An Ambitiously Short History of Ambition (via Shakespeare & Aliens)

Why did Shakespeare find fault in ambition?

1. When space aliens hear of how well Shakespeare staged human nature surely  they’ll study him, and they'll wonder why he found fault in ambition, while humans now mostly don’t. Therein lie universal history lessons.


2. He decried “the canker of ambitious thoughts” so often that ambition has been rated the second worst vice in Shakespeare's eyes (Colin McGinn, Shakespeare’s Philosophy).

3. Brutus says, as Caesar “was valiant, I honour him: but, as he was ambitious, I slew him.” Mark Antony responds, “The noble Brutus Hath told you Caesar was ambitious: If it were so, it was a grievous fault.” Both sides fault putting personal gain above community interests.

4. Until ~1600 “ambition” was “the great vice,” used exclusively pejoratively: “inordinate desire for honor.” “Fling away ambition: By that sin fell the angels.”

5. Shakespeare repeatedly dramatized how elite ambition and ethical ambiguities play out across political structures. Paul Cantor plumbs these patterns across multiple plays, including the “Roman trilogy.”  

6. “Valor is the chiefest virtue” in Coriolanus’s Republic. “Thumos,” a mix of "pride, anger, indignation, and ambition…  fueled” warriors to serve community interests heroically. Many heroes could get top-dog rewards (yearlong consulships, then honorable leader-in-reserve status).

7. But the Roman empire began to encourage eros over thumos (carnal pleasure over achievement). Caesar says “let me have men about me that are fat.” He fears the threat of “lean and hungry” nobles.  

8. In Antony and Cleopatra, “ambition, The soldier's virtue, rather makes choice of loss,” than risk appearing ambitious in Antony’s eyes (lieutenants choose to hurt their “country’s cause”).

9. Yet Antony declares “Kingdoms are clay… The nobleness of life. Is to” kiss Cleopatra. When eros-seeking elites neglect thumos-driven duties, their community’s interests suffer.

10. Aspiring emperors/monarchs became mafiosi, career-advancing assassination abounded. Likewise, the British history plays “tell sad stories of the death of kings… All murder'd: for… the hollow crown.”  

11. Christianity condemned both thumos and eros. Pagan warrior virtues became “evil,” the carnal, embodied sin.

12. The self-divided Hamlet enacts his era’s moral fractures, he’s a Christian prince in a pagan pickle.

13. Audiences once sought wisdom from Shakespeare, and Cantor’s analysis offers us lessons. What are our chiefest virtues? Most rewarded skills? What drives our ambitious titans? To serve what?

14. Shakespeare foresaw economic individualism subverting Christian and older virtues. From “'Tis not my profit that does lead mine honour,” to because “kings break faith upon commodity, Gain, be my lord.” Self-serving greed became primary “rational” elite motive.

15., Shakespeare was ambitious artistically, financially (grain-hoarding speculator), and socially (bought noble status), but he saw through the “trick of fame.”

16. What tricks do today’s economic ambitions play? Our theater-studying space aliens might recognize Rome’s rot in how our elites compete to gain by harming their communities and life-sustaining commons.

17. All polities, universe-wide, either learn “Universal Survivor Logic,” and distinguish “Two Kinds of Success” (survivable, and not), or they perish

18. Beware corporate Caesars marching lobbyist-armies across our Republic’s Rubicon-line. Misaligned self-interest-above-nation ambitions spell collective doom (see “needism”).

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Illustration by Julia SuitsThe New Yorker cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions

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