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What role does the concept of ambition play in Milton?

The word ambition originally stems from the Latin ambitiōn, which signified “to go round soliciting votes” [1]. Soon, the will to power behind the specific action of canvassing, the motivation to strive after political success, came to spill out into the word’s meaning: The term’s span widened to signify “insistence in seeking favours, importunity”[2] and then “corrupt practices in seeking honours, verdicts, graft and intrigue”[3]. Livy, a contemporary of the first Roman Emperor Augustus, writes in his History of Rome that ambition is “a danger to concordia… which would destroy the Republic”[4]. To some extent, these negative connotations of ambition seem to have been underwritten by elitist concerns about how the Republic’s democratic process, in allowing anyone to attain power, made it possible for people to rise above where they should be. This is hinted at by Livy’s identification of the “Lex Poetelia, […] a restriction on the places where a candidate could canvass for votes”[5] (a law “generally agreed to have been passed to prevent the plebeians from gaining political power.”[6]) as one of the “laws (leges de ambitu) which aimed to mitigate the destructive potential of ambition” - Thus equating, or at least correlating, ambition with undue social-climbing. Additionally, a conceptual link between the pursuit of honour and vanity may have been cemented by the political dynamics of the Senate during the Empire, because though after the fall of the Republic, the Imperial Senate retained its legal position in practice, the Emperor held all the constitutional power. This meant that “membership in the Senate became sought after by individuals seeking prestige and social standing rather than actual authority.”[7] Ambition (in the sense of canvassing) during this time, then, will have been stridently otiose. It is therefore no surprise that by the time ambition was introduced into the English parlance from French, it held no positive connotations. In its early English employment, it denoted “an inordinate desire to rise to high position, or to attain […] preferment.”[8] By the 17th century, texts from all political angles will partner ambition regularly with words like “revenge, covetousnesse”[9], envy[10] and “avarice”[11]. Frequently spoken of as a sort of “thirst”[12] to be gratified[13] , satisfied[14] “satiated” and nourished[15], the “fury of covetousnesse and ambition”[16] is given undertones of hunger and corporal impulse. For instance, as if it were a kind of degrading and barely-manageable animal urge, Cromwell is commended for having “triumphed over that flame of ambition and that lust of glory, which are wont to make the best and the greatest of men their slaves”[17]. This stages ambition as a sort of feverish, overzealous and unregulated conatus, or “innate inclination of a thing to continue to exist and enhance itself”[18]. Ambition’s primitive ignobility is stressed in A Defence of the People of England, where Milton frames it as spiritual prostitution. By submitting to their unchecked desires, he posits, people put themselves on sale to the highest bidder. He warns that Unless you will subjugate the propensity to avarice, to ambition, and sensuality […], you will find that you have cherished a more stubborn and intractable despot at home, than you ever encountered in the field; and even your very bowels will be continually teeming with an intolerable progeny of tyrants.[19] Here, the image of teeming bowels connotes both pregnancy and parasites, drawing the oft-drawn link between ambition and lust to imply that where there is no firm and reflective government over oneself and one’s loyalties, individuals allow themselves through their laxity to become both servile to their own drives, and the infected breeding-ground for whatever opportunistic ruler has the know-how to manipulate their desires. This equivalence between that which is selfish and that which is earthly- and therefore why ambition, seeking one’s own advancement, can never be anything but base- is made explicit when Milton warns that to elect “him, however small might be his worth, who would give you the most lavish feasts, and enable you to drink to the greatest excess […] would soon exalt the vilest miscreants from our taverns and our brothels, […] to the rank and dignity of senators”[20] Here, two points are made. Firstly, Milton notes that if the be all and end all of political engagement is egoism, the ascendants to power will be dissolute, as it is easier to buy leadership than to cultivate moral fibre enough to earn it. Further, he belittles ambition by reducing the aim of “choosing […] the creatures of your own faction, whoever they might be”[21] to that which can actually be had from rank and clout physically speaking; to eating and drinking. This shows that if one’s political motivations do not go beyond the self, all that striving after honour amounts to, at best, is petty; unspiritual, earthly and low.
[1] “Ambition”, OED[2] King, Ambition, Yale University Press, (Michigan: 2013) p.52[3] Ibid.[4] Ibid.[5] King, Ambition, p.53[6] Ibid.[7] “Roman Senate”, World Heritage Encyclopaedia, World Public Library, http://nationalpubliclibrary.info/articles/Roman_senate (2016)[27/03/16][8] “Ambition”, OED[9] Charles I (?), Eikon Basilike, De la More Press, http://anglicanhistory.org/charles/eikon/(1904) [22/03/16](hereafter, EB)[10] Marvell, Andrew, “Lovelace”, The Poems of Andrew Marvell, Lawrence & Bullen, (London:1892) p.104-106[11] Milton, Eikonoclastes, Creative Commons License https://www.dartmouth.edu/~milton/reading_room/eikonoklastes/text.shtml(1997)[27/03/16][12] Charles I, EB[13] Milton, A Defence of the People of England http://www.constitution.org/milton/first_defence.htm(2016) [22/03/16] (hereafter, DPE)[14] Charles I, EB[15] William Walwyn, A manifestation, http://www.constitution.org/lev/eng_lev_11.htm (2016) [22/03/16] [16] Charles I, EB[17] Milton, DPE[18] Traupman, “conatus”- The New Collegiate Latin & English Dictionary, Bantam Books, (New York:1966), p.52[19] Milton, DPE [20] Ibid.[21] Milton, DPE

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