“Great ambition is the passion of a great character. Those endowed with it may perform very good or very bad acts. All depends on the principle which direct them”. Napoleon Bonaparte
Ambition, a word that is laced with ying and yang, good and bad, success and failure. To learn ‘good’ ambition is to understand the parameters of its reach. Conversely, we don’t all have to fail or be ‘bad’ to understand the polarities of ambition, yet I wonder how many have not pushed the boundaries in either direction to find their ‘moderate’.
A young soldier (Tiberius Sempronius Graccus) becomes a hero and politician as a result of the sack of Carthage. His political ambitions are not borne out of helping the ‘plebs’ of Roman society, the hinterland landowners for instance (many of whom were soldiers not being allowed to return home in Rome’s lust for expansion, wealth and power) but simple ambition, upholding the family aristocratic name and moving in circles above the chaos which was the poverty of the lower echelons of Rome, The Eternal City.
At the sack of Carthage, instead of celebrations, his cousin Aemilianus weeps. For the victory has the shadow of Troy’s razing to the ground and Aemilianus sees Rome’s own demise. History will repeat itself, again and again. Modern methods of living will not deter history from repeating itself because we are dealing with one common denominator. Human beings. Yet, it is not an indicator that we should cease trying to be the voice of reason in a world which has been ransacked by sentiments such as, “it will never be any better, so quit trying”.
Whilst Tiberius stood shoulder to shoulder with Aemilianus and the Senate in one victory, years later he would be murdered by the same aristocrats. Tiberius had stood up for the ‘common people’ and been cited as ambitiously wanting to become King of Rome. One can never be sure what was in the heart of Tiberius but his actions for the most part leading up to his slaughter signalled that of a man wanting to right the wrongs against those who had fought and died for ‘The Glory of Rome’. Perhaps, had he achieved the changes to law that he proposed and gained more power and piety, he too may have ventured from the path of ‘integrity’ to malicious intent.
Rumour and poor interpretation added fuel to his final demise. I often consider rumours and interpretations and the carnage they can cause when we allow the hearts and minds of others to influence us unduly, when we venture away from fact and impress upon a perfectly debatable discussion with foregone conclusions. We can learn from the past. We can learn much from the fact of the past.
On my visit to the UN building in New York in 2019, I stood gazing for a long time at the memorial which has been erected to remember freedom denied to black people through slavery. On the plague, amongst other locations, was St Helena. Ambition. Britain will never be able to deny the whole legacy. Germany will never be able to deny its legacy. Lest we forget. Every time I look at a Roman Wall, I will remember innovation and ingenuity, but I will also ask, “at what cost?”
Whilst we cannot deny our legacy, it is the repetition of it that delays belief and confidence in a better world. Nations are not just nations because of border lines, they are nations because of people, intricate, individual people. We cannot hold whole countries (or indeed institutions) to account for the sordid ambitions of some.
When does self-serving ambition create harmful scenarios? I am often captivated by the ‘successes’ of others. I am sometimes swayed by thoughts of materialism and finery. Then, we look at the successes and we ask, “how is this really serving humanity?” As I write these blogs, it is so easy to subscribe to a vision that becomes ‘my’ and ‘mine’. It is so easy to suggest that I only want the best. The best of what? The best car? The best house? The best relationship? The best hairstyle (no chance of that at the moment)? Thunderbolts remind me that I must use ‘my best’ attributes to further the cause for awareness in a world which has long since been self-serving.
The very empires we build come crashing down around us eventually, haven’t we learnt this from the Romans? The Greeks? The South African apartheid system? The riches of individuals? All power shifts eventually. Then what do we have to show for our ambitions?
Yet, when we look at those who have selflessly worked for greater causes, we remember them, time and again. Martin Luther King, Mother Theresa and then, right here on St Helena. Those who stole, got rich through ill-gotten gains, we remember less respectfully. They got a head start that many did not get but what does this do to a person’s soul? We can all talk about patronage, yet, evidence will show those who simply turned up to make peace with our own guilt-ridden souls.
There is a balance to be struck with ambition.
Sometimes, we take a moral high ground that does not allow us to encourage others to change their stance, even at this late hour. Perhaps it is why Jesus suggested that we associate with the tax collectors and the prostitutes. Where are we at anyway when it comes to morals and ethics?
I refer to ‘this late hour’ as we humans sometimes imagine that the world only started when we were born. The correct or best version of the world. Nice thought. This world has been here long before we arrived and perhaps, it will be here for many thousands of years to come. The significance of self-serving ambition will be causal to any scenario.
The Queen’s Commonwealth Baton is currently doing its rounds. In order to include, it must be passed from hand to hand. No one runner can speed its travel and complete this symbolic process. Any great leader of the past often reminded us that when we sit back in the seat of complacency, harmful things happen. Yet, one person cannot hold the entire world to account. In our daily lives, we must all hold the world to account, starting with our own accountability. Do we think that our job titles, wealth, intelligence etc pardon us from accountability? Many do. Many excuse themselves under the premise that ’success’ through materialism, pomp and grandeur offers us redemption. I would suggest that we cannot ‘become’ successful but simply ‘are’ successful at any given moment when purpose and selflessness is our charge.
What is my vision? My vision is to see us raise our standard of living to spiritual-accountability, paying closer attention to ourselves prior to pointing the finger at others. Nice thought but this is not going to happen in my lifetime. Perhaps one day, someone many years from now may read some of my blogs and be inspired by them. Perhaps they may see where I am wrong and seek to right the wrongs of my ramblings. I am simply a tiny flawed particle of one huge particle and all I can do is ‘try’ for open discussions and open minds. Some may say, “oh isn’t she so boring”. Think what you like, that’s your right.
The very skills that we are working so hard to advance within ourselves must be about more than economics and status. Economics will help us to fund a better standard of living. Politics will help to manage a Senate vs. Plebs scenario. Yet we must be so careful that we do not become the extreme versions of either. The ego circumnavigates us all every day. Trump (who probably saw himself as a modern-day Julius Ceasar) contested elements of the Bill of Rights as if they were just some minor by-laws. In his attempt to get ratification of proposed amendments, politics ‘became’ about connections and personal motives where whispers, rumours and back stabbing in the halls of Congress became common place, any different to Rome? Such ambition. Look at what happened to Julius Ceasar.
Let us not spare ourselves the chance to be the knowing. We can read as many books, listen to many podcasts, watch many inspirational movies but they are not our existences. We can learn, but what do with that learning? How long do we pin our ambitions against the lives lived by others even when it is glaringly obvious what happened as a result of their self-serving ambitious pursuits?
Some folks know they are on a path of destruction to themselves and others but they may hope in amidst the melee for some pivotal moment, that may deliver them from their greed and the ego. There is always the conundrum that we ‘wait for the right moment’. We wait basically, for the moment where we can go from discomfort to comfort. That moment may not come. There is no ‘easy option’ when we are tackling the difficult. There is peace, but it comes with great personal sacrifice and honesty. Patterns of destruction do not change with ‘easy’.
What is our legacy?
Humble ambition. A nice thought in this fractured world.