St. Thomas Aquinas is not a teacher best studied as an isolated topic, but as a guide into reality. It is often the experienced that approach St. Thomas and feel taken aback at the accuracy of his descriptions of things like vice and virtue, not because of the brilliance of his reasoning (this too of course), but because he is helping you see something that was in front of you the whole time. Reality is real as it turns out. It’s akin to an artist painting a path that you walk everyday, but not until he captures it and really opens your eyes to it do you “recognize” it. You knew it and didn’t know it all at the same time.
A great example is his short walk into the vice of ambition. We’re Americans, so it’s a bit hard to think being ambitious is a bad thing – do we want the unambitious around? I think we know it can get ugly, but how and when do we know? Let’s hear Thomas out.
He relates ambition as opposed to magnanimity “by excess”, meaning taking the virtue of magnanimity to an extreme thus actually distorting the virtue into a vice. Vices don’t just pop out of thin air. They are a perversion by way of deficiency or excess of virtues. Magnanimity’s deficiency is “pusillanimity”, a failure to reach honorable states that accord to your ability – i.e. failing to live up to your potential or “not giving it your all.”
To understand magnanimity’s excess (ambition) Thomas points to the two things the virtue regards. He says it regards (1) performing great deeds in proportion to ability and (2) it makes right use of honor (receiving honor rightly).
If pusillanimity is “not giving your all”, ambition, as the excess of magnanimity, is attempting to give more than you have to give. The virtue comes with according honor, not in a prideful way but in recognition of the excellence of the virtue. But the ambitious actually desire the honor itself over the virtue itself, and often comes to view others as competition for honor, so an ambitious man, as Aquinas says quoting Tully (Cicero), “desires himself alone to dominate others.” It’s about him. It’s an “inordinate love of honor.”
Thomas says ambition is a sin, quoting 1 Corinthians 13 where St. Paul says “love is … not ambitious…” The three ways ambition’s desire for honor is a sin is that it (1) desires honor for that which it is not deserved, (2) desires honor for one’s self without reference to God, and (3) desires honor in itself without reference to how it profits others. So, while ambition could just be about money or position or status or appearance of those things, it usually seeks such things so that others will give an honor to them that they desire inordinately. They think this will make them happy instead of virtue and God. Some of the Pharisees, with all their pomp and position, ended up rejecting the Christ even when they believed in Him because they “loved the praise of men more than the praise of God” (John 12:43), which is why “all their deeds are done for men to see” (Matthew 23:5).
Ambition for honor can be a nasty snare. Avoid it by checking your motivations, humbly seeking God, and living up to the greatness that He has called you to – no more and no less.