A Philosopher’s Diary, #8–Ambition and Mortality.
By Otto Paans
The descriptive sub-title of this blog — Against Professional Philosophy — originally created and rolled out in 2013, is “A Co-Authored Anarcho-Philosophical Diary.”
Now, nine years later, after more than 300,000 views of the site, this series, A Philosopher’s Diary, finally literally instantiates that description by featuring short monthly entries by one or another of the members of the APP circle, in order to create an ongoing collective philosophical diary that records the creative results of critical, synoptic, systematic rational reflection on any philosophical topic or topics under the sun, without any special restrictions as to content, format, or length.
In this eighth installment, Otto Paans critically reflects on the nature and pitfalls of ambition.
Ambition and Mortality
Every age has its different inclinations, but man is always the same. At ten, he is led by sweetmeats, at twenty by a mistress, at thirty by pleasure, at forty by ambition, at fifty by avarice.
Why we are ambitious? That some ambition, desire, and initiative are necessary to survive or procreate seems clear to me. After all, someone had to get up in the morning and lead the hunting party or explore new pastures that lay just beyond the horizon. But the ceaseless ambition that drives our post-industrial and hyperproductive societies seems to have overshot its evolutionary goal by far.
My hypothesis is that ambition arises due to the pressure exerted by our mortality. Rousseau said that we are led by ambition in our forties. But is this not because death usually knocks on our door at that time? Subtly, perhaps, by putting the scythe down, we hear the handle scraping against the woodwork. Death is here — he is just not making any haste yet.
We see his looming approach in the subtle signs that usually mark our lives around forty: our parents get older, their health starts to fail, and death is certainly making an approach there. We have kids, or our siblings have them. They grow up, and we see all the life stages that we once lived passing before our eyes. Preschool, primary school, high school, and so-on. Around this time, our grandparents have often died, or have reached a very advanced age, showcasing every ill that old age brings with it.
Around our forties, we feel that our body is no longer capable of the same lifestyle that we had during our thirties or — as we wistfully realize after a night’s drinking — our twenties. The first lines in our faces mar and scratch the surface of youth; our hair gets thinner. We find ourselves sitting on the couch one evening, and we are really feeling tired. Surprisingly, the only overwhelming urge is to go to bed or to take a nap.
Likewise, by the time we reach our forties, we’ve experienced quite a few of the things life has to offer. We’ve had failures and successes, experienced new love and heartbreak, disappointment and joy, and perhaps we have learned a thing or two about deception, the times we were not too proud about ourselves, and the times we had unexpected encounters. We also have a certain professional experience, now reaping the harvest from study and work. This is the strange combination that sets off a paradox: we are experientially not-quite-yet at the zenith of accomplishment; yet at the same time, The Grim Reaper hints that the party will not go on forever. And this produces a new type of pressure: time is running out, but we can still grow, accomplish so much! Quickly, before the body gives out forever, and the darkness sets in! Carpe diem, but with a bitter tone, a fruit harvested on a day of bitterness.
So, we trick ourselves, and look just a little ahead — but not too much, because the road is inevitably ending. Conveniently, we limit ourselves to just five years or a decade. What we could accomplish in that time! We see that vital person in his or her or their early fifties. They are our guides, and our ambition spurs us on to become just as successful as they are. That little bit more power, more status, more this or more that, and during our fifties, what could one achieve, even more status, more money, and so-on!
In this process of ambitious thought, we live ahead of ourselves. We treat our lifetime as a single-direction project and so forget to cherish the present and the process of growth itself. This happens not infrequently because we measure ourselves with standards that we do not even like, but that we accept passively and unthinkingly. This causes us to forget to look back, pause a moment and enjoy the journey, and where it has led us. The rat in the rat-race does not enjoy the run: it merely runs until exhaustion set in or the end of the line is finally reached.
Ambition is like that. It discounts the present for the future, even if that future might never come. Rousseau was right to include it with other notable vices — gluttony, lust, ambition, and malice. Indeed, the world could use a bit less ambition if you asked me. It would certainly make the present more enjoyable. Many of our troubles are caused by ambition. Careering politicians, backstabbing colleagues, competition among peers, power-mongering managers, and companies that only think of growth. If we could stop being ambitious, the world would probably breathe a sigh of relief.
Rousseau was right to observe that ambition is inevitably followed by avarice. Like a hydra, ambition breeds new heads. No sooner has one attained wealth, a higher position in a company or university, status, or fame, then new ambitions arise. First, the ambition to gather more and more of what one already possesses, be it wealth, fame, status, or power; second, the ambition to hold on to the possessions one has painstakingly collected; and third, the scorching, malign ambition to ensure that no one else will ever achieve the same level of wealth, fame, status, or power.
But the worst ambition of all is the drive to accomplish more and more in the inevitably diminishing amount of time one has at one’s disposal. If we start to become ambitious in our forties, and we succeed in realizing our ambitions in a decade, then, by the time we reach our fifties, we will find that the intensity of ambition has not diminished, but has instead heightened and intensified. Likewise, the same process plays out when we start to be ambitious in our thirties. What happened? Well, quite simply, we realize through our very successes that time is running out. And since we grow increasingly dissatisfied about our own accomplishments, we require more and more successes. However, the more we strive to hoard successes, the faster our time seems to run out. So, we experience an existential urgency that builds up like a thunderstorm.
Mortality now makes a second entrance: not only does the process of aging disturb us, but we feel that we are required to accomplish more and more on a timeline that grows shorter by the minute. So, the future is no longer that expanse of possibility that invitingly beckoned to be filled in by success, a career, or life itself. Remember the idea of the future during your early twenties? It was there, and it stretched away like a long endless road towards the horizon. The future — there was this unshakable confidence that one could satisfy all kinds of desires and realize all kinds of goals in that far-away realm of possibilities. Instead, under the spell of age and ambition, the future appears no longer as an expanse, but as a threat, as the rapidly shortening time we have left runs out. But there is so much to be done and achieved!
And so, the existential urgency ceaselessly and mercilessly drives us towards frantic activity and restlessness. But no sooner do we fully engage in satisfying or realizing our ambitions, than the specter of mortality visits us again. This time, however, he presents us with bitterness and resentment: it’s all gall and wormwood. Our limited time becomes crowded. The time we thought we had to ourselves becomes colonized with a grid of plans, schemes and goals. So, not only do we recognize our finitude, but we also we recognize in dismay that we don’t have the time to enjoy the fruits of our labor anymore, even if we achieved our ambitions to the fullest. Or, even worse, we have no time to enjoy anything because we have set ourselves the task of achieving this or that ambition. Paradoxically, this recognition breeds nothing but bitterness and resentment, very often resulting in avarice.
After all, one has invested so much, but also paid for it with that single thing that one never gets back: time. And so, our ambition robs us of both our rest and our time. The result? Mostly it is frustration instead of satisfaction. And now mortality appears for the fourth and final time. And this time, he shows that no matter how much one has achieved, one cannot hold on to it, and that the remaining time is preciously short. So short, in fact, that ambition itself becomes insignificant.
Finitude becomes a very real phenomenon all of a sudden, coloring our perception of the world. And in the exacting, harsh light of finitude, the glory and attraction of ambition pales, wanes, and becomes almost pathetic. But once the ambition has receded, the world fully appears in its finitude to us, and perhaps even for the first time, we see that we did not actually enjoy ourselves at all, and we experience the fact that ambition is the cruelest taskmaster.
Rousseau was correct to observe that we are driven by different desires at different ages. But above all, and like Schopenhauer later on, he could do nothing other than lament this fact. Luckily, he and Schopenhauer hit on the same solution: to philosophize for pleasure while walking — although there is always a tendency in Schopenhauer ‘s writing aiming at proving how clever he was in any case.
I’d like to imagine that they walked away from their ambition, although Schopenhauer seemingly never outpaced it. Or, put differently, I’d like to imagine that they found the place where they could be happy for a few moments, undisturbed by the death-drive of ambition.
For — make no mistake about it — ambition is a death-drive all its own. It drives people to depths and heights they never imagined they could reach. In our contemporary world, this is usually framed in the most glowing and rosiest of terms: one has “transcended his own limits,” “proved herself,” “has a winner’s mentality,” or “has conquered herself,” and so-on. But is this not the very framing that we have attached to achievement and performance? The very words we use say it all: one must have the ambition to achieve something, to win, and to “make it” in the world. But I very much doubt that it actually leads to a happier state of affairs.
We are told that ambition is good in itself; but as for me, I’d prefer ambition simply to be put in its proper place: it is, at most, useful at certain moments, but if and only if one can also let go of it. One cannot deny its utility now and then. Nevertheless, once ambition occupies the center stage of our lives, it robs us of our inner peace, our present and future time, and the joy of working for the sake of those things one most deeply believes in. Ambition as a leading motivation only flattens our lives, poisons our lives, and shortens our lives, in all the truly negative senses of those phrases.
AGAINST PROFESSIONAL PHILOSOPHY REDUX 741
Mr Nemo, W, X, Y, & Z, Monday 14 November 2022
Please consider becoming a patron!