Can Stoics Be Ambitious?

And select responses to our last poll

Welcome to The Stoa Letter, the newsletter on Stoic theory and practice.

🏛️ Theory

Marcus Aurelius and Seneca consistently criticize ambition If you read Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations or Seneca’s Moral Letters you’ll find the two of them treating ambition as a vice.

For example:

Ambition means tying your well-being to what other people say or do. Self-indulgence means tying it to the things that happen to you. Sanity means tying it to your own actions.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6.51

There is no evil that does not offer inducements. Avarice promises money; luxury, a varied assortment of pleasures; ambition, a purple robe and applause, and the influence which results from applause, and all that influence can do.

Seneca, Moral Letters, 69

It’s important to recognize that both are speaking of ambition as the love of fame. As Michael Tremblay pointed out to me, the word Marcus Aurelius uses is philodoxa – which means opinion-loving.

This contrasts with the typical meaning of ambition today: the strong desire to achieve something. It is not necessarily a striving for reputation. 

Ambition, understood this way, can be healthy or unhealthy. A Stoic rule of thumb for detecting whether ambition is healthy or not is how it impacts our identity. If it causes us to identify with and value externals, it is not healthy. However, if we retain our identity and value character over externals, it can be a wonderful thing.

As Epictetus says:

The following assertions don’t form a coherent argument: ‘I’m richer than you, therefore I’m better than you’ or ‘I’m more eloquent than you, therefore I’m better than you”; no, it is these that make a coherent argument: ‘I’m richer than you, therefore my possessions are superior to yours’ or ‘I’m more eloquent than you, therefore my way of speaking is superior to yours.’ But you yourself are neither your possessions nor your way of speaking.

Handbook, 44

If we begin to identify with external pursuits or achievements our dreams take on a negative character. 

Consider an actor who wants to be an excellent actor. If that ambition means craving prestige, fame, and fortune, it has extended into the external. These are things that the actor cannot control. This is the negative form of ambition Marcus Aurelius and Seneca constantly saw at the highest level of Roman politics.

If however, our actor remains focused on being an excellent actor as a craft, then she retains her Stoic character. If being an actor is her profession, that’s one of their roles. And it’s important to play all of our roles well. It’s a good thing that we live in a world where people give their craft their all.

Epictetus reminds us that you are not our “possessions nor your way of speaking.” Neither are you your profession, talents, or interests. Fundamentally, we’re all rational and social beings. As such, our purpose is to pursue knowledge and act prosocially. What that looks like depends on our circumstances, professionals, and preferences.

Ambition is healthy when it urges us to be excellent in whatever situation we find ourselves in. After all, life is short. Why not play your part as well as you can? But we have to be careful that, in doing so, we don’t come to identify ourselves with things that are not up to us and lose sight of who we are.

🎯 Action

Today, adjust your ambitions to align more closely with Stoic principles: emphasizing actions and goals that are within your control.

🎧️ Michael and I recently spoke about ambition and Stoicism here: 

We go into more depth on the issue – so check it out if ambition is something you’re particularly interested in.

📖 Rudyard Kipling’s poem If contains memorable wisdom that maps nicely onto Stoicism:

If you can dream without making dreams your master,

If you can think without making thought your aim.

📊 Our poll from earlier this month had many excellent answers. I cannot share them all.

Which one of Seneca's rules resonates the most with you?


🟨🟨🟨🟨⬜️⬜️ Overcome adversity. (35)

🟨⬜️⬜️⬜️⬜️⬜️ Wield prosperity skillfully. (10)

🟩🟩🟩🟩🟩🟩 Stay vigilant to chance and uncertainty. (43)

88 Votes

B says:

If one can adhere to number 3, you will have the resources to handle 1 and 2.

Rosa shared:

If you are vigilant, you can navigate the things that shake up your life plan. Sometimes you do need to change, but sometimes you can sidestep the chance occurrence or resolve the uncertainty.

After selecting “Wield prosperity skillfully”, Toby reminds us:

I have never, ever, encountered anything permanent in this life of mine.

And P said:

Having lost over 200 pounds, brought my type 2 diabetes into remission, and vastly improved my mental health, I know that overcoming adversity is more than an ability granted to a special few. Building on little habits , meditation, and acceptance of one's situation can allow you to overcome serious difficulties in your life.

Thanks for responding all. 

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