Robert Browning’s poem “Andrea del Sarto” has a popular line: “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp,/ Or what’s a heaven for?” A sixteenth-century Florentine painter of incredible talent, Del Sarto caught the eye of the Renaissance master Michelangelo. He was limited, however, by what his student and biographer Giorgio Vasari described as “a certain timidity of spirit” that kept him from rivaling the likes of Da Vinci, Titian, and Raphael.
While Browning’s depiction of Del Sarto is that of a man longing to be more ambitious, Vasari saw his mentor in a different light. Del Sarto’s folly consisted in the “poor spirit in the actions of his life,” not in any deficiency of ambition. Regardless of Del Sarto’s talent, like so many political pundits and celebrities today, he lacked magnanimity, or the kind of greatness and generosity of spirit that leads individuals to excel. No amount of skill could compensate for this absence of virtue.
Ambition is a slippery subject in any historical period, and it is something of an untouched topic in contemporary scholarship, which makes William Casey King’s Ambition, A History: From Vice to Virtue a bold endeavor. Sweeping across 1900 years of history, the book charts the development of the different ways ambition was defined from the Roman Republic to the American Revolution. It moves quickly from ambition as a Roman vice to ambition as a Christian sin—a view which was sustained throughout the Middle Ages. Here, ambition is, as Thomas Aquinas wrote, “the immoderate or inordinate desire for honor” by those who would reach beyond their station to achieve greatness. King points out that ambition by this definition was condemned in a variety of works from Dante to the sixteenth-century Geneva Bible. It is only in the writings of Francis Bacon that a paradigm shift appears, moving the definition of ambition, with the help of an increasingly popular ethic of countervailing passions, from sin to a “virtuous vice, a vitiating merit, Janus-like.” For King, this is exemplified in the lives of explorers like Hernán Cortés and revolutionaries like Thomas Jefferson.
Unlike Jennifer Herdt’s Putting on Virtue: The Legacy of the Splendid Vices, which delves deeply into major thinkers from the Western canon, Ambition is not strictly an intellectual history, but rather something of a hodge-podge of intellectual and cultural analysis. It puts forward a valid, albeit simplistic, premise that the definition and role of ambition across Western society has undergone major changes. Despite its claims to be a history of ambition, however, the book’s single, underlying purpose is more political and philosophical than historical: to demonstrate that the definition of ambition as a virtue was a “necessary ideological precondition to the American Republic.” This is an audacious assertion, and, unfortunately, it is one King never fully substantiates.
Ambition falls prey to oversimplification and theory-driven determinism, which are all too typical hazards of contemporary cultural analysis. Four categories derived from the social theorists Antonio Gramsci and Raymond Williams guide Ambition’s argument: hegemony, residual, dominant, and emerging. King intends these labels to create “a certain elasticity” within the argument “that . . . guards against assumptions of absolutes,” allowing for multiple forms of ambition to exist at once. Unfortunately, the outcome is the exact opposite. The categories become self-fulfilling prophecies, because any expression or conception of ambition that does not fit what King sees as the dominant mold is cast into the residual or emerging categories without much further explanation.
The resulting analysis gives short shrift to major themes in the history of ambition. For example, King spends little time on virtues like magnanimity that are similar to ambition in appearance and kind. In Aquinas’s Summa Theologica, ambition and magnanimity are considered almost side-by-side as aspects of fortitude, one vice and the other virtue. The neglect of magnanimity also detracts from King’s reading of the eighteenth century, where thinkers like Edmund Burke and Samuel Johnson referred to ambition in a way that was more akin to Aquinas’s magnanimity. Moreover, King does not give any credence to medieval notions of noble or proper ambition, which complicate the picture of ambition purely as a sin. Thus, while Christopher Marlowe’s Faustus is condemned because he desires “All things that move between the quiet poles,” Geoffrey Chaucer’s monk regales his audience with stories of “ambitious” people like Alexander the Great who was “Chivalry’s and magnanimity’s flower.”
Ambition is also plagued by misinterpretation. In an effort to fit the great English bard into his narrative, King argues, “Throughout Shakespeare’s works, tragic heroes often exhibit a dangerous ambition, one that drives them upward beyond the prescribed limits of their birth. These tragic figures endeavor to manufacture selves of higher estate.” This statement, however, lacks the evidence of its convictions. There are many ambitious characters in the tragedies, but, among the tragic heroes in particular, ambition is not a dominant vice. Macbeth is the obvious example, and the one that Ambition deploys. But who follows? Othello? Lear? Hamlet? Timon? Juliet? They hardly reach above their station to achieve greatness. Oftentimes, the opposite is the case.
In the same chapter, King comments that in the sixteenth century it was believed that “When God made heaven and earth, he also made ambition . . . a most dangerous evil.” The dominant notion of evil, however, understood it to be an uncreated absence of good, or a corruption of good, which is something completely different. Evil certainly was never thought to have originated with God. The book also misses the mark in how it interprets the Geneva Bible’s prescription to avoid ambition—to live a life of “mediocritie.” While King reads this as “to be content with our averageness,” the Oxford English Dictionary makes clear that mediocrity was used more often to refer to the Aristotelian mean or middle way. Not averageness, but what Aristotle calls the “proud man,” an ideal personality who is capable of living out the golden mean, avoiding all excess.
Even in his reading of Francis Bacon’s Novum Organum, King allows his theory to overstep his evidence. Immersed in the ideas of the Scientific Revolution, Bacon tentatively redefined ambition around the metaphor of it being a disease or plague, offering the hope that ambition “can be treated.” This metaphor, King argues, was something that the classical world employed, but it only “resurfaced in England” during the seventeenth century. The metaphor of any sin as a disease, however, is hardly original to Bacon or the scientific advancements of the seventeenth century. Not only is the imagery used in scripture, but also the language of sickness and disease is present in medieval theology. While Bacon’s contributions are important, King falls into the trap, which has captured many other scholars, of seeing this period as a historical watershed that divorced the Western tradition from its medieval Christian roots, returning it to classical antiquity.
Oddly, the book concludes as ambition reaches the threshold of virtue, with the birth of the American Republic. Revolutionaries like Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson employed ambition in positive ways, and King even suggests that Jefferson was compelled by external pressure to remove pro-ambition language from the Declaration of Independence to avoid any “residual associations of sin.” Assigning these associations the label “residual” alleviates the need to explore how much the idea of ambition as sin continued to shape the American Republic, even though, as King notes, ambition in this period was still regularly employed in a pejorative sense. With this concession, we are left with a somewhat limp conclusion, as the influential and clear evolution of ambition from vice to virtue is not nearly as simple or as clear as this book suggests.
In “Letters on a Regicide Peace,” Burke wrote, “Ambition can creep as well as soar.” King’s Ambition, A History never fully captures this complexity. The history of ambition needs to be written, but it should be a history that includes magnanimity as well as selfish ambition, greatness and pettiness, virtue and vice, Michelangelo and Del Sarto.