There is a large element of deception in all ambitious schemes, for ofttimes, when at the summit of ambition, one is at the depths of despair, and the showy results of a successful pursuit of ambition are sometimes but gilded misery, the casing of despair. The history of ambition is written in characters of blood. It may be designated as one of the vices of small minds, illiberal and unacquainted with mankind. It is a solitary vice. The road ambition travels is too narrow for friendship, too crooked for love, too rugged for honesty, too dark for science, and too hilly for happiness.
Those who pursue ambition as a means of happiness awake to a far different reality. The wear and tear of hearts is never recompensed. It steals away the freshness of life; it deadens its vivid and social enjoyments; it shuts our souls to our own youth, and we are old ere we remember that we have made a fever and a labor of our raciest years. The happiness promised by ambition dissolves in sorrow just as we are about to grasp it. It makes the same mistake concerning power that avarice makes concerning wealth. She begins by accumulating power as a means of happiness, but she finishes by continuing to accumulate it as an end.
A thoroughly ambitious man will never make a true friend, for he who makes ambition his god tramples upon every thing else. What cares he if in his onward march he treads upon the hearts of those who love him best. In his eyes your only value lies in the use you may be to him. Personally one is nothing to him. If you are not rich or famous or powerful enough to advance his interests, after he has got above you he cares no more for you. It is the nature of ambition to make men liars and cheats, to hide the truth in their breast, and show, like jugglers, another thing in their mouth; to cut all friendships and enmities to the measure of their interests, and to make a good countenance without the help of a good will.
If, as one says, “ambition is but a shadow’s shadow,” it were well to remember that a shadow, wherever it passes, leaves a track behind. It would conduce to humility also to remember that of the greatest personages in the world when once they are dead there remains no monument of their selfish ambition except the empty renown of their boasted name. It is a very indiscreet and troublesome ambition which cares so much about fame, about what the world will say of us, to be always looking in the faces of others for approval, to be always anxious about the effect of what we do or say, to be always shouting to hear the echo of our own voices. To be famous? What does this profit a year hence, when other names sound louder than yours?
The desire to be thought well of, to desire to be great in goodness, is in itself a noble quality of the mind, and is often termed ambition, though it lacks the element of selfishness which renders ambition so odious to all right-minded people. It seems an abuse of language to confound such a trait of the mind with ambition. It were better to call it aspiration, which becomes ambition only when carried to an extreme, or when the objects for the attainment of which ambition incites us to put forth our utmost exertions are unworthy the attention of sentient moral beings, who live not only for time, but for eternity. A worthy aspiration may be a great incentive to advancement and civilization, a great teacher to morality and wisdom; but an unworthy ambition, unworthy because of its ends or the zeal with which they are pursued, is often the instrument of crime and iniquity, the instigator of intemperance and rashness.
Ambition is an excessive quality, and, as such, is apt to lead us to the most extraordinary results. If our ambition leads us to excel or seek to excel in that which is good, the currents it may induce us to support will be none but legitimate ones. But if it is stimulated by pride, envy, avariciousness, or vanity, we will confine our support principally to the, counter currents of life, and thus leave behind us misery and destruction. An ambition to appear to be thought great in noble qualities may lead us to appear good; but where we only act from ambition, and not from aspiration, we are subject to fall at any moment, since it were vain to expect selfishness to long continue in any right action.
If it is our ambition to gain distinction, we will rob the weak and flatter the strong, and become the fawning slave of those who are able to foist us above our betters, and deck us with the titles and honors of the great without any regard to our own merit of respectability. But if we are ambitious to do good, without any regard for the fame we may win or the praise we may command, our course will be honorable and just, our acts and deeds most worthy and good. When we have done with the world the prints of our worthy ambition will still remain as a legacy to those who come after us to enjoy and reap the benefits, for which they will revere our memory, and retain our names in the lists of those whose labors have aided in enriching the world and exalting the general interests of mankind.
To be ambitious of true honor, of the true glory and perfection of our nature is the very principle and incentive of virtue; but to be ambitious of titles, of place, of ceremonial respects and civil pageantry is as vain and little as the things are which we court. Much of the advancement of the world can be traced to the efforts of those who were moved by ambition to become famous. Like fire, ambition is an excellent servant, but a poor master. As long as it is held subservient to integrity and honor, and made to conform to the requirements of justice, there is but little danger of a man’s having too much of it. But, beware! it is such an insatiate passion that you must be continually on your guard lest it speedily become the ruling principle of your being.
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