Beware the Tyranny Trap

Image: The White House. Photo by Angela N., CC BY 2.0.

Abraham Lincoln warned of the fine line between grand political ambition and tyranny.

September-October 2016

SURVEYS HAVE shown that 31 percent of American teenagers expect to be famous one day. Their lofty expectations have been shaped by a phenomenon that historian Daniel J. Boorstin pointed to decades ago—the distinction between a heroic and a celebrity culture where people are famous for no other reason than that they are famous. Yet while the desire for fame and recognition may be inseparable from ambition, they are not the same thing. Ambitious people desire not only to be recognized but also to be deemed worthy of recognition. The concept of ambition is invariably tied to notions of honor and deference. Today, however, these terms have an obsolete sound.

“Honor,” as the sociologist Peter L. Berger has written, “occupies about the same place in contemporary usage as chastity,” that is, as “ideological leftovers in the consciousness of obsolete classes, such as military officers or ethnic grandmothers.” This is a slight—but only a slight—exaggeration. While “affairs of honor,” as they are quaintly called, seem to belong to a distant and benighted past, there are still organizations like the military, police and service academies that take the concept quite seriously. Many colleges and universities still abide by an “honor code,” but Berger is right to note that motives of honor no longer have standing in American courts of law where concepts like “loss of face” seem increasingly archaic.

There are, of course, good reasons for the decline or obsolescence of grand ambition. All of these terms—fame, glory, renown—have traditionally been associated with aristocratic societies where titles and privileges are handed down. Acts of bravery, heroism and self-abnegation were often linked to a person’s role in a social hierarchy. These hierarchies are in turn composed of highly competitive superachievers. There is certainly a zero-sum quality to terms like honor and ambition. They are diminished if they are shared. Thomas Hobbes, who understood the aristocratic ethos of honor better than most, saw it as inseparable from a society based on orders and ranks. “Glory is like honor,” he wrote in De Cive, “if all men have it, no man hath it.”

Moreover, the theme of great ambition is invariably related to the study of heroes or individuals of extraordinary accomplishment. There is, of course, a genre of popular history and biography that celebrates the accomplishments of certain outsized individuals. Yet the study of heroes seems to have something old-fashioned, if not elitist, about it. It is too often connected not just with heroes but with actual hero worship. Modern history and social science tend to be increasingly quantitative and data-driven, dealing more with the average than outsized individuals. Political scientists focus most of their attention on tracking that restive nobody called the “median voter.” We are more apt to explain events in terms of general causes—think of the triad of class, race and gender—rather than look to the exceptional qualities of certain rare individuals. When one turns to the study of heroes, it is often with a subversive intent. “No man is a hero to his valet because his valet is a valet,” Hegel said. Today, it should be added, we are all valets.


THE DECLINE in the status of honor and ambition is related to fundamental changes in our moral and political vocabulary beginning around the sixteenth century. These changes were inextricable from the transition from the medieval world based on hierarchy, status and honor to a new bourgeois or commercial world based on equality, contract and interest. Karl Marx called it the transition from feudalism to capitalism; Henry Maine, the transition from status to contract; Alexis de Tocqueville, the transition from the age of aristocracy to the age of democracy. But perhaps no one provided a more illuminating description than the economist and intellectual historian Albert O. Hirschman.

In The Passions and the Interests, Hirschman showed how the arguments for the commercial society were first made possible only after the destruction of the ancient heroic ideal that had made a return during the Renaissance with its rediscovery of the Greek and Roman celebration of glory. A whole series of writers beginning with Hobbes, but including Michel de Montaigne, Francis Bacon, Bernard Mandeville, Montesquieu, David Hume and Immanuel Kant turned their collective eye on discrediting the idea of the hero as nothing but a species of vanity and vainglorious ambition. In place of the heroic ideal with its pursuit of glory, these writers posited an alternative conception of human nature based on the benefits of commerce and self-interested behavior.

Hirschman noted that the transition to capitalism was only made possible due to the prior emergence of certain ideas and arguments. Markets are not simply natural forms of human association, as today’s libertarians often believe, but are embedded in a dense web of moral argumentation in which the pursuit of interest—so long considered a deadly sin within the Christian moral universe—came to be seen as a virtue for containing and combatting the destructive passions for fame and honor. The market society was an idea before it became a reality.