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An essay by Arthur C. Benson


Title:     Ambition
Author: Arthur C. Benson [More Titles by Benson]

I am afraid that Milton's great line about ambition,

"That last infirmity of noble minds,"

is responsible for a good deal of harm, because it induces high- minded persons of inexact ideas to think ambition a noble infirmity, or at least to believe that they need not try to get rid of their personal ambitions until they have conquered all their other evil dispositions. I suppose that what Milton meant was that it was the hardest of all faults to get rid of; and the reason why it is so difficult to eject it, is because it is so subtle and ingenious a spirit, and masquerades under such splendid disguises, arrayed in robes of light. A man who desires to fill a high position in the world is so apt to disguise his craving to himself by thinking, or trying to think, that he desires a great place because of the beneficent influence he can exert, and all the good that he will be able to do, which shall stream from him as light from the sun. Of course to a high-minded man that is naturally one of the honest pleasures of an important post; but he ought to be quite sure that his motive is that the good should be done, and not that he should have the credit of doing it. I have burnt my own fingers not once nor twice at the fire of ambition, and the subject has been often in my mind. But my experiences were so wholly unlike anything that I had anticipated, though I suppose they are in reality normal enough, that I will venture to set them down here. The first curious experience was how, on a nearer survey of the prospect of obtaining an important post, all the incidental advantages and conveniences of the position sank into nothingness. This was a quite unexpected development; I had imagined that a prospect of dignity and importance would have had something vaguely sustaining about it. A brilliant satirist once said that a curate did not as a rule desire to be a bishop that he might exercise a wide and useful influence, but primarily that he might be called "my lord." I myself was brought, as a child, in contact with one who was somewhat unexpectedly called to a high office. I was much with him in the days when his honours first invested him, and I confess with a certain shame that it did undoubtedly seem to me that the dignity of the office, the sense of power, the obvious respect paid to him by people of position, were things that must pleasantly sweeten a mortal cup. The other day I was in the company of an eminent prelate; there were three curates present: they hovered round the great man like bees round a flower; they gazed with innocent rapture upon his shapely legs, somewhat strangely swathed, as Carlyle said, his bright, grotesque hat; and I could not help feeling that they thought how well such raiment would become themselves. It is of course a childish view; but then how long our childish views survive, though hidden under grave pretences! To see a great personage move with dignity to his appointed place in a great ceremony, attended by all the circumstances of pomp, a congregation gazing, with an organ above thundering out rich and solemn music, how impressive it all appears! How hard to think that the central actor in such a scene does not feel his heart swell with a complacent joy! And yet I suppose that any sensible man under such conditions is far more likely to be oppressed with a sense of weakness and anxious responsibility; how soon such surroundings ought to, nay, do find their true value in a wise man's mind! The triumph rather is if, in the midst of all this glitter and glory, when a silence is made, the worshipful man speaks simple and strong words out of a pure and noble heart; and then one can feel that the pomp is nothing but the due homage of mankind for real greatness, and that it has followed him rather than been followed by him.

It was a relief to find, as I say, that, on a nearer prospect, all the circumstance of greatness vanished into shadow--indeed more than that--it became one of the distinct disadvantages of the position. I felt that time and money and thought would have to be spent on the useless and fatiguing mise-en-scene, and that it would all entail a quantity of futile worry, of tiresome publicity, of intolerable functions, that meant nothing but weariness of spirit. I think that men of high official position are most to be pitied because of the time that they have to spend, not in their work, but in the ornamental appearances entailed on them by their duties. These things have a certain value, I suppose, in stimulating the imagination of gazers; but surely it is a poor value after all. A secretary of state in his study, working out the hard and tiresome details of a plan that will benefit perhaps a whole nation in humble ways, is a more admirable figure than the same man, in ribbon and star, bowing and smiling at an evening party. And yet the dignified trappings of the post are what ordinary men desire.

The next step in my own progress when confronted, as I say, with the prospect of the possibility that I might feel bound to accept an important position, was the consciousness of the anxious and wearing responsibilities that it involved. I felt that a millstone was to be bound round my neck, and that I must bid farewell to what is after all the best gift of heaven, my liberty; a liberty won by anxious years of hard toil.

And here I have no doubt, though I tried hard not to let it affect me, that my desire not to sacrifice my liberty did make me exaggerate the difficulties that lay before me; difficulties which I should probably have unconsciously minimized if I had desired the position which was in prospect. It was a happy moment when I found myself relieved from the responsibility of undertaking an impossible task. I felt, too, that I was further disqualified by my reluctance to attempt the task; a reluctance which a near prospect of the position had poignantly revealed to me. A great task ought to be taken up with a certain buoyancy and eagerness of spirit, not in heaviness and sadness. A certain tremor of nerves, a stage fright, is natural to all sensitive performers. But this is merely a kind of anteroom through which one must needs pass to a part which one desires to play; but if one does not sincerely desire to play the part, it is clear that to attempt it merely from a sense of duty is an ill omen for success. And so I felt sincerely and humbly that I ought not to feel compelled to attempt it. The conviction came in a flash like a divine intuition, and was followed by a peace of mind which showed me that I was acting rightly. I seemed too to perceive that the best work in the world was not the work of administration and organization, but humble and individual ministries performed in a corner without tangible rewards. For such work I was both equipped and prepared, and I turned back to the fallentis semita vitae, which is the true path for the sincere spirit, aware that I had been truly and tenderly saved from committing a grave mistake.

Perhaps if one could have looked at the whole question in a simpler and larger-minded way, the result might have been different. But here temperament comes in, and the very complexities and intricacies that clouded the matter were of themselves evidence that after all it was the temperament that was at fault. Cecil Rhodes, it is recorded, once asked Lord Acton why Mr. Bent, the explorer, did not pronounce certain ruins to be of Phoenician origin. Lord Acton replied with a smile that it was probably because he was not sure. "Ah!" said Cecil Rhodes, "that is not the way that Empires are made." A true, interesting, and characteristic comment; but it also contains a lesson that people who are not sure should not attempt to make empires, or undertake tasks that involve the welfare of many.

And so there remains the duty to me, after my piece of experience, to gather up the fragments that remain, to interpret. Dante assigns the lowest place in the lower world to those who refuse a great opportunity, but he is speaking of those who perversely reject a great task, which is plainly in their power, for some false and low motive. But the case is different for those who have a great temptation put before them, and who, desiring to do what is right, have it brought home to them in a convincing way that it is not their opportunity. No one ought to assume great responsibilities if he is not equal to them. One of the saddest things ever said on a human deathbed was what was said by a great ecclesiastic, who had disappointed the hopes that had been formed of him. In his last moments he turned to one who stood near him and murmured, "I have held a great post, and I have not been equal to it." The misery was that no one could sincerely contradict him. It is not a piece of noble self-sacrifice to have assumed confidently a great responsibility to which one is not equal. It is a mere mistake, and a mistake which is even more reprehensible than the mistake of being over-persuaded into attempting a task for which one is not fitted. One is given reason and common sense and prudence that one may use them, and to act contrary to their dictates because those who do not know you so well as you know yourself advise you cheerfully that it will probably be all right, is an act of criminal folly. Heavy responsibilities are lightly assumed nowadays, because the temptations of power and publicity are very strong, and because too high a value is set upon worldly success. It is a plainer and simpler duty for those who wish to act rightly, and who have formed a deliberate idea of own limitations, to refuse great positions humbly and seriously, if they know that they will be unequal to them.

Of course I knew that I should be reproached with indolence and even cowardice. I knew that I should be supposed to be one of those consistently impracticable people who insist on going off at a tangent when the straight course lies before them. That I should be relegated to the class of persons who have failed in life through some deep-seated defect of will. The worst of a serious decision of the kind is that, whichever step one takes, one is sure to be blamed. I saw all this with painful clearness, but it is better to be arraigned before the tribunal of other men's consciences than to be condemned before one's own. It is better to refuse and be disappointed, than to accept and be disappointed. Failure in the course marked out, in the event of acceptance, would have been disastrous, not only to myself but to the institution I was to be set to rule and guide. Far better that the task should be entrusted to one who had no diffidence, no hesitation, but a sincere confidence in his power of dealing with the difficulties of the situation, and an ardent desire to grapple with them.

The only difficulty, if one believes very strongly, as I do, in a great and wise Providence that guides our path, is to interpret why the possibility of a great task is indicated to one if it is not intended that one should perform it. But the essence of a true belief in the call of Providence seems to me to lie not in the rash acceptance of any invitation that happens to come in one's way, but a stern and austere judgment of one's own faculties and powers. I have not the smallest doubt that Providence intended that this great task should be refused by me; my only difficulty is to see what to make of it, and why it was even suggested. One lesson is that one must beware of personal vanity, another that one should not indulge in the temptation to desire important posts for any reason except the best: the humble hope to do work that is useful and valuable. If I had sternly repressed these tendencies at an earlier stage of life, this temptation would not have been necessary, nor the humiliation which inevitably succeeds it.


that is down need fear no fall,
He that is low no pride.

And there can be now no more chance of these bitter and self- revealing incidents, which show one, as in a clear mirror, the secret weaknesses of the heart.

But in setting aside the desire for the crowns and thrones of ambition, we must be very careful that we are not merely yielding to temptations of indolence, of fastidiousness, of cowardice, and calling a personal motive unworldliness for the sake of the associations. No man need set himself to seek great positions, but a man who is diffident, and possibly indolent, will do well to pin himself down in a position of responsibility and influence, if it comes naturally in his way. There are a good many men with high natural gifts of an instinctive kind who are yet averse to using them diligently, who, indeed, from the very facility with which they exercise them, hardly know their value. Such men as these--and I have known several--undertake a great responsibility if they refuse to take advantage of obvious opportunities to use their gifts. Men of this kind have often a certain vague, poetical, and dreamy quality of mind; a contemplative gift. They see and exaggerate the difficulties and perils of posts of high responsibility. If they yield to temptations of temperament, they often become ineffective, dilettante, half-hearted natures, playing with life and speculating over it, instead of setting to work on a corner of the tangle. They hang spiritless upon the verge of the battle instead of mingling with the fray. The curse of such temperaments is that they seem destined to be unhappy whichever way they decide. If they accept positions of responsibility, they are fretted and strained by difficulties and obstacles; they live uneasily and anxiously; they lose the buoyancy with which great work should be done; if, on the other hand, they refuse to come forward, they are tortured with regrets for having abstained; they become conscious of ineffectiveness and indecision; they are haunted by the spectres of what might have been.

The only course for such natures is to endeavour to see where their true life lies, and to follow the dictates of reason and conscience as far as possible. They must resolve not to be tempted by the glamour of possible success, but to take the true measure of their powers. They must not yield to the temptation to trust to the flattering judgment that others may form of their capacities, nor light-heartedly to shoulder a burden which they may be able to lift but not to carry. Such natures will sometimes attempt a great task with a certain glow and enthusiasm; but they must ask themselves humbly how they will continue to discharge it when the novelty has worn off, and when the prospect that lies before them is one of patient and unpraised labour. It leads to worse disasters to over- estimate one's powers than to under-estimate them. A man who over- estimates his capacities is apt to grow impatient, and even tyrannical, in the presence of difficulties.

And after all it may be said that humility is a rarer virtue than confidence; and though it is not so popular, though it does not appeal so much to the imagination, it is a quality that may well be exercised, if it is done without self-consciousness, in these busy days and in these active western climes. The best work of the world is done, as I have said, not by those who organize on a large scale, but by those who work faithfully on individual lines, in corners and byways. Indeed, the success of those who organize and rule is due in part no doubt to the power that they may possess of inspiring silent effort, but is still more largely due to the faithful workers whose labours are unnoted, who carry out great designs in a simple and quiet spirit. There is strong warrant in the teaching of Christ for the work of those who are faithful in a few things. There is no warrant for the action of those who stride into the front, and clamour to be entrusted with the destinies of others. There can be no question that Christ does not admit the value of ambition in any form as a motive for character. The lives that He praises are the lives of quiet, affectionate persons, more concerned with the things of the spirit than with the things of the intellect. The Christian must concern himself, not with grasping at influence, not even with setting his mark upon the world, but with the quality of his decisions, his work, his words, his thoughts. The only thing possible for him is to go forward step by step, trusting more to the guidance of God than to his own designs, to what are called intuitions more than to reasoned conclusions. In that spirit, if he can attain to it, he begins to be able to estimate things at their true value. Instead of being dazzled with the bright glare which the world throws upon the objects of his desire, he sees all things in a pale, clear light of dawn, and true aims begin to glow with an inner radiance. He may tremble and hesitate before a decision, but once taken there is no looking back; he knows that he has been guided, and that God has told him, by silent and eloquent motions of the spirit, what it is that He would have him to do; he has but to interpret and to trust.

But even supposing that one has learnt one's own lesson in the school of ambition, the question comes in as to how far it should be used as a motive for the young, by those who are entrusted with educational responsibilities. It is one of the most difficult things to decide as to what extent it is permissible to use motives that are lower than the highest, because they may possess a greater effectiveness in the case of immature minds. It is easy enough to say sincerely that one ought always to appeal to the highest possible motive; but when one is conscious that the highest motive is quite out of the horizon of the person concerned, and practically is no motive at all, is it not merely pedantry to insist upon appealing to the highest motive for one's own satisfaction? It is not perhaps so difficult where the lower reason for a course of action is still a sound reason in itself, as, for instance, if one is trying to help a man out of drunken habits. The highest motive to appeal to is the truth that in yielding to sensual impulses, in such a matter, a man is falling short of his best ideal; but a more practical motive is to point out the loss of health and respectability that results from the practice. Yet when one appeals to a boy's ambition, and encourages him to be ambitious, one cannot be quite certain whether one is not appealing to a false motive altogether. The excuse for using it is the hope that, when for the sake of ambition he has learnt diligence and perseverance, he may grow to perceive that the competitive instinct, which in its barest form is the desire to obtain desirable things at the expense of others, is not in reality a good motive at all. With immature characters part of the joy of success is that others have been beaten, the pride of having carried off a prize which others are disappointed of obtaining. And if one talks to an ambitious boy, and tries to inculcate the principle that one should do one's best without caring about results, one is generally conscious that he believes it to be only a tiresome professional platitude, the kind of sentiment in which older people think fit to indulge for the purpose, if possible, of throwing cold water on innocent enjoyment.

Yet, after all, how very few people there are who do learn the further lesson! The successful man generally continues to show to the end of his life a contempt for unsuccessful persons, which is only good-humoured because of the consciousness of his own triumph; how rare, again, it is to find an unsuccessful person who does not attempt, if he can, to belittle the attainments of his successful rival, or who at least, if he overcomes that temptation from a sense of propriety, feels entitled to nourish a secret satisfaction at any indication of failure on the part of the man who has obtained the prize that he himself coveted in vain. Yet if one has ever seen, as I have, the astonishing change of both work and even character which may come over a boy or a young man who is perhaps diffident and indolent, if one can get him to do a successful piece of work, or push an opportunity in his way and help him to seize it, one hesitates before ruling out the use of ambition as an incentive. Perhaps it is uneasy and casuistical morality to shrink from using this incentive, so long as one faithfully puts the higher side of the question before a boy as well. But when one is quite sure that the larger aspect of the case will fall on deaf ears, and that only the lower stimulus will be absorbed, one is apt to hesitate. I am inclined, however, to think that such hesitation is on the whole misplaced, and that in dealing with immature minds one must be content to use immature motives. There is a temptation to try and keep the education of people too much in one's own hands, and to feel oneself to be too responsible in the matter. I have a friend who errs in this respect, and who is apt to assume too wide a responsibility in dealing with others, who was gently rebuked by a wise-hearted teacher of wide and deep experience, who said on one occasion, when over-anxiety had spoilt the effect of my friend's attempts, that he ought to be content to leave something for God to do.

But for oneself, one must try to learn the large lesson in the course of time, to learn that the sense of ambition is often, in reality, only a sense of personal vanity and self-confidence disguised; and that the one possible attitude of mind is to go humbly and patiently forward, desiring the best, labouring faithfully and abundantly, neither seeking nor avoiding great opportunities, not failing in courage nor giving way to rash impulses, and realizing the truth of the wise old Greek proverb that the greatest of all disasters for a man is to be opened and found to be empty; the wise application of which to life is not to avoid the occasions of opening, but to make sure that if the opening comes inevitably, we shall be found not to have devoted ourselves to the adorning of the casket, but to have piled with careful hands the treasure high within.

[The end]
Arthur C. Benson's essay: Ambition