When men of great military or political genius are moved by ambition to “wade through slaughter to a throne,” and to use the great power with which they are invested as a means of destroying the liberties of their own countrymen or of surrounding nations, the tremendous devastation caused by the passion is so conspicuously manifested that it cannot be overlooked. The immense amount of evil wrought by the ambition of such men as Napoleon and Louis XIV, is apt to blind us to the good effects produced by large numbers of less celebrated men, who collectively have been roused by ambition to do much benefit to the world. The bad effects of love of fame are chiefly confined to the few exceptional characters who guide the destinies of great nations. In the majority of instances, ambitious men have to content themselves with such power and distinction as they can gain by doing good service to their country and their fellow-men.
Thus the ambitious poet tries his best to win fame by writing good poetry. Milton tells us how he trained himself by hard reading and a pure life to gain the power of leaving “something so written to after times, as they should not willingly let it die.” We should never forget that ambition led to the production of Paradise Lost, and of many other noble literary works, as well as to the horrors of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow.
But it is not only in literature that ambition produces good results. It also inspires the engineer to build a good bridge, the architect to plan noble cathedrals, and the painter to rival the old masters. In still humbler walks of life, we find ambition inciting the tiller of the soil, the tailor, the cobbler, and the mason, to distinguish themselves by doing good work. If the calculation could be made, it would probably be found that the aggregate of good due to ambition working upon the minds of an immense number of men, who have failed to achieve world-wide fame, but sought such distinction as was within their reach, is greater than all the misery caused by the ambition of those great conquerors, whose victories are written in blood on the pages of history.