The general view of ambition is expressed in the words which Shakespeare put into the mouth of the ambitious but fallen Wolsey to his ambitious and rising successor:-
“Cromwell, I charge thee, fling away ambition:
By that sin fell the angels; how can man, then,
The image of his Maker, hope to win by ‘t ?”
That is, ambition is a sin; and to call a man ambitious is’ to condemn him. Shakespeare drew a terrible picture of the ruinous effect of ambition on an otherwise fine man in his Macbeth. Ambition changed Macbeth into a monster of cruelty and tyranny. In his case ambition completely swallowed up morality. Milton more leniently speaks of ambition for fame as an “infirmity”; though it is an infirmity that impels men to noble efforts:-
“Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise
(That last infirmity of noble mind)
To scorn delights, and live laborious days.”
Ambition in itself, however, is neither good nor evil. It is neutral. Whether any particular ambition is bad or good all depends on its motive and object. An ambition to achieve a bad object is bad; but an ambition to achieve a good object is good. The ambition that urged Macbeth on from murder to murder and crime to crime was evil, because its object, selfish aggrandizement, was evil. But the ambition of King Arthur to establish a kingdom founded on justice and mercy was a good and noble ambition, because its object was good and its motive unselfish and worthy.
Ambition is simply a powerful desire that may impel one man to fight and strive for his own glory, and another to fight and strive for the good of his fellows. It is a driving force, like steam in the steam-engine. If the engine is on the right line, its steam will drive it and the train it draws swiftly and safely to its destination but, if the engine gets on to the wrong line, or is derailed, its steam will drive it and all it draws to destruction.
A man entirely without ambition is a poor creature that will never achieve anything. A young man ought to be ambitious to make the best he can of his life, to be a noble and good character, to do some great service to his fellow men, and, on dying, to leave the world better than he found it.