‘We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday by the sea. We are far too easily pleased.’ (‘The Weight of Glory’, C.S. Lewis)
Anyone who has studied business (by far the most popular major amongst undergraduates) is familiar with a panoply of verbs – ‘lead’, ‘accelerate’, ‘maximize’, ‘optimize’, ‘leverage’, ‘compete’, ‘innovate’ – that are all ultimately based on the idea that ambition is a virtue. The exterior wall of the Student Services Building of the university where I earned my doctoral degree features a giant poster of a successful and impeccably dressed business graduate with the tag line ‘Extraordinary Ambition Starts Here’. When I first saw the sign, it occurred to me that the value of ambition depends on the worth of its object. My purpose here is not to criticize business education. I think that there are business leaders who do good and admirable things. Nor do I think that there is an excessive focus on ambition in our culture; in fact, I think that just the opposite is true. We do not have enough ambition.
In the Summa Theologiae II-II, q. 133, St Thomas Aquinas discusses the vice of pusillanimity. The word ‘pusillanimity’ means ‘smallness of spirit’ and it involves fleeing from difficulties and shrinking away from challenges from a sense of inability. It is to be contrasted with magnanimity or ‘greatness of spirit’. Like Aristotle, Aquinas thinks that a virtue represents a mean between two extremes that are both vices: magnanimity (proper ambition) is the mean between presumption (excess ambition) and pusillanimity (defective ambition). And Aquinas actually thinks that pusillanimity is the more dangerous of the two vices, for the pusillanimous withdraw from the goods proper to human nature. Out of the fear of failure, we close ourselves off from relationships of love and commitment. Out of the fear of not being good enough, we fail to pursue opportunities given to us. Out of the fear of surrendering paltry desires, we cling to addictive and empty illusions when so much more is offered to us. It turns out that our desires are not too strong, but rather that they are too weak; it is not the case that our ambitions are too great, but rather that they are too small. We often prefer fast food on our own to wholesome food shared with friends, fantasy to real relationships, and fleeting pleasures to genuine joy.
When we do think of ambition, we tend to equate it with celebrity, monetary rewards, and status. But these are small goals for a creature made in the image of God, whose happiness is found in a community of loving relationships and meaningful work. True Christianity should enliven our sense of ambition, for it teaches us the true value of our relationship with others, with the world around us, and ultimately with God. While we often struggle with pusillanimity, we do also struggle with presumption by asserting an unhealthy sense of independence. For St Thomas, the magnanimous Christian recognizes both her interdependence with other human beings and her dependence on God’s grace. The twin vices of pusillanimity and presumption close us off from happiness because the best things in life like love, mercy, and faithful companionship are ultimately things that we receive from others, most of all from God. In our pusillanimity, we fail to reach out for these things, whether out of a sense of unworthiness or by having a weak soul enamoured with things beneath our proper vocation. In our presumption, we think that these things are earned through merit and we can take them for granted or destroy them by failing to treat them as gifts. The antidote to all this is humility: the truly magnanimous are humble, for they fix their eyes not on themselves but on the gift of community with God and neighbour, a gift not earned through merit but given in grace.