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Should honor and fame no longer be ends of ambition in such a world? The ancient philosophers doubted the ultimate merit of fame, but they also looked for the most spirited students, those most inclined to “undertake extensive and arduous enterprises”…

In response to my essay about baptizing ambition, a friend from Boston College recommended Prof. Robert Faulkner’s book The Case for Greatness: Honorable Ambition and Its Critics. The suggestion is welcome, because the whole question is what kind of ambition is honorable. What should students who graduate from Wyoming Catholic College be ambitious for? Money and power, understood in the right sense, can be worthy aims, but they take some argument to justify. Honor, on the other hand, seems to need no defense as the object of ambition. Think of Shakespeare’s Henry V in his famous St. Crispin’s Day speech:

By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires:
But if it be a sin to covet honor,
I am the most offending soul alive.

No one who hears Henry V thinks that he is “the most offending soul alive,” because the kind of honor that he covets requires great resolve and courage in the face of the utmost danger. He covets the fame that accompanies victory, and the Battle of Agincourt has amply earned it for him and for those with him: “we few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”

John Milton writes in “Lycidas” that “Fame is the spur that the clear spirit doth raise/ … To scorn delights and live laborious days.” Similarly, Alexander Hamilton in Federalist 72 describes the love of fame as “the ruling passion of the noblest minds, which would prompt a man to plan and undertake extensive and arduous enterprises for the public benefit”—very much like those he himself undertook in the early days of our republic. What has happened to dull the love of such honorable achievement in the most capable and pious young men and women? Our times, certainly—the “world” in its contemporary character. As Cardinal Sarah puts it in God or Nothing, “The new rule is to forget heaven so that man might be fully free and autonomous. But the death of God means the burial of good, beauty, love, and truth.” Witness the failure of nobility in our public offices and the uncleanness that has invaded even the hierarchy of the Church.

It used to be that the hero went willingly to death because he knew he would live on in honor. In our day, cults of celebrity (such as the one surrounding a family I will not name) debase the very idea of fame. The word “courage” is suborned for those who publicly announce once-shameful sexual predilections or decide to repair the biological “misassignment” of their sexual identities. Approbation, if not honor, everywhere alights upon dishonorable subjects, and those who have committed themselves to what is shameful oppose even the most modest objections with the stridency of desperate assertion.

Should honor and fame no longer be ends of ambition in such a world? The ancient philosophers doubted the ultimate merit of fame but they also looked for the most spirited students, those most inclined to “undertake extensive and arduous enterprises.” In the Republic, Socrates argues that those like Achilles who pursue honors are dominated by thumos, the spiritedness that seeks victory and distinction, whereas the very highest souls are those who have been led to recognize an even worthier end: reason, in rightly ordering passions and appetites, subordinates even this noble desire for recognition to the pursuit of truth for its own sake.

A true philosopher will not be primarily concerned with honors or fame, though these might come of their own accord. Aristotle, for example, became famous by pursuing the truth, and it is particularly telling to see what he says (this tutor of Alexander the Great) about the ambition for honor in his discussion of the “magnanimous man” in the Nicomachean Ethics. The truly great-souled individual scorns minor honors (“Employee of the Month”) and pursues achievements that defy the capacity of others to honor them. Imagine awarding a poet of Dante’s or Shakespeare’s magnitude the Nobel Prize for Literature—a great honor, to be sure, for Seamus Heaney or Toni Morrison, much less Bob Dylan, but one almost laughably insufficient to supreme poetic stature. Genuine greatness exceeds the capacity of others to honor it properly, because it exceeds and redefines the city or civilization that would seek to bestow recognition on it. Themistocles saves the city of Athens from the invading Persians, for example, and Fabius Maximus devises a strategy to neutralize the brilliant Hannibal and save Rome; Aristotle reorders thought per se. How can such men be properly honored except through fame that far outlasts their own place and moment?

The question is what has happened to magnanimous ambition in our own day. Our new freshman class is about to begin the Iliad, where they will encounter the furious dispute over honor and dishonor between Achilles and Agamemnon and participate in the drama of transcendent fame. Yesterday afternoon, all the students and faculty participated in a celebration of Owen Wister’s Wyoming novel The Virginian, an event we repeat every few years. The action of Wister’s novel comes down to a final confrontation—a matter of honor—between the title character and his arch-enemy Trampas. Examples abound throughout the curriculum. But where do our students look in contemporary culture for those men and women of merited fame who can inspire a whole life’s aspiration? There are such examples, but there are far more whose public trajectories arouse cynicism. Only the great tradition gives spirited young people the lasting record of enterprises extensive and arduous enough to make them realize what is possible.

Our era has its novelties, no question, but Sodom and Gomorrah foreshadow most of them—and who remembers the celebrities of those cities of the plain? Only Lot—Abraham’s kinsman spared only at Abraham’s pleading—is famous, and his escape from Sodom remains a deeply troubling one because of his wife and his daughters. His fame is hardly that of Abraham, Moses, or Joshua, or of Achilles, Aeneas, or Camillus. To know these comparisons is itself a major advantage that readers of the Bible and students of the Western tradition have over their contemporaries. Since antiquity, young men and women have been fired with good ambition by the examples in the very books our students read. Why should it not be so now? These models of greatness—the heroes and saints—kindle that fire in the heart that has always led to great achievement, whether in building up a new civilization or reforming the old one.

But why is it that Milton calls fame not only “the spur” of ambition but also the “last infirmity of noble mind”? What is it about humility that we praise? I’ll come back to that question later.

Republished with gracious permission from the Wyoming Catholic College Weekly Bulletin (September 2018).

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1 reply to this post
  1. What a joy to read reflections that are serious but not sermons from on high or sledge-hammering us to adopt the views of the authors.

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