Today in church, we were treated to a reading from the Book of James (chapter 3) that began with these lines:
Where jealousy and selfish ambition exist,
there is disorder and every foul practice.
This got me thinking. Isn’t ambition a “good” thing (read: socially approved)? In our fame-obsessed, money-hungry, and power-mad culture, ambition is celebrated and deemed an asset. (E.g., It’s no surprise Amanda is a success, she’s always been such an ambitious young lady.) Moreover, why does James qualify his use of the word with the adjective selfish. Is there another kind of ambition that’s more generous or kind?
To answer these questions, I compared the definitions of ambition in the oldest and most current dictionaries on the SDCL’s shelves to see if the word’s meaning had changed over time. In the oldest, Donohue’s Standard Dictionary of the English Language (1914), ambition is defined as “desire of preferment or power,” which to my ears, sounds somewhat negative and not too flattering. Yet, interestingly, the same text defines ambitious as “aspiring,” which has a much more positive ring to it.
In the SDCL’s most recent dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed., 2003), ambition is defined as 1. an ardent desire for rank, fame, or power 2. the object of ambition (e.g., her ambition is to start her own business) 3. a desire for activity or exertion (e.g., I feel sick and have no ambition.). Obviously, these definitions provide a more complete picture of the word’s positive and negative aspects. However, once again, the text’s definition of ambitious, “having a desire to achieve a particular goal: aspiring,” is rather affirmative.
In a search for more information about this word and how it’s used, I turned to the etymological dictionaries. According to the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories (ODWH):
Ambition came via Old French from Latin, ambitio(n), from ambire “to go around” (as in to go around canvassing for votes). The related late Middle English word ambitious is from Old French ambitieux or Latin ambitiosus, from ambitio(n). The sense progression in Latin moved from going round generally, to going round to canvass votes, to seeking honor, to ostentation, and finally to keen desire. The sense “desire for honor” was adopted first in the modern languages.
The Chambers Dictionary of Etymology agrees with with the ODWH’s assessment, as does the (Ayto) Dictionary of Word Origins, but the latter adds this beneficial little nugget:
When the word was first borrowed into English, via Old French, ambition, it had distinctly negative associations of ‘greed for success,’ but by the 18th century it was a more respectable emotion.
That helps, but perhaps the best overview of ambition‘s duality can be found in the Penguin Dictionary of Proverbs, which offers a list of sayings celebrating ambition‘s “value,” warning of its “dangers,” and cautioning “against over-ambition.” I won’t list them all (there are a lot of them), but here are a few samples from each category.
- Ambition makes people dilligent
- He who aims for the moon may hit the top of the tree; he who aims at the top of the tree is unlikely to get off the ground.
- Nothing crave, nothing have
- He begins to die that quits his desires
- Hitch your wagon to a star.
- Ambition loses many a man.
- He who opens his heart to ambition closes it to repose.
- Desire has no rest.
- Every ambitious man is a captive and every covetous one a pauper.
- High places have their precipices.
- Better be first in a village than second at Rome.
- Seek that which may be found.
PS.) In the interest of thoroughness, it’s worth noting that Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary contains a definition of ambition too: “an overmastering desire to be vilified by enemies while living and made ridiculous by friends when dead.”