Political Science 258

Winter 2001

Politics and Ambition

Professor: Laurence Cooper

Office: Willis 416

Phone: x4111 (Office)

Email: lcooper@carleton.edu

Office Hours

". . . That our government should have been maintained in its original form from its establishment until now, is not much to be wondered at. It had many props to support it through that period, which now are decayed, and crumbled away. Through that period, it was felt by all, to be an undecided experiment; now, it is understood to be a successful one. Then, all that sought celebrity and fame, and distinction, expected to find them in the success of that experiment. Their all was staked upon it;-- their destiny was inseparably linked with it. Their ambition aspired to display before an admiring world, a practical demonstration of the truth of a proposition, which had hitherto been considered, at best no better, than problematical; namely, the capability of a people to govern themselves. If they succeeded, they were to be immortalized; their names were to be transferred to counties and cities, and rivers and mountains; and to be revered and sung, and toasted through all time. If they failed, they were to be called knaves and fools, and fanatics for a fleeting hour; then to sink and be forgotten. They succeeded. The experiment is successful; and thousands have won their deathless names in making it so. But the game is caught; and I believe it is true, that with the catching, end the pleasures of the chase. This field of glory is harvested, and the crop is already appropriated. But new reapers will arise, and they, too, will seek a field. It is to deny, what the history of the world tells us is true, to suppose that men of ambition and talents will not continue to spring up amongst us. And, when they do, they will as naturally seek the gratification of their ruling passion, as others have so done before them. The question then, is, can that gratification be found in supporting and maintaining an edifice that has been erected by others? Most certainly it cannot. Many great and good men sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition would aspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or a presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle,[.] What! Think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon? Never! Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored. It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen.

Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent to successfully frustrate his designs.

Distinction will be his paramount object; and although he would as willingly, perhaps more so, acquire it by doing good as harm; yet, that opportunity being past, and nothing left to be done in the way of building up, he would set boldly to the task of pulling down."

- Abraham Lincoln, 1838

I. Purpose and Scope

Lincoln's life demonstrates the power of political ambition to achieve good in the world. His words, though, remind us of the deeply ambiguous nature of political ambition and its enormous capacity for bad as well as good. His words also instruct us as to the difference, in nature and in significance, between great ambition and more ordinary, modest varieties. And they speak to the need to deal with the phenomenon of great ambition, since it will always be enormously consequential, perhaps the most consequential of all political phenomena. Each of these themes will figure prominently in this course. When and how is personal ambition a threat to peace and the public good, and when and how is it a prod to nobility and heroism? When and how does it exemplify the opposition between self and society, and when and how does it represent their intersection and mutual support? And can it do both at the same time? How should society deal with the intrinsically dangerous phenomenon of great ambition - should we educate it? try to moderate it? channel it or check it through institutions? diminish or even eliminate it? Finally (looking beyond Lincoln's speech), what are the true nature and sources of political ambition: what do the ambitious really want, and do they experience fulfillment when they achieve their ambitions? These are some of the major questions around which our investigation will be structured.

II. Course Requirements

By far the most important requirement is that you read all assigned texts closely and before class. The readings are usually not long but they will sometimes be difficult, and they demand - and success in the course will demand - careful attention and review. You should come to class prepared to discuss what you've understood and prepared to ask about what you haven't understood. Course grades will be determined by three papers (30% each) and class participation (10%). Included in class participation is that you lead discussion during the first part of one day's class.

III. Academic Honesty

Strict standards of academic integrity will be upheld in this class. Your signature on a test or assignment means that you have neither given nor received unauthorized aid. Students who are found to have violated this standard can expect severe sanctions.

IV. Assigned Texts

The following books are available for purchase at the bookstore:

Plutarch, The Age of Alexander

Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man

Amy Kass, ed., American Lives

Shakespeare, MacBeth

Shakespeare, Coriolanus

Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

Plato, Gorgias

Plato, Symposium

Other required readings will be on closed reserve at the Library.

V. Class Schedule

(This is an approximate schedule. We may depart from it if class discussions, etc. so require.)

A. Introduction

January 4: Plutarch, "Alexander" (The Age of Alexander, pp. 252-334)

B. The Problem of Ambition: A Philosophic Survey and Interpretation

January 9: Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man, "By Way of an Introduction" and chapters 13-15; also read selection from Hegel

January 11: Fukuyama, chapters 16-19

January 16: Fukuyama, chapters 23-26

January 18: Fukuyama, chapters 27-28; also read selection from Nietzsche

January 23: Fukuyama, chapters 29-31

C. Ambition and Liberal Democracy

January 25: The American Founders: read selections

January 30: The domestication of ambition: read Franklin (in Kass, American Lives); also read Tocqueville selection

February 1: Review previous reading

February 6: Aspiring to equality: read Douglass and Stanton (both in Kass, American Lives)

February 8: Democratic statesmanship: read Roosevelt (in Kass, American Lives); also read selection from Lincoln

D. Great Ambition

February 13: Founders and legislators: read selections

February 15: Shakespeare, MacBeth

February 20: Shakespeare, Coriolanus

February 22: Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

E. The Problem of Ambition: Another Philosophic Interpretation

February 27: Plato, Gorgias 478d-503d (pp. 67-100)

March 1: Gorgias 53d-527e (pp. 100-29)

March 6: Plato, Symposium 172a-201c (pp. 1-44)

March 8: Symposium 201d-23d (pp. 45-77)

VI. Due dates

Papers are due in my office by 5:00 PM of the day indicated:

First paper due Monday, January 29

Second paper due Monday, February 19

Third paper due Monday, March 12