Aristotle on Ambition

Wendy McElroy highlights a section from a article in The Voluntaryist in which John Pugsley gave a good list of practical things that concerned activists can do, starting right now, to advance the cause of freedom and shrink the domain of coercion and violence.

Johan, at Can you believe?, writes about the life of Quaker war tax resister Gordon Browne, who died late . Excerpt:

Within and beyond his ministry at FWCC, Gordon never abandoned the high ideals that first led him to worship and serve with Friends. I think he had a zeal deep in his bones for the essentials of prophetic Christian discipleship. It was obvious to him that Friends should urgently, persistently stand up for racial justice, including in our own institutions, and he frequently voiced this concern in his home yearly meeting, New England. He and Edith advocated and practiced military tax resistance, even to the point of suing the Internal Revenue Service. To some, this concern about military taxes may have seemed secondary or even quixotic; to Gordon it was a direct consequence of being a follower of Jesus.

In the fourth section of the fourth book of The Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle discusses a virtue that concerns the appropriate amount of ambition one should have.

Aristotle says there isn’t really a word in Greek that unambiguously stands for the virtuous golden mean with relation to ambition. When contrasted with an unseemly lack of ambition, you use the word “ambition” to describe the contrasting virtue. But when you contrast the virtue with an unseemly abundance of ambition, you can use “unambitious” to describe the same middle point.

Most of the translators and commentators have followed Aristotle’s lead, saying that the same thing holds true more-or-less in English. When pressed to describe the mean, they’ll usually tack an adjective like “proper” or “laudable” onto ambition. One lecturer whose recordings I’ve been listening to suggests “industriousness” as a good word for the virtue, as it implies putting forth good effort in a good way for a good end, but doesn’t have any implications of having your sights set above your station.

Various translations of the virtue and vices concerning ambition
Vice of deficiency Virtue (golden mean) Vice of excess
carelessness of honor
(sometimes ambition, sometimes unambitiousness, depending on which vice-extreme it is being contrasted with)
laudable ambition
proper ambition
love of honor

In the same way that magnificence was a sort of grandiose version of liberality, great-souledness is a sort of grandiose version of this virtue we’re considering now. It, too, concerns honor, but in more modest quantities, and it is more accessible to ordinary people. Honor is the sort of kudos and rewards you get, from people who know what they’re doing, when you deserve them for your demonstrations of virtue.

Someone who is too ambitious is too hungry for the honor, for these rewards, and is apt to accept them from the sorts of people who give them out casually or indiscriminately, or to accept them despite not having earned them. Someone who is not ambitious enough is not willing to be honored even when honor is due them.

Given this description, I think industriousness doesn’t work too well for the virtue. “Drive” maybe?

Index to the Nicomachean Ethics series

Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics