Ambition was long an object of disapproval, an occasion for shame.footnote1 ‘We cannot pronounce the word “ambitious”’—wrote La Mothe Le Vayer in the mid-seventeenth century—‘without leaving a stain on the person of whom we speak, so unfailing is its negative implication.’footnote2 As an ‘unruly passion for glory and fortune’ (so defined in Antoine Furetière’s dictionary of 1690), ambition was conceived as a form of concupiscence, not for worldly goods (like avarice) or sensual pleasures (like lust), but for power and what would have been called success. Its goal was being rather than having. It diverted attention from the one real good, since (again according to Furetière) ‘true ambition seeks only the reward of admission to heaven’. Any other kind was condemned by theologians and preachers, in keeping with express pronouncements in patristic literature and the Summa Theologica.

Religious reproof found an echo in a certain lay suspicion. Montaigne, himself largely unmoved by ambition, though he acknowledged its intensity as a passion, showed no concern at its effects. The disapproval of Charron, on the other hand, was explicit.footnote3 In the Ancien Regime, where identity was determined by rank, which in turn was determined by birth (one was born an aristocrat or a bourgeois, just as not so long before one might have been born a serf), ambition was taboo because it bred an impulse at odds with the natural order and the will of heaven. Those who deplored it, lay or clerical, agreed that its principal symptom was a kind of avid fever, a restless nervous tension, consuming life. In the early eighteenth century, the great preacher Massillon gave eloquent voice to this diagnosis:

Ambition, that insatiable desire to rise above others and even rejoice in their downfall, that worm in the heart that gives it no peace; that passion which stirs every intrigue and commotion of the mind, which instigates revolution in states and parades new spectacles daily to the world, which dares everything and costs nothing, condemns he who is possessed by it to unhappiness.footnote4

So long as the European novel depicted only heroic passions and the adventures of geographical—not social—mobility, ambition could not be a moral endowment of its protagonists. If they were young, they were in any case agitated by other feelings. Pascal, La Rochefoucauld and La Bruyère agreed that ambition was a passion of the old. The anthropology of sentiments of the seventeenth century (in this respect also quite distinct from that of the nineteenth century) expected youth to devote itself to love. Decorum and verisimilitude alike thus tended to exclude ambition from novels. Yet the society and literature of the time could not condemn ambition without appealing to a virtue that allowed a Christian and aristocratic sublimation of otherwise reprehensible actions and aspirations: heroes became ‘magnanimous’.footnote5

The eighteenth century, as we know, saw the eruption of both new protagonists and new ideas into the English and French novel: no more picaresque paupers struggling with the peripeteia of survival, nor princes laying conquests at the feet of their beloved, but youngsters of peasant extraction attractive to women, able and eager to make their way up through the social hierarchy. Marivaux’s paysan parvenu, Jacob, would be the first in an endless line of provincials finding their way to Paris to ‘better themselves and become somebody’.footnote6 A century later, Julien Sorel and Lucien de Rubempré will have no different aim. Yet Jacob, though a successful social climber, is not depicted as ambitious: he lacks both the fevered craving and strategic cunning of the type. The turning point in his life occurs by chance. He comes to the aid of someone in the street set upon by three assailants, unaware that this is Count d’Orsan, nephew of the prime minister. He acts on a generous impulse, and is rewarded precisely because he is innocent of any calculation. The full rehabilitation of ambition is some way off. In heroes of novels in the latter half of the century, indeed, ambition will often mutate into a quest for the moral reform of society. Such protagonists—the Nouvelle Heloise is an example—appear to have lost Jacob’s spontaneity, his unneurotic peasant vitality. In this fiction, he who is excluded from good society does not seek a position in it: he calls into question the principles upon which it is founded.

It was the Revolution that redeemed ambition. Hérault de Séchelles, a member of the Committee of Public Safety, was the author of a collection of maxims, in the spirit of Chamfort or Laclos, published in 1802 after his death as Theory of Ambition.footnote7 By then ambition had found its emblematic hero. Not only had a provincial of minor noble origin become emperor of the French, but an entire generation of talents found rewards beyond the wildest dreams possible in the past—his brothers and generals, Bernadotte and Murat, would become kings. Napoleon’s career legitimated every aspiration. When he fell, the Restoration set about repressing the regret of a generation of Julien Sorels at the disappearance of opportunities their fathers had enjoyed. Ambition became subversive. But its condemnation was as brief as the Restoration itself. Soon it was transformed into one of the principles on which liberal society would be founded. No longer the stigma of an ignoble soul, it became a gift from which the state itself could profit. Even its degeneration could be redeemed, argued the most lucid and coherent French theorist of liberalism:

The corruption that is born of ambitious designs is much less fatal than that of ignoble calculations. Ambition is compatible with a thousand generous qualities: probity, courage, impartiality, and independence. Avarice is compatible with none. We cannot exclude ambitious men from public positions; but let us keep the avaricious at a distance.footnote8