Ambition is driven by the ego and serves it. It is good within limits, and for a time, the time it takes to secure the worldly wherewithal that permits an advance to something better than mere ambition, aspiration. Aspiration aims beyond the ego to its source. Both target self-improvement, but the selves are different. The self of ambition seeks self-aggrandizement. Its project is doomed to failure: the consolidation and securing of the bubble of the separative self, a bubble inevitably to burst, if not today, then the day after. The true self of aspiration humbles itself before its source and absolute, seeking to secure its center in it, where alone there is some hope for success.
He who is ever on the make will never have it made. He will never be a 'made man.' There is a time to strive, and a time to be. Is the universe trying to get somewhere? It already is everywhere. Are you any less cosmic? If you think you have a Maker, is he not a 'made man'? And aren't you a chip off the old block?
Here is an old man who is still ambitious. For what? For more land and loot, for more experiences that scatter and degrade? For the repetition of the same old pleasures to whose repetition a lifetime has already been devoted if not wasted? Does this world offer even one thing that is a worthy object of ambition for one who sees clearly and deeply and has had time to wander its ways?
Lack of ambition in the young is rightly seen as a defect. But here is an old man still driven by his old ambitions, none of which were of too lofty a nature. Is he not a fool? For his old ambitions, appropriate as they were in youth, have become absurd in old age.
His upbringing was hard and his circumstances straitened. He early resolved to better himself economically, and he succeeded. Hard work and the old-time virtues brought him wealth. But having 'arrived,' he did not know what to do with his arrival except to keep on piling up loot. Loot, however, is but a means to end, and our old man's ends are, like he himself, coming to an end.
It is time for him to abandon ambition and fly into the arms of fair Philosophia, there to meditate on such truths as: One cannot tow a U-Haul with a hearse. But death, the muse of philosophy, will catch him long before it a-muses him. The Reaper's scythe will cut him down before it moves him to thought.
Viewed in one way, ambition is a good thing, and its absence in people, especially in the young, we consider to be a defect. Without ambition, there can be no realization of one's potential. Happiness is connected with the latter. We are happy when we are active in pursuit of choice-worthy goals that we in some measure attain. On the other hand, there is no happiness without contentment, which requires the curtailing of ambition. There is thus a tension between two components of happiness. It is a tension between happiness as self-actualization and happiness as contentment.
To actualize oneself one must strive. One strives for what one doesn't have. Striving is predicated upon felt lack. But one who lacks what he desires is not content, not at peace, and so is unhappy in one sense of the term. One who longs for what is permanently out of reach will be permanently unhappy, always striving, never arriving. Not only will he not get what he wants, he will fail to appreciate what he has.
To be happy one must strive for, and in some measure attain, choice-worthy ends. That requires ambition. But the attaining is not enough; one must rest in and enjoy what one has attained. That requires the curtailing of ambition.
The young, astride their steeds of ambition, should gallop boldly into the fray. But the old should know when to quit the game and dismount into dis-illusion. Homo ludens, when sapient, knows when to become de-luded.
Ralph Waldo Emerson, journal entry from June, 1851:
Thoreau wants a little ambition in his mixture. Fault of this, instead of being the head of American engineers, he is captain of [the] huckleberry party. (Bliss Perry, ed., The Heart of Emerson's Journals, Houghton Mifflin, 1926, p. 256.)
As a former student of engineering, I am glad Thoreau stuck to his walking and writing. Like Kierkegaard, he served as a much-needed corrective to the hustle and frenzy of his age. There is need of slackers to counterbalance the go-getters, and if slackers need a patron saint, Henry David would be a fine choice as would Walt Whitman.
Thanks to open library stacks, I stumbled across the epigrams of Martial a while back. (Therein lies an argument for open stacks.) Marcus Valerius Martialis was so-named because he was born on March 1. He first saw the light of day circa A.D. 40 at Bilbilis in Hispania Tarraconensis. So far to me he seems a scribbler of no great importance, though he is entertaining, and, like Samuel Pepys, another scribbler of no great importance, he affords an insight into the times in which he lived and into the invariability of human folly. If I knew more of Martial, and more of Truman Capote, perhaps I would compare them: superficial, sycophantic, but prodigious in their quill-driving. In any case, here for leisurely consumption is one of Martial's more substantial epigrams, addressed to another Martial, his old friend Iulius Martialis: