Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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AMBITION, Political. Vanity (in the sense here used) is the desire of honor and distinction; ambition is the desire of power. The two are essentially political passions. The second plays a most important part in society. If men were completely devoid of egotism, the love of justice and the public good would suffice to give life to the body politic; but, as a matter of fact, power is sought for and held on to, because men love it. Ambition is the motor, secret or avowed, of the great majority of those who govern states. It is useful, because it calls forth men; it is necessary, because it lends force to those who govern and consequently to governments; it may be even glorious, if noble in its aims, pure in its means, and seconded by great intellectual power. It is more in place in free than in absolute states. Richelieu and Colbert, under the ancient monarchy of France, were useful, if ambitious men. They might have been dangerous and even pernicious citizens, if they had not risen to the highest rank. It is in free states alone that ambition can have a definite, specific aim, test its powers, and adapt itself to circumstances and to men. It is the chief motive power in free states, as vanity, under the name of honor, is in absolute monarchies.


—In speaking of political ambition, we need not always have a Marius, a Sylla, or a Julius Cæsar in view. These names fill the minds of men as they do, because they are very great names; but the most absolute monarchies have their ambitious men as they have their civil wars. It was not liberty that made the overthrow of the Roman republic easy; it was the weakening of authority. It is sometimes thought that liberty and authority are antagonistic, and that the one increases only to the detriment of the other. There could be no greater mistake. An authority powerfully constituted but restrained within just limits and a generous liberty may co-exist in the same state. This is the indispensable condition of order and stability. There is no liberty without a powerful authority to secure its continuance, nor can there be a firm, lasting and beneficent authority without liberty. These conditions are required by the nature of man, which has equal need of freedom and limitation. Liberty permits ambition to act for good, and authority prevents its passing the limits set to guard the common weal. An ambitious man subject to a master has but two roads to success, revolt and flattery. An ambitious man in a free state may reach his end by the éclat of his talents or his virtues. He journeys under a clear sky, and the more lofty his soul the greater are his chances of success.


—It was a saying of the Fourier school, that everything is good in its place. This is particularly true of ambition, but it needs to be directed by a right conscience, and an honest and firm mind. Ambition is almost always given to excess, and consequently to violence. The vehemence of its desires deceives it as to the legitimacy of its objects and its means. It then becomes immoral through blindness and passion; and, as it is attended with pride, far from confessing its errors it invents a false morality to justify and exalt them. The author of the First Alcibiades, who perhaps was Plato, treats this subject with much force and truth. He shows that it is a vulgar ambition to desire power when one is not sure of exercising it in the interest of humanity, and a criminal ambition to acquire dominion through injustice. Morality enlightened by history, pronounces this judgment on ambition and ambitious men: No legitimate ambition can justify or excuse the use of illegitimate means. No ambition is legitimate which has not sufficient force at its command. It is not success that justifies ambition; it is the service rendered by it. The common herd who always approve and applaud force are slaves of success heart and soul. They are the devoted and patient servants of every ambitious person who succeeds. Success has in itself no moral grandeur. It is a force, but it is not, as has been said, an evidence of force. It may attend corruption and weakness. The true criterion of a lofty and noble ambition is this: the employment of honorable means and of none other, the promotion of justice and the furtherance of the interests of the whole community, while furthering one's own.


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