BY TIM MIDDLETON
ONE of Shakespeare’s most quoted lines comes from his play Twelfth Night when a lowly servant named Malvolio who has great aspirations of winning the hand of a beautiful lady in his master’s house, is encouraged by the alluring yet fateful words, “Some are born great; some achieve greatness; others have greatness thrust upon them.”
The sad truth of those lines were that they were not written by the beautiful lady to Malvolio (as he thinks) but by his fellow servants who, in trying to ensure he does not rise above his station, succeed in humiliating him.
He was so full of himself that he could not see the obvious warning signs. Lofty ambition overcame common sense.
It might be worth remembering, however, that there is yet another category other than the three mentioned: that is that not everyone does become great, in any way or by any means.
In fact the vast majority of people do not reach greatness — indeed, not everyone can be great.
We should point out further that not everyone needs to have greatness.
In addition, some people can be great without having ambition and without having greatness thrust upon them — they are great at not being great.
Lastly, equally, we might note that people who are not great may still be ambitious.
Does everyone need to aspire to be great? Should we assist and encourage our children to reach greatness? Napoleon Bonaparte, one of the great examples of a great person, is quoted as saying that, “Great ambition is the passion of a great character.”
Ambition has greatness written all over it. However, his statement did not end there as he went on to add that, “Those endowed with it may perform very good or very bad acts.
All depends on the principles which direct them.” We may be ambitious for the wrong reasons and with the wrong results.
We do well to understand that ambition can be unhelpful for a number of reasons.
Firstly, we may be setting children up to fail and consequential hurt, humiliation or harm, by encouraging them to be ambitious. We might be surprised to discover Jeremy Clarkson, of the popular ‘Top Gear’ television programme fame, pronouncing that, “Ambition is a very dangerous thing because either you achieve it and your life ends prematurely, or you don’t, in which case your life is a constant source of disappointment.
You must never have ambition.” Petrarch, the fourteenth century Italian poet, had presented such a view many centuries before: “Five enemies of peace inhabit with us — avarice, ambition, envy, anger, and pride; if these were to be banished, we should infallibly enjoy perpetual peace.” Ambition has the potential to ruin us and to divide society.
Secondly, ambition can actually be a barrier to peace not just between others but more significantly within ourselves, and therefore be unhelpful.
In seeking to attain greatness we are potentially taking it from someone else. Joseph Conrad, the twentieth century English novelist, saw this when he wrote that, “All ambitions are lawful except those which climb upward on the miseries or credulities of mankind.” Our ambitions must not be met at other people’s expense.
Thirdly, as Samuel Johnson, the eighteenth century English writer, pointed out, ambition can often never be satisfied: “A wise man is cured of ambition by ambition itself; his aim is so exalted that riches, office, fortune and favour cannot satisfy him.”
Even if we could reach the stars, there would still be more stars beyond our reach so we will never be satisfied.
Maya Angelou put it in context, however: “The desire to reach for the stars is ambitious. The desire to reach hearts is wise.” Our ambition needs to be better directed.
Henry Van Dyke, an author and educator, put it more specifically: “There is a loftier ambition than merely to stand high in the world. It is to stoop down and lift mankind a little higher”.
Cesar Chavez, an American civil rights activist, echoed this in saying, “We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community… Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own.”
When we encourage our young to be ambitious, we must make sure we are not like Malvolio’s fellow servants and therefore not mock any such ambition but at the same time we must ensure they are guided to do things that are within their grasp and for the good of others. That is greatness.
- Tim Middleton is a former international hockey player and headmaster, currently serving as the Executive Director of the Association of Trust Schools Email: email@example.com