There are different kinds of ambition. There was, on one end of the spectrum, the ambition of someone like Abraham Lincoln. This was the ambition that taught him to read, that braved the wild Mississippi River, that learned the law, that worked his way up from poverty into the presidency, and, eventually, kept America from permanently tearing itself apart. Then there is Seneca’s ambition. He too was driven and talented and yearned for a chance to change the world. But it’s also clear that he wasn’t always principled, that he was perhaps a bit too in love with power, and possibly with money. Lincoln’s ambition ended slavery. Seneca’s enabled Nero.
In the contrast between the two—and between pure and self-interested ambition everywhere—we find the truth of the observation in the novel What Makes Sammy Run?—
“What a tremendous burning and blinding light ambition can be where there is something behind it, and what a puny flickering sparkler when there isn’t.”
We’ve talked before here about Marcus Aurelius’s view on ambition. But the truth was that he was ambitious too. He wanted to be a great emperor. He swore that no senator would be executed in his reign. He wanted peace to reign. He wanted to resist the corrosive corruption that power had on other Stoics, including Seneca.
This is clearly good ambition. The world needs more of that. It needs people who want to improve the world and themselves. Who, above all, are committed to virtue—to justice, temperance, wisdom, and courage. More directly we need you to be one of those people, to have that kind of ambition and to set about your life doing whatever it is you are called to do.
P.S. This was originally sent on August 20, 2019. Sign up today for the Daily Stoic’s email and get our popular free 7-day course on Stoicism.
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