WHAT'S one thing that was once a sin to have but now a sin to lack? The answer is stated in the famous admonition of Cardinal Wolsey in Shakespeare's Henry VIII: “Cromwell, I charge thee, fling away ambition/By that sin fell the angels.” By that sin fell Napoleon when his ambition led him to invade Russia. Solomon's excesses split the Isreali kingdom. Alexander the Great died after trying to cross the Gedrosian Desert. People, who push their luck, often cause their own downfall.
Yet ambition by nature is exactly that. Robert Browning defines ambition in his poem Andrea del Sarto that a man's reach should exceed his grasp. “Or what's a heaven for?” he asks in the next sentence. Thomas Aquinas described ambition as the immoderate or inordinate desire for honor by those, who would reach beyond their stations to achieve greatness.
It was not until the writings of Francis Bacon in the sixteenth century that ambition was viewed as anything but a sinful predilection. Thus the mother's milk of modern individualism was looked down as a vicious inhibition in the early days. Sallust, a stoic philosopher of Rome, expressed the sentiments of his time when he said that “ambition drove many men to become false to have one thought locked in the breast, another ready on the tongue.”
Double standard precisely gives us the connection between the modern civilization and its high wire act. People stoop low in order to aim high despite the fallacy inherent in this contradiction. This is where presumption and magnanimity have the line drawn between them. A magnanimous man attempts great deeds in proportion to his ability. A presumptuous man attempts great deeds beyond his means.
Modern man may have gained much strength, but he has lost his sense of proportion. He has befuddled himself in the midst of the flurries of discoveries and inventions. This man has advanced in all aspects but regressed in inner composition. A prisoner of instincts, he has lost control of himself.
Aristotle professed in his argument for the Golden Mean that since human beings are from nature, which gives them life, it's reasonable to conclude that humans should also uphold the balance just like nature. This mean, he argues, is a balance between extremes. For example, courage is the balance between cowardice and recklessness. He explains that fleeing from the battlefield is a cowardly act but a reckless warrior would charge at fifty enemies. Aristotle cautions that the Golden Mean isn't the exact arithmetic middle, but varies from situation to situation.
The irony of modernism is that the calculation for the shifting middle has made us shifty. Instead of adjusting strategy to the situation, we are adjusting ourselves to the strategy. That's why man no longer controls the situation. The situation controls him.
Thus, the ambit of ambition has changed its context and people are in pursuit of greatness without knowing its meaning. So, they make the common mistake of making money the measure of all things, dragging down the highest human virtue to the sewers of mediocrity. Ralph Waldo Emerson believed that to be great is to be misunderstood. Today's greatness is more compromising by the way of promoting understanding to get recognition. Being misunderstood these days doesn't get anyone anywhere anymore.
It means recognition is tied to conformance. Julius Assange or Edward Snowden or Osama bin Laden couldn't get that recognition because their methods didn't conform to the standards of their times. It's no exaggeration that greatness these days thrives on its exact opposite. The medals, titles, awards and recognitions go to those who serve their masters, not their own minds.
That explains why ambition, once a vice, has been elevated to virtuous height. Children write essays on aim in life, which is supposed to inculcate in them the daily dollops of passion for ambition so that they'll grow up to succeed in life.
One of the greatest tragedies of modern human race is that it has made success synonymous with ambition. It's a tragedy for the same reason formalin turns sustenance into a suicidal act. Bribe-takers have their ambition. Smugglers have their ambition. Swindlers have their ambition too. Greatness has been bastardized as if it's the same thing as feeling great!
Icarus disregarded his father's warning not to fly too close to the sun or too close to the sea. He soared high through the sky when the heat melted the wax in his wings. This is an example of misguided ambition but the human story runs to the contrary. Man should neither be an angel nor a fiend. Human condition is his destiny.
Ambition alienates humans from this condition, while greatness is a measure of it. The former is harmful for the growth of the latter for the same reason junk food isn't healthy.
The writer is Editor of weekly First News and an opinion writer for Bangladesh.