AMBITION (Latin ambitio—striving, desire for fame and honor, noble pride, a feeling of one’s own worth and personal dignity)—an affection of the will and a feeling that is a desire for goods that are great and difficult to achieve and which merit recognition, honor and respect; a disordered desire for fame and honors.
Ambition may be morally qualified either as a virtue or a vice (hence in ordinary parlance people speak of healthy ambition and unhealthy ambition). In the proper sense, ambition is driven by the virtue of magnanimity (this is so-called healthy ambition). Magnanimity is the desire for great goods according to the right measure of reason, and the right measure of reason is the proportion between the desired goods and the dignity, strengths, and abilities of the person who desires them. Vices opposed to the virtue of magnanimity may arise (a) because of too little ambition, as pusillanimity (a lack of ambition), when someone avoids acting for the sake of a difficult good or lacks the desire for great goods of which he is worthy but wrongly underrates his own dignity and thinks he is not worthy of those goods, or (b) by an excess (exaggeration)—as a kind of pride when someone desires goods that exceed his dignity, strengths, or abilities (called unhealthy ambition where there is an improper desire for honor, and honor is treated as an end in itself, which is not in agreement with the right judgment of reason). In a subjective sense, the excess of ambition takes the form of vanity, which is the desire for praise and acclaim for their own sake.
Ambition as a virtue may also occur when someone desires honor, but the following conditions must be met: (a) the ambitious person must recognize that the feature or action whereby he stands out among others is not something due to his personal merit but a gift from God (which is why honor ultimately belongs not to man but to God); (b) the feature of action serves the real good of others; (c) the moral condition for good ambition must be met: a man should find the honor shown to him pleasing only when it does not lead him to pride, but rather becomes a motive in his quest for a still greater good.
Today ambition is discussed not so much in the domain of ethics as in psychology where it is understood in a narrower sense and loses much of its meaning. In psychology, ambition is situated in the category of desires (A. Adler) or needs (A. H. Maslow). This is reflected in today’s pedagogy which has lost sight of the importance of ambition in education and upbringing. Ambition is replaced by assertiveness which in the formation of attitudes, instead of perfecting, often deforms a healthy moral character.
A. G. Sertillanges, La philosophie moral de Saint Thomas d’Aquin, P 1922, 430–431; Woroniecki KEW II, 1, 448–473; R. A. Gauthier, Magnanimité l’ideal de la grandeur dans la philosophie païenne et dans la theéologie chrétienne, P 1951; F. W.Bednarski, Zagadnienie ambicji według św. Tomasza z Akwinu [The question of ambition according to St. Thomas Aquinas], RF 7 (1959) 2, 5–19; S. Olejnik, Aretologia poczucia mocy i dążenia do wielkości [Aretology of the feeling of power and the striving for greatness], RTK 11 (1964) 3, 5–22; idem, Katolicka etyka życia osobistego [Catholic personal ethics], Wwa 1969, I 142–143; A. H. Maslow, W stronę psychologii ambicji [Toward a psychology of ambition], Wwa 1986.