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IF fame be the last infirmity of noble minds, ambition is often the first; though, when properly directed, it may be no feeble aid to virtue.
Had not my youthful mind, says Cicero, “from many precepts, from many writings, drunk in this truth, that glory and virtue ought to be the darling, nay, the only wish in life; that, to attain these, the torments of the flesh, with the perils of death and exile, are to be despised; never had I exposed my person in so many encounters, and to these daily conflicts with the worst of men, for your deliverance. But, on this head, books are full; the voice of the wise
is full ; the examples of antiquity are full : and all these the night of barbarism had still enveloped, had it not been enlightened by the sun of science." The poet tells us that
“The many fail : the one succeeds.” 1 But this is scarcely true. All succeed who deserve, though not perhaps as they hoped. An honourable defeat is better than a mean victory, and no one is really the worse for being beaten, unless he loses heart. Though we may not be able to attain, that is no reason why we should not aspire. I know, says Morris, “How far high failure overleaps the bound
Of low successes." And Bacon assures us that “if a man look sharp and attentively he shall see fortune; for though she is blind, she is not invisible.” To give ourselves a reasonable prospect of success, we must realise what we hope to achieve; and then make the most of our opportunities.
Of these the use of time is one of the most important. What have we to do with time, asks Oliver Wendell Holmes, but to fill it up with labour. “At the battle of Montebello,” said Napoleon, “I ordered Kellermann to attack with 800 horse, and with these he separated the 6000 Hungarian grenadiers before the very eyes of the Austrian cavalry. This cavalry was half a league off, and required a quarter of an hour to arrive on the field of action; and I have observed that it is always these quarters of an hour that decide the fate of a battle,” including, we may add, the battle of life.
Nor must we spare ourselves in other ways, for “He who thinks in strife • To earn a deathless fame, must do, nor ever care
for life.” 1 In the excitement of the struggle, moreover, he will suffer comparatively little from wounds and blows which would otherwise cause intense pain.
It is well to weigh scrupulously the object in view, to run as little risk as may be, to count the cost with care.
But when the mind is once made up, there must be no looking back, you must spare yourself no labour, nor shrink from danger.
“He either fears his fate too much
Or his deserts are small,
To gain or lose it all.” 1 Glory, says Renan, "is after all the thing which has the best chance of not being altogether vanity.” But what is glory?
Marcus Aurelius observes that “a spider is proud when it has caught a fly, a man when he has caught a hare, another when he has taken a little fish in a net, another when he has taken wild boars, another when he has taken bears, and another
when he has taken Sarmatians ;”] but this, if from one point of view it shows the vanity of fame, also encourages us with the evidence that every one may succeed if his objects are but reasonable.
Alexander may be taken as almost a type of Ambition in its usual form, though carried to an extreme.
His desire was to conquer, not to inherit or to rule. When news was brought that his father Philip had taken some town, or won some battle, instead of being delighted, he used to say to his companions, “My father will go on conquering, till there be nothing extraordinary left for you and me to do." He is said even to have been mortified at the number of the stars, considering that he had not been able to conquer one world. Such ambition is justly foredoomed to disappointment.
i He is referring here to one of his expeditions.