cover image Ambition, a History: 
From Vice to Virtue

Ambition, a History: From Vice to Virtue

William Casey King. Yale Univ., $30 (256p) ISBN 978-0-300-18280-4

American literature is rife with examples of individuals driven by a desire to reach beyond themselves to achieve some particular goal—whether it is virtue, revenge, or self-knowledge. Ambition, however, wasn’t always a central feature of American culture, and King, executive director of the Yale Center for Analytical Sciences, sets out to examine the ways that this trait, once considered a vice, has been so woven into the fabric of American identity. He traces the concept from the Greeks and Romans through early and medieval Christianity—which viewed ambition as sin—up though early modern England, when ambition continued to be viewed as sin but more openly acknowledged as a human desire in a world where exploration and conquest offered individuals the opportunity to search for prosperity. King’s survey concludes by illustrating the ways in which the “American Revolution was among the most audaciously ambitious acts in the history of the Western world,” both affirming ambition as a virtue and distancing itself from conceptions of ambition as sin or vice. Although his overview contains interesting passages, it reads like a dissertation and lacks careful editing; he hurries through ideas as if simply amassing examples is sufficient for making his point. King’s book is ambitious on its own, but is stunted by repetition and lack of depth. (Jan.)