very good grace with him, and could fashion himself in all companies.” On the other hand, Coriolanus’s misfortune was

the austerity of his nature, and his haughty obstinate mind…the which of itself being hateful to the world, when it is joined with ambition, it groweth then much more churlish, fierce and intolerable.

Plutarch makes the seductive charm and eager treachery of Alcibiades a token of his humanity. We regard him the more fondly for a perversion of the psyche that seems wired to his nerve endings. What if he joked with the very people he was planning to betray? He liked them well enough, and he used them: What of it? We ought to be wary of the ambitious, Plutarch says, but we should court them when they are companionable. They are close to our deeper nature and their excess adds a welcome friction to the mediocrity of the human scene.

The ambition of Macbeth is a darker matter. It has no obvious basis in any external stimulus, and no apparent origin in any perceptible trait of Macbeth’s. The wish for worldly honors and power (Lady Macbeth’s idea of Macbeth’s ambition) is a phantasmal goal that Macbeth notices only by the way. He has left behind ordinary life and all its rewards when he speaks the desperate words:

        I have no spur
To prick the sides of my intent, but only
Vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself
And falls on th’other.

Commenting on these lines, King remarks that here “Macbeth…recognizes his motivation finally.” That is too settled a conclusion. What the lines register is nonrecognition and the bottomlessness of ambition as a human motive.

A finite goal would be a spur to prick the sides of his intent, but Macbeth has no such spur. Instead, he has “vaulting ambition,” a drive that always wants to be more than itself. Such a motive knows no measure. Satisfaction leaves it insatiable and even the apparent triumph in the word “o’erleaps” is destined to fall back disappointed. The sense of the lines is not easily parsed, though no single word is obscure; and the metaphor evades ordinary sense, though it begins conventionally with a horse and a rider. The suggestion anyway is that ambition in a person works almost separately from the person. It is a name for a force that wants to fill a void that nothing can fill.

Early modern ambition has had a long afterlife. We may join William Casey King in wanting to share the conditional optimism of Madison—the hope that ambition may be made to counteract ambition—but it is questionable how far any check or balance can make a democratic virtue out of an aristocratic excess that treads the brink of vice. There is an irrepressible impulse in many people (less warrior-like than Macbeth) to be always more than: more than their neighbors, more than themselves, more than they see or can imagine. An ethic of equality must find a way of denying this passion its usual intoxicants, and a way of tempering its prestige. But in order to be reformed, ambition must first be analyzed, and it is hard to see that we Americans have advanced far in that work beyond the eighteenth century.

We are decoyed into believing we have domesticated ambition by the common availability of such childhood thoughts as “I could be president some day!” We look at the real president and imagine he could be one of us; he may be cleverer, or favored by fortune at critical moments, but he is one of us just the same. This seductive idea conceals the enormous part that ambition plays, and the power that ambition must always have desired, whether consciously or not. “The first cruelties,” wrote Montaigne in his essay “Cowardice, Mother of Cruelty,” “are done for their own sake; thence is engendered the fear of a just revenge, which produces a swarm of fresh cruelties, one to blot out the other.” It is something like that with ambition. We still do not know what prompts the first ambitious act, the one that arrives at dignity by indignity. And we do not know what it means to say that the act is done for its own sake.