Taking Aim at Ambition

A writers collective looks for virtue amidst the vices of hubris, pride, and vainglory
March 30 th 2016
Ambition: Essays by Members of the Chrysostom Societyeds. Luci Shaw and Jeanne Murray Walker, Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2016.


I regularly spend time in Silicon Valley, ground zero for hubris in the twenty-first century. The shadows of Stanford fall on a dense population of imaginative, creative innovators and inventers who are unabashed in their desire to not only save the world but also conquer the heavens and colonize the solar system. Behind the B Corp do-goodism and social consciousness is unabashed ambition.

And the truth is, I wish some of my students here in the Midwest could catch this infection.

If you're surrounded by placid, passive, go-with-the-flow, aw-shucks folk who are leaving unused gifts on the table and failing to respond to the divine call, then ambition looks like liberation, faithfulness, and the narrow way.

Ambition is a many-splendored, much-maligned thing. It all depends on what demons you're trying to exorcise. If you're surrounded by power-hungry, Babelian egomaniacs bent on making a name for themselves, ambition looks ugly, monstrous, and domineering. But if you're surrounded by placid, passive, go-with-the-flow, aw-shucks folk who are leaving unused gifts on the table and failing to respond to the divine call, then ambition looks like liberation, faithfulness, and the narrow way.

So ambition isn't any one thing, which is why this book—a collection of reflections, meditations, and poetic analyses—is a fitting way to tackle the theme. Each of the gifted writers of the Chrysostom Society (which includes folks like Luci Shaw, Jeanne Murray Walker, Eugene Peterson, Bret Lott, and many more) offers a take on ambition. We might think of ambition as a jewel. Each of these writers dons a loupe to investigate different facets, approaching the phenomenon from their own personal histories. Some find an enticing glint—as in Walker's meditation on the gift it can be to encourage ambition in young women, which she benefited from particularly when she was young. Others peer closer and see impurities, even fakes—like when Emilie Griffin gazes closely at the alleged diamond of ambition and finds only the zirconia of a hunger for fame.

Or you might think of ambition as a wine to roll around on your tongue, looking for different notes and accents. In the wine of ambition some of the authors pick up the pleasing tastes of motivation, faithfulness, courage, and aspiration while others curl their lips at the off-putting tang of pride, competition, and vainglory. In Walker's experience, for example, ambition should be stewarded and fanned into flame. "It was my mother's ambition for her children to have ambition," she recalls. "My ambition is to write poetry that defeats time. . . . This ambition isn't a drive for power in the world," she continues. "It feels more like a journey driven by curiosity." Likewise for Scott Cairns: "Either we are called to greatness," he remarks, "or we are not called at all."

"Either we are called to greatness," he remarks, "or we are not called at all."

But others see the shadow side of such aspiration. "On reflection," confesses Peterson, "I realized that I had become busy, a bastard form of ambition." "Ambition carries us into terrible places," suggests Erin McGraw (and I want to encourage her to add the qualifier can). Luci Shaw wards off "celebrity and fame, the bastard offsprings of unfettered ambition," while Griffin warns us about the "goddess" of fame—especially germane warnings for an evangelical subculture so susceptible to the cult of celebrity.

The result of this multifaceted, multiauthored approach—which includes both complementary and competing accounts—is just what we need: an account of the beautiful mess that is ambition in a fallen world. This mottled reality of shadows and light is most poignantly captured in the closing story by Bret Lott, which refuses to be paraphrased. Indeed, there is something irreducible in the experience of reading this book that can't be merely summarized in a review. Because these are folks who love language and make a living with words, these are insights you have to taste to see.

Any lingering frustration with the book is only because of the complexity of the phenomenon under consideration. But the essays here helped me hone a couple of insights. A first takeaway: the opposite of ambition is not humility; it is sloth, passivity, timidity, and complacency. We like to sometimes comfort ourselves by imagining the ambitious are prideful and arrogant; that way those of us who never risk, never aspire, never launch out into the deep get to wear the moralizing mantle of humility. But it is often just thin cover for a lack of courage, even laziness.

We like to sometimes comfort ourselves by imagining the ambitious are prideful and arrogant; that way those of us who never risk, never aspire, never launch out into the deep get to wear the moralizing mantle of humility.

Second, it is the telos of ambition that distinguishes good from bad, separating faithful aspiration from self-serving aggrandizement. In this respect, I often found myself returning to Augustine's prescient analysis of ambition in his Confessions. Meditating on John's injunction to avoid worldly loves—"the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the ambition of the secular world [ambitio saeculi in Augustine's Vulgate]" (1 John 2:16)—Augustine the bishop confesses he is still prone to fall for the third temptation: the "wish to be feared or loved by people for no reason other than the joy derived from such power." There's something oddly refreshing to hear a bishop be honest about his continued weakness for the rush that comes from attention, even fame.

But Augustine isn't willing to give himself the easy out of simply excusing himself from leadership: "If we hold certain offices in human society it is necessary for us to be loved and feared by people." Abandoning the office to avoid the temptation is its own sin of irresponsibility, a Jonah-like evasion of the call on one's life. The trick, Augustine points out, is to aspire to one's office, and aspire to excellence in that office, without letting praise for your excellence be the trumping goal of your ambition. "Be our glory," he prays: "Let it be for your sake that we are loved." And if our excellence in the pursuit of God's call on our lives engenders the proverbial praise of men, let us even learn to receive that as a gift. "If admiration is the usual and proper accompaniment of a good life and good actions, we ought not to renounce it any more than the good life which accompanies it." Praise is an inevitable by-product of a life well-lived. It's when we seek the praise rather than excellence that ambition devolves into hubris. And if we're honest, like Augustine, we'll realize this temptation to swap goals, and seek the by-product as an end in itself, is a lifelong temptation for those who achieve success.

While browsing an artsy bookshop in Miami Beach recently, I happened on a whimsical little volume by actor, director, and novelist Ethan Hawke called Rules for a Knight. Penned as the letters of a knight to his children, passing on a legacy of character, chivalry, and moral fortitude, the tale includes a scene germane to our reflection on ambition. Our knight recalls his archery apprenticeship under his grandfather and remembers a key lesson:

"When you shoot to impress, your eyes divide. You see two targets," he whispered. We drew back the bowstring. "Your skill has not changed, but the imagined prize separates you." Our eyes seeing as one, we focused the arrow on a dark knot in a sycamore tree thirty yards away. "Thinking more of the prize than of his target, a knight is drained of power by the need to win."

We might read this as a micro-parable of ambition. The issue isn't whether you aim at a target; it's a matter of why you want to hit the bull's-eye.

 

James K.A. Smith is editor-in-chief of Comment and teaches philosophy at Calvin College where he holds the Gary & Henrietta Byker Chair in Applied Reformed Theology and Worldview. His latest book is Awaiting the King: Reforming Public Theology (Baker Academic, 2017).

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