Over the past few weeks, I’ve taken another long break from most of my online distractions, including news articles and streaming movies. The timing has been particularly good, because I’m working toward an ambitious project deadline at work. Outside of work, I’ve spent more time than usual fixing sprinklers, cleaning the garage, and playing games with my family. With less anxiety and greater mental focus, my voluntary “fasting” from online entertainment has again been a very good thing.
One of the insights I’ve gained this time around is the importance of having some sort of passion or ambition to fill the void left by the things I’ve taken out of my life. A lack of ambition is often what leads to overindulgence in diversions in the first place. However, ambition can also get out of hand. An all-encompassing sort of ambition leads to neglecting personal health, family relationships, and other important aspects of our lives.
Once again, our discussion of character leads back to Aristotle. In his Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle says that we typically use the word “ambition” (philotimia, or the love of honor) to refer to someone who has excessive ambition. And we usually call someone “unambitious” if they suffer from a deficiency in their desire for honor or excellence.
Aristotle observes that unlike other virtues such as courage, wisdom, or self-mastery, the golden mean with respect to seeking honor does not have a name. But he insists that this virtue has to exist, since it’s possible to seek honor both too much and too little. The person who possesses the golden mean seeks honor in the right way, from the right source, and in the right amount.
From a religious perspective, we might view the “honors of men” as an unworthy pursuit, especially since they typically distract us from the love of God and the love of our fellow beings. To justify any competitive desire for excellence and honor, we could see it as a way to glorify God and inspire others. The 1924 Olympic gold medalist (and Christian missionary) Eric Liddell insisted: “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.”
I personally haven’t figured this all out. I know that ambition can lead people to compromise their integrity and interfere with their devotion to God. But I also believe that a noble form of ambition is essential in fortifying good people against the allure of self-destructive behavior.