Book: Ambition, A History

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Ambition, A History: From Vice to Virtue

William Casey King, executive director of the Yale Center for Analytical Sciences

(Yale University Press)

Americans are driven by ambition, contends William Casey King. Yet at the time of the nation’s founding, ambition was viewed as a dangerous vice, everything from “a canker on the soul” to the impetus for original sin. This book explores ambition’s surprising transformation, tracing attitudes from classical antiquity to early modern Europe to the New World and America's founding. From this broad historical perspective King deepens our understanding of the American mythos and offers a striking reinterpretation of the introduction to the Declaration of Independence.

Through an innovative array of sources and authors — Aquinas, Dante, Machiavelli, the Geneva Bible, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Thomas Jefferson, and many others — King demonstrates that a transformed view of ambition became possible the moment Europe realized that Columbus had discovered not a new route but a new world. In addition, the author argues that reconstituting ambition as a virtue was a necessary precondition of the American republic. The book suggests that, even in the 21st century, ambition has never fully lost its ties to vice and continues to exhibit a dual nature, positive or negative depending upon the ends, the means, and the individual involved.