S. Austin Allibone, comp. Prose Quotations from Socrates to Macaulay. 1880.
The soul, considered abstractedly from its passions, is of a remiss and sedentary nature, slow in its resolves, and languishing in its executions. The use therefore of the passions is to stir it up and to put it upon action, to awaken the understanding, to enforce the will, and to make the whole man more vigorous and attentive in the prosecution of his designs. As this is the end of the passions in general, so it is particularly of ambition, which pushes the soul to such actions as are apt to procure honour and reputation to the actor. But if we carry out reflections higher, we may discover farther ends of Providence in implanting this passion in mankind.
It was necessary for the world that arts should be invented and improved, books written and transmitted to posterity, nations conquered and civilized. Now, since the proper and genuine motives to these, and the like great actions, would only influence virtuous minds, there would be but small improvements in the world were there not some common principle of action working equally with all men: and such a principle is ambition, or a desire of fame, by which great endowments are not suffered to lie idle and useless to the public, and many vicious men are over-reached, as it were, and engaged, contrary to their natural inclinations, in a glorious and laudable course of action. For we may farther observe that men of the greatest abilities are most fired with ambition; and that, on the contrary, mean and narrow minds are the least actuated by it: whether it be that a mans sense of his own incapacities makes him despair of coming at fame, or that he has not enough range of thought to look out for any good which does not more immediately relate to his interest or convenience; or that Providence, in the very frame of his soul, would not subject him to such a passion as would be useless to the world and a torment to himself.
There are few men who are not ambitious of distinguishing themselves in the nation or country where they live, and of growing considerable with those with whom they converse. There is a kind of grandeur and respect which the meanest and most insignificant part of mankind endeavour to procure in the little circle of their friends and acquaintance. The poorest mechanic, nay, the man who lives upon common alms, gets him his set of admirers, and delights in that superiority which he enjoys over those who are in some respects beneath him. This ambition, which is natural to the soul of man, might, methinks, receive a very happy turn, and, if it were rightly directed, contribute as much to a persons advantage as it generally does to his uneasiness and disquiet.
Of ambitions, it is less harmful the ambition to prevail in great things, than that other to appear in everything; for that breeds confusion, and mars business; but yet it is less danger to have an ambitious man stirring in business than great in dependences. He that seeketh to be eminent amongst able men hath a great task; but that is ever good for the public: but he that plots to be the only figure amongst ciphers is the decay of a whole age.
Although imitation is one of the great instruments used by Providence in bringing our nature towards its perfection, yet if men gave themselves up to imitation entirely, and each followed the other, and so on in an eternal circle, it is easy to see that there never could be any improvement amongst them. Men must remain as brutes do, the same at the end that they are at this day, and that they were in the beginning of the world. To prevent this, God has implanted in man a sense of ambition, and a satisfaction arising from the contemplation of his excelling his fellows in something deemed valuable amongst them. It is this passion that drives men to all the ways we see in use of signalizing themselves, and that tends to make whatever excites in a man the idea of this distinction so very pleasant. It has been so strong as to make very miserable men take comfort that they were supreme in misery; and certain it is that, where we cannot distinguish ourselves by something excellent, we begin to take a complacency in some singular infirmities, follies, or defects of one kind or other.
The same sun which gilds all nature, and exhilarates the whole creation, does not shine upon disappointed ambition. It is something that rays out of darkness, and inspires nothing but gloom and melancholy. Men in this deplorable state of mind find a comfort in spreading the contagion of their spleen. They find an advantage too; for it is a general, popular error, to imagine the loudest complainers for the public to be the most anxious for its welfare. If such persons can answer the ends of relief and profit to themselves, they are apt to be careless enough about either the means or the consequences.
Well is it known that ambition can creep as well as soar. The pride of no person in a flourishing condition is more justly to be dreaded than that of him who is mean and cringing under a doubtful and unprosperous fortune.
Edmund Burke: Letters on a Regicide Peace: Letter III., 1797.
Ambition, that high and glorious passion, which makes such havoc among the sons of men, arises from a proud desire of honour and distinction, and, when the splendid trappings in which it is usually caparisoned are removed, will be found to consist of the mean materials of envy, pride, and covetousness. It is described by different authors as a gallant madness, a pleasant poison, a hidden plague, a secret poison, a caustic of the soul, the moth of holiness, the mother of hypocrisy, and, by crucifying and disquieting all it takes hold of, the cause of melancholy and madness.
Ambition is to the mind what the cap is to the falcon; it blinds us first, and then compels us to tower by reason of our blindness. But, alas, when we are at the summit of a vain ambition we are also at the depth of real misery. We are placed where time cannot improve, but must impair us; where chance and change cannot befriend, but may betray us: in short, by attaining all we wish, and gaining all we want, we have only reached a pinnacle where we have nothing to hope, but everything to fear.
If we look abroad upon the great multitude of mankind, and endeavour to trace out the principles of action in every individual, it will, I think, seem highly probable that ambition runs through the whole species, and that every man, in proportion to the vigour of his complexion, is more or less actuated by it.
We must distinguish between felicity and prosperity; for prosperity leads often to ambition, and ambition to disappointment: the course is then over, the wheel turns round but once, while the reaction of goodness and happiness is perpetual.
It ought not to be the leading object of any one to become an eminent metaphysician, mathematician, or poet, but to render himself happy as an individual, and an agreeable, a respectable, and a useful member of society.
Ambition is full of distractions; it teems with stratagems, and is swelled with expectations as with a tympany. It sleeps sometimes as the wind in a storm, still and quiet for a minute, that it may burst out into an impetuous blast till the cordage of his heart-strings crack.
There is no greater unreasonableness in the world than in the designs of ambition; for it makes the present certainly miserable, unsatisfied, troublesome, and discontented, for the uncertain acquisition of an honour which nothing can secure; and, besides a thousand possibilities of miscarrying, it relies upon no greater certainty than our life: and when we are dead all the world sees who was the fool.