The Table Podcast

Robert C. Roberts

Humility and Ambition in Politics, Leadership, and Life

Professor of Ethics and Emotion Theory at the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues
December 9, 2016

[This talk was presented on November 3, 2016, just a week before the 2016 General Election.]

We human beings are by nature accomplishers. An important emotion, in which we register our provisional fulfillment as persons, is the feeling of accomplishment. We look at something we’ve made that turned out especially well—a meal we’ve cooked, a piece of carpentry built, a pot thrown, a sermon preached, a toilet fixed, a political campaign won, a classroom lecture given, a play performed, an essay written, a game played, an injustice righted, a conflict resolved, a hard truth told, a gift given, a suffering relieved, a prayer formulated—and we feel a joy of satisfaction in the accomplishment. We say, “I (we) take pride in that.”

The passion for accomplishment is called ambition, and ambition has a lot to do with the self. When we take pride in an accomplishment, we do more than admire the beautiful outcome in abstraction from the one or ones who accomplished it. There will no doubt be satisfaction in the outcome as well, but what makes it pride is that the accomplishment was ours (mine). We admire others’ accomplishments, but we take pride in our own. So that happy sense of accomplishment is proprietary. How could it be otherwise? It’s an accomplishment, after all, and accomplishments belong to agents. I might be happy about it even if somebody else had accomplished it, but I wouldn’t be happy about it in the same way. It’s a healthy part of being human to want to be the doer of things we can be proud of. That isn’t sinful pride, but the danger of sinful pride lurks nearby.

In the second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he challenges that church to live in harmony with one another. Apparently the Philippians needed some encouragement along that line. A major key to that harmony, says Paul, is the virtue of humility in which one imitates Christ, who didn’t regard being equal to God as something to be insisted on, but humbled himself and became a human being, including the degradation and agony of dying the cruel human death of a criminal, in service and love to us human beings. Paul mentions two vices that show a lack of humility—selfish ambition and conceit. The church has summarized these anti-humility vices, as well as several others, as pride. Sinful pride gets in the way of love, respect, compassion, forgiveness, forbearance, thanksgiving, and other Christian virtues. Without humility, these other virtues are compromised and spoiled, or in extreme cases, even ruled out altogether.

So what shall we make of this pride, this sense of accomplishment, and the drive toward accomplishment of which it registers the satisfaction? Christians have sometimes thought it was sinful, and have tried (not very successfully, perhaps) to quell it in themselves, and have refrained from praising their children’s accomplishments for fear of planting seeds of pride in them. I don’t think pride in accomplishment and the drive at the basis of it are always sinful, and I want to argue here that they are compatible with a highly developed virtue of humility.

I’m going to argue this point by way of some examples from electoral politics. Electoral politics is an especially difficult context for the cultivation and display of virtuous pride and humility, because of their association with power, the abundance of limelight, the enormous entitlements that are at stake, and the “I’m better than you,” rivalrous, ethos of the campaign trail. Sinful pride is destructive, blinding, divisive, petty, egocentric, narcissistic, sub-human, and mean-spirited, and no doubt, it flourishes (if that’s the right word!) in political contexts. Petty dictators from the Middle East to the Philippines and North Korea, from Africa to Latin America, provide more than enough evidence of that, impoverishing and terrorizing their countries and murdering their opponents, not to mention impoverishing their own souls and keeping themselves in constant terror of being violently overthrown.

But let’s set our minds on higher things.

Politics as a Place for Humility: Abraham Lincoln as a Case Study for Humble Politics

Abraham Lincoln is arguably the most virtuous of the U. S. presidents. He was also, by all accounts, a very ambitious man. His law partner of many years, William Herndon, wrote that Lincoln’s “ambition was a little engine that knew no rest.” I want to suggest that Lincoln combined, in a highly integrated moral character, the traits of humility and the kind of pride that we call personal ambition. I’ll start with his humility.

William Lee Miller, the author of two excellent books on Lincoln’s moral character (Lincoln’s Virtues and President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman), contrasts general George McClellan with president Lincoln in this regard. Lincoln had risen rapidly to political prominence in the late 1850s. He wanted very much to win the election and the presidency, but his ambition was always about something beyond himself. George McClellan had also risen meteorically at the beginning of the war, in his case to the position of General in Chief of the Union army. Miller makes this comparison:

McClellan and Lincoln would respond quite differently to a sudden ascension to prominence and power. The higher McClellan rose, the more it went to his head; the higher Lincoln rose, the weightier he felt his duty to be.

Miller writes,

…McClellan proved to be a master not of battle but of delay. He would proceed to test Lincoln’s forbearance by the longest series of snubs, slights, slurs, affronts, demands, complaints, missed opportunities, and failures to follow orders by any supposed subordinate during the whole of [Abraham Lincoln’s] presidency. Lincoln patiently put up with a great deal from the young general in the effort to extract victories in the field. But those victories never seemed to happen….

Miller tells the following story, which was recorded in John Hay’s diary:

Shortly after McClellan was made general in chief, succeeding [Winfield] Scott, Lincoln, [William] Seward, and Hay … went to McClellan’s house; a servant said the general was attending a wedding and would return soon. After the three had waited about an hour, McClellan did return, and ‘without paying any particular attention to the porter who told him the President was waiting to see him, went up stairs, passing the door of the room where the President and Secretary of State were seated. They waited about half-an-hour and sent once more a servant to tell the general they were there, and the answer … came that the general had gone to bed’.

Lincoln’s role as president entitled him to deference and respect from his generals and this entitlement entailed a symmetrical lack of entitlement on the part of his generals to ignore a visit from him. McClellan’s action expresses arrogance inasmuch as it constitutes a false claim to be entitled (because of his importance) to ignore the president’s visit. Miller continues,

John Hay’s diary entry concluded: ‘Coming home I spoke to the President about the matter but he seemed not to have noticed it specially, saying it was better at this time not to be making points of etiquette and personal dignity.’ In another of these episodes that point was explicit: Lincoln waited with a general and the governor of Ohio for McClellan to keep a stated appointment—and waited and waited and [Lincoln] finally said, ‘never mind. I will hold McClellan’s horse if he will just bring us successes’.

Lincoln had an emotional blindness where most of us have extremely sharp emotional vision: “he seemed not to have noticed [the insult] specially.” I say emotional blindness, because Lincoln didn’t literally fail to notice the slight, as is evident from his response to Hay about it. He knew he had been slighted, and no doubt knew that McClellan was an arrogant jerk, but he didn’t view the slight with anger, indignation, defensiveness, or a desire for revenge. It didn’t “wound” his pride. Had it done so, it would have been a distraction of his mind from the purpose of saving the Union. Lincoln’s humility—this emotional blindness about offenses touching his “dignity”—served his moral and political concentration; it kept his extraordinary wisdom clear of the fogging that vanity would have given it.

Lincoln’s “forbearance” expressed humility, in particular his not “insisting” on his status as President, his lack of personal offense at McClellan’s insubordination. He is exasperated (intensely frustrated) by McClellan’s failure to win victories, and this “controlled exasperation… would have its outlet in the steady whistle of escaping wit” (Miller), but Lincoln’s “ego” seems strikingly unfeatured in his response. He kept the eye of his concern on the goal—victory over the secessionists and a quick end to the war—and so had little emotional sensitivity to the snubs, slights, slurs, and affronts, all of which had the force of belittling his leadership. He repeatedly said, and tried to help his countrymen see, that the issues at stake in the war—that the nation be given a new birth of freedom and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, should not perish from the earth—was too vast for malicious dealing or concern about points of personal dignity.

Virtuous Versus Selfish Ambition

In 1832, when he was 23 years old, Abraham Lincoln ran for a seat in the Illinois legislature. In the local newspaper he published a campaign statement saying what he would promote if elected (the chief thing being that he would support the improvement of the local river as a commercial waterway), and then in a final paragraph said,

Every man is said to have his peculiar ambition. Whether it be true or not, I can say for one that I have no other so great as that of being truly esteemed of my fellow men, by rendering myself worthy of their esteem. How far I shall succeed in gratifying this ambition, is yet to be developed.

In 1841, Lincoln fell into a deep depression. In a conversation with his friend Joshua Speed, he said that

He had done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived—and that to connect his name with the events transpiring in his day and generation and so to impress himself upon them as to link his name with something that would redound to the interest of his fellow man was what he desired to live for.

Note the social or communitarian character of Lincoln’s ambition. He both wants to accomplish something worthy to be remembered and to be recognized as having benefitted his “fellow man,” but the recognition he seeks is not individualistic or egocentric, but is a special kind of recognition that signifies being beloved by a community that he loves. So there’s a kind of mutuality built into this ambition. He is aware from an early age of his extraordinary intellect and abilities, so it is fitting that his particular role in the “family of humanity” be one of leadership. His ambition, and his desire to be recognized for significant accomplishment, are embedded in a large and generous consciousness of his place in this family.

Twenty years later, at the time of the Emancipation Proclamation, in another conversation with Joshua Speed, Lincoln would remind Speed of their earlier conversation and say, “I believe that in this measure (meaning the proclamation) my fondest hopes will be realized.” The legal justification for the proclamation freeing the slaves in the secessionist states was military necessity, not the justice and mercy of liberating oppressed people. But Lincoln could find in the Proclamation the fulfillment of his life-long ambition because he was, and had been since long before his presidency, a moral opponent of slavery. He said, “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong,” and “I am naturally anti-slavery…I cannot remember when I did not so think and feel.” But he needed a legal reason for emancipating the slaves, because the Constitution protected slavery, and he didn’t believe that the President had the right to make his own moral opinions into law. Thus the Thirteenth Amendment was needed to correct the Constitution on the point; and Lincoln was later instrumental in the passing of that amendment.

Selfish Ambition

In thinking about what selfish ambition is, and how it contrasts with virtuous ambition, I propose to reflect on two phrases that intelligent public figures have used to describe the character of the candidates in the current election. I leave undecided here whether these commentators have spoken the truth, though I’m confident that they both spoke sincerely. My aim is not to make political or historical points, but to throw a bit of light on the moral phenomenon of ambition, to clarify the difference between virtuous and vicious ambition. I’ve argued that Lincoln’s ambition was virtuous and compatible with his impressive humility; I think it is clear that if the two commentators have spoken truly, the ambition they describe is not virtuous, and not compatible with humility.

Both of the major candidates in the present election are big-time accomplishers. They are “driven” people, people intensely interested, as Lincoln was, in connecting their names with the events transpiring in their day and generation and so impressing themselves upon those events that they will be remembered in connection with them. But the phrases of the two commentators may identify a difference in the character trait involved.

David Brooks has repeatedly complained about one of the candidates that “it’s all about himself.” Applying the phrase to our discussion, Brooks is saying that the candidate’s ambition is “selfish.” He’s into big accomplishments, and perhaps has shown that he’s capable of big accomplishments; but those accomplishments are not ultimately aimed at “redounding to the interest of his fellow man,” but in redounding to something else connected ultimately only with himself: his glory, his aggrandizement, his power over others and domination of them, his superiority to others, with its complement, their inferiority to him, their ultimately being the “losers” to his being the “winner.” Another way to put the point, “it’s all about himself,” is to say that this candidate is not a morally serious person; despite the fact that the office he is seeking has many aims that transcend his personal purposes, his drive to get that office has no transcendent aim: it contains no element of aiming at something beyond himself.

A humble ambition is a drive for accomplishments that aim beyond the self, that are for something more important than the self. A humble ambition is one that resides in the personality of a person who has other virtues, such as compassion, justice, generosity, a sense of duty, and truthfulness. These virtues all involve caring about a good that is beyond oneself: compassion cares about the relief of suffering; justice cares that each person be given what is due them; generosity cares about other people’s good; a sense of duty is a concern to conform to moral requirements; truthfulness is a concern that what one believes and what one causes others to believe conform to reality. In other words, humble ambition is about the drive for accomplishments in a person who cares about something other than himself, a person who is able to put “himself” aside as he aims to bring about the public good. A person of whom it’s true that “it’s all about himself” is not such a person.

Miller describes Lincoln’s mind at the beginning of his presidency:

Lincoln was filling a role that demanded all his powers, serving ends in which he deeply believed, accomplishing something worthy of the world’s esteem, as he had said at age twenty-three was his ambition. But he certainly did not treat this high position as any personal triumph. He did not glory in it, swagger, or insist on preferment, let alone domination. He would treat his formal eminence instead with that humor that was often the carrier of his wisdom.

Colin Powell has said of the other major party’s candidate that her ambition is “unbridled.” The horse-riding metaphor suggests being out of control, and the control that Powell thinks he misses in the candidate is probably the kind that practical wisdom would impose—the same control that virtues like justice, generosity, truthfulness, and a sense of duty would exert.

Candidates (and presidents, too) are often slow to admit the mistakes they have made—mistakes sometimes enormously costly, or potentially so, in terms of American lives and prosperity and the nation’s wellbeing, and the wellbeing of the world. To admit the mistakes, they fear, would be to jeopardize their likelihood of success at the polls, or in the case of the presidents, their re-election or their “legacy,” their esteem in the eyes of their fellow human beings. Many would see the “unbridledness” of this candidate’s ambition manifested in a deficiency of truthfulness.

The “Powhatan affair” was a comedy of errors in the effort to defend Fort Pickens, off the coast of Pensacola, Florida which, early in Lincoln’s presidency and in the Civil War, was due to several officials’ errors and misjudgments, including Lincoln’s. In the aftermath of the affair Lincoln took more than his share of the blame and fired none of the guilty parties, many of whom went on later to impressive careers in the administration and in the armed services. Miller points out how rare Lincoln’s truthfulness was in comparison with that of most U.S. presidents in history.

In a person whose ambition is consistent with an unspoiled concern for the truth, even truths that are embarrassing will be squarely faced and acknowledged.

If the human drive to accomplish things is basic to human nature, then people in whom this drive is very strong may be unusually excellent specimens of the species. They are “born leaders,” persons with a strong drive to accomplish important things. The drive has reference to the self, because it is a drive to accomplishment, and accomplishment is something that agents do, something they are responsible for. But the importance of the accomplishment can be conceived in more than one way. The accomplishment can be intrinsically important, and satisfying as an accomplishment for that reason; or it can be satisfying because it elicits fame and honors, privileges and power over others for the accomplisher. The difference here is not just a difference in what is accomplished, because even intrinsically good things are sometimes accomplished for shoddy reasons. The difference is a spiritual difference, a difference in the accomplisher’s aim and understanding of what he or she is doing.

It’s Not All About You: Pathways to Servant Leadership

Because of passages like Philippians 2, and its narrative counterpart in John 13, in the church we often hear of “servant leadership.” That expression captures very nicely the idea of true leadership—leadership that is not about oneself, but about some good towards which the leader leads his or her people, leader and people all together serving that transcendent goal, that goal that is beyond the private advantage of any and all of them. The good, not the self, is what is being served in servant leadership.

When Jesus approaches Peter to wash his feet, Peter, thinking in an all-to-human way, is horrified that Jesus should wash his (Peter’s) feet. Perhaps Peter is thinking, “the Lord should be insisting on the entitlements attaching to his high office of Lord and Messiah, and if he will not insist on them, I will insist on them for him. I will not allow him to commit the sin of servility while I enjoy the status of mastery over him. It is crucial here to maintain the proper pecking order.” Perhaps Peter thought he was showing humility in refusing to let Jesus serve him. But Jesus responds, “Peter, if you don’t let me wash your feet, you can have no part in me.”

In some kinds of animal packs, the “dominant” male intimidates all the other males, as well as the females, maintaining his position of power. And you can tell that it really is power over others that he wants by the fact that from time to time a younger male challenges him for the dominant position. It might be that the good of the pack is served by his turning over the leadership to the younger male, but he doesn’t give up his position of power for the good of the pack. He gives it up because he can’t maintain it.

It’s plausible to think that chimpanzees and other such animals can do no better than this morally, because they don’t have the mental capacity to have the good of the pack as a thought and therefore as a possible goal of their leadership. It may be to the good of the pack that the strongest male dominate the rest, but that isn’t the dominant male’s goal: he just wants to be in control because he likes the power. So the strong lording it over the weak works to the overall advantage of the troupe or pack, but no individual member of the pack, and thus no leader of the pack, aims at this goal.

But it shall not be so among you human beings. You’ve been given the mental power to conceive of the kingdom of God, and so to aim at it, and so to subordinate any personal ambitions you may have to that transcendent good. You’ve been blessed with the privilege of leading as a servant of a goal higher than yourself, or rather of making your own heart’s goal that goal that is higher than yourself. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst, not for their own power, but for the kingdom of God and his righteousness. Peter must let the Lord wash his feet. To resist would be to resist the spirit and logic of Jesus’ reign, and to adopt something more like the spirit and logic of the ordinary lords of this world, who in their turn look very much in their leadership like the animal spirit of the dominant male in a chimpanzee troupe.

Keeping a Servant Spirit in Our Leadership

How do we acquire the humility that will help us keep a servant spirit in our ambition? Here, briefly, are a couple of suggestions.

1. Ruthless Self-Honesty in Self-Examination

First, we can keep before our minds the distinction between virtuous and vicious ambition, and apply it with ruthless honesty in our self-examination. When we dream about great successes in our ministry, the growth of our congregations, the fabulous new physical plant, a calling away from our modest congregation to a much larger one, the expansion of our ministry in creative ways in our communities, we can ask ourselves, What is making this dream so delicious? Why do I take such pleasure in these ideas of growth and advancement? Does my ambition aim at the kingdom of God, the wellbeing of the people, the work of the Lord? Or is it a bit too much for the sake of my own glory and power? It’s very easy here for rationalization—a mind-fogging work of our pride—to obscure our real motives from us, making them seem to us more noble than they really are. But in the interest of our spiritual growth and the honor of God and the Lord Jesus we must try to be honest. Ruthless and painful honesty about our pride can help to order our priorities in a more virtuous way. And the more we grow in genuine humility, the more honest we will be able to be. There’s reciprocity between these two difficult virtues.

2. Avoiding Self-Display

A second strategy has to do with self-display. We get various opportunities to put our achievements—and that they are ours—on display. The most blatant form of opportunism for our selfish ambition is outright bragging. If we look eagerly for opportunities to enhance our prestige, to talk about our achievements, it seems likely that love of achievement is enhanced by a selfish element. From such blatant self-promotion we can discipline ourselves to refrain in case we are tempted. When we get the urge to display our accomplishments, let’s just refuse to satisfy it, unless some other good is clearly to be achieved by it. By starving our desire to let others know how great we are, we may be able to reduce the concern for our own greatness, and grow in humility. People with the virtue of humility can take pride in what they have achieved even when very little hoopla is made of it. And when we receive recognition for our accomplishment, let us just accept the recognition graciously and then move on to something substantive.

About the Author