- As American as Ambition
What did ambition mean in early America? What, indeed, did it evoke or convey within the larger contexts of Western culture and Atlantic civilization? And how—or when—did ambition become a central part of the new republic declared into being during 1776? King organizes his elegant, insightful, and often brilliant book around that great speech-act, the Declaration of Independence. Or, rather, he works towards the Declaration, exploring the complex meanings of ambition within the various cultural and chronological milieus that informed Jefferson’s masterpiece: Classical Greece, early modern Europe, commercializing England, and post-contact North America. Each chapter offers an essay in the strange career of that morally elusive “passion.” The book culminates in the archetypal act of the American Revolution, which King counts “among the most audaciously ambitious acts in the history of the Western world” (p. 186).
King is clear from the outset that ambition has become a positive virtue in the United States, a definitional if not obligatory part of the American self-concept. “America has historically been and continues to be a nation driven principally by ambition” (p. 3). If ambition has indeed become a virtue we can all agree on—and I wonder if that premise leaves out an awful lot—then King has nothing to apologize for in offering this sweeping intellectual and cultural history. His is certainly an ambitious project, and an original one. There are “few books at all” on the subject of ambition, King writes, and “no book-length studies that detail ambition’s transformation” from vice to virtue (p. 4). Full disclosure: I actually tried such a study five years ago, in a book King cites but does not mention. So I am something less than a disinterested reader, even though our arguments are largely complementary. That I learned a tremendous amount from Ambition, A History and ultimately liked it a great deal is a testament to its quality.
Attuned to the etymological roots of key concepts, King notes that ambition arrived in the English language by way of the Latin ambire, “go round,” and that its meanings also reflected Greek terms relating to honor, acclaim, [End Page 614] and rivalry. Generally these carried a negative connotation, for Classical philosophies associated morality and virtue with public service and self-denial. Ambition was dangerous in part because it had no final or concrete goal. It hungered for that which its seeker could never have, because he—usually he, in ambition’s normative forms—only wanted what people distant in space and time could give: fame, honor, distinction. It was excessive en soi. On the other hand, one might chase that horizon by doing something that people admired. This is why Stoic moralists, no less than eighteenth-century philosophers, also associated ambition with “great” men, never with mere good ones.
King does wonderful work with unusual and neglected sources, including medieval icons of the various passions, early modern folk songs about self-makers, and, perhaps most importantly, the marginal notes published with the Genevan Bible. While most scholars (myself included) have relied on the modern King James version, King notes that it was the Genevan that shaped both elite and popular conceptions of Christian morality for more than a century after its initial English publication in 1560. Neither the Genevan nor the King James translations of Scripture have much to say about ambition, but the Genevan’s marginal notes—some 300,000 words that were published alongside the sacred verses—contain seventy-six admonitions on the subject. They all portray ambition as a terrible sin. An amalgam of pride, envy, and rage, ambition, according to the Genevan, was a destructive force locked within the human heart. It had been there at least since the fall of Eden, when Adam so grievously forsook God’s infinite love. And what had pushed him to that horrid deed? Not Eve, as a long and undistinguished line of misogynists has argued. Rather it was ambition, the excessive desire to be and have more...