Chap. 2: The Origin of Ambition and Rank

1.3.16 We parade our riches and hide our poverty because people sympathize more with our joy than our sorrow.

  • We are most mortified to:
    • expose our distress in public, and
    • feel that no one conceives half of what we suffer.


We pursue riches and avoid poverty chiefly from this regard to mankind’s sentiments.

  • For what is all the world’s toil and bustle?
  • What is the end of:
    • avarice and ambition,
    • the pursuit of wealth, power, and preeminence?
  • Is it to supply nature’s necessities?
    • The meanest labourer’s wages can supply them.
    • Wages afford him:
      • food and clothing, and
      • the comfort of a house and a family.
    • If we rigourously examined his economy, we would find that:
      • he spends much of them on conveniencies, which may be regarded as superfluities, and
      • he can spend for vanity and distinction on extraordinary occasions.
    • Why then are we averse to his situation?
    • Why do the well-educated regard the following as worse than death:
      • to be reduced to live simply like him,
      • to dwell under the same lowly roof, and
      • to be clothed in the same humble attire?
    • Do they imagine that their stomach is better, or their sleep sounder in a palace than in a cottage?
    • The opposite has been observed so often.
      • It is so very obvious.
      • Even if it had never been observed, nobody is ignorant of it.
  • That emulation runs through everyone.
    • Where does it come from?
  • We call bettering our condition as the great purpose of human life.
    • What are the advantages of this purpose?
    • Our advantages from it are:
      • to be observed,
      • to be attended to, and
      • to be noticed with sympathy, complacency, and approbation.


We are interested with the vanity, not the ease or pleasure.

  • But vanity is always based on ourselves being the object of attention and approbation.
    • The rich man glories in his riches because:
      • he feels that riches naturally draw the world’s attention on him,
      • mankind is disposed to go along with him in all those agreeable emotions from his situation.
        • His heart swells and dilates at the thought of this.
        • Thus, he is fonder of his wealth than for all its other advantages.
    • On the contrary, the poor man is ashamed of his poverty.
      • He feels that:
        • it places him out of mankind’s sight or
        • if they notice him, they have no fellow-feeling with his misery and distress.
      • He is mortified by both.
        • Being overlooked and disapproved of are entirely different.
        • Yet obscurity covers us from honour and approval.
          • The feeling that we are unnoticed necessarily:
            • damps our hope, and
            • disappoints the desire of human nature.
      • He goes out and comes in unheeded.
        • In the midst of a crowd, he is in the same obscurity as if shut up in his own hovel.

Poor people are occupied with humble cares and painful attentions.

  • These are not amusing to the dissipated and gay.
    • They turn away their eyes from him.
    • If his distress forces them to look at him, they spurn him.
  • The fortunate and the proud wonder at the insolence of human wretchedness.
    • They wonder why it:
      • dares to present itself before them, and
      • presumes to disturb their happiness with its misery.

On the contrary, the man of rank and distinction is observed by all.

  • Everybody is eager:
    • to look at him, and
    • to conceive his joy and exultation, at least by sympathy.
  • His actions are the objects of the public care.
  • His words or gestures are not neglected.
  • In a great assembly, everyone looks at him.
    • If his behaviour is not absurd, he has every opportunity of:
      • interesting mankind, and
      • rendering himself as the object of everybody’s observation and fellow-feeling.
        • This renders greatness the object of envy despite:
          • the restraint it imposes, and
          • the loss of liberty with which it is attended.
        • It compensates:
          • all that anxiety undergone in its pursuit, and
          • all that leisure, ease, and careless security, which are forfeited forever by its acquisition.
            • This is of more consequence.


1.3.17. The condition of the great in those delusive colours from the imagination, seems to be almost the abstract idea of a perfect and happy state.

  • It is the very state which we had sketched out to ourselves as the final object of all our desires, in all our waking dreams and idle reveries.
    • We feel a peculiar sympathy with the satisfaction of those who are in it.
    • We favour all their inclinations and forward all their wishes.
    • We think: what pity that anything should spoil such an agreeable situation!
    • We could even wish them immortality.
      • It seems hard to us that death should end such perfect enjoyment.
    • We think that Nature is cruel to compel them from their exalted stations to that humble, but hospitable home.
      • She has provided this home for all her children.

Our ready compliment to them is: “Great King, live forever!”

  • It follows the manner of eastern adulation.
  • Our experience teaches us its absurdity.
  • Every calamity and injury that befalls them excites ten times more compassion and resentment in the spectator’s breast than he would have felt had the same things happened to other men.
    • The misfortunes of Kings are the proper subjects for tragedy.
      • In this respect, they resemble the misfortunes of lovers.
      • Those two situations chiefly interest us in the theatre.
      • Because, despite all that reason and experience can tell us to the contrary, the prejudices which the imagination attach to these two states a happiness superior to any other.

To disturb or end such perfect enjoyment seems to be the most atrocious of all injuries.

  • The traitor who conspires to kill his monarch, is thought a greater monster than any other murderer.
  • All the innocent blood shed in the civil wars provoked less indignation than the death of Charles I.

A stranger to human nature would be apt to imagine that:

  • pain must be more agonizing, and
  • the convulsions of death must be more terrible to persons of higher rank than to those of lower stations
    • This is from seeing men’s:
      • indifference to the misery of their inferiors, and
      • regret and indignation for the sufferings of those above them.


1.3.18. The distinction of ranks and the order of society is founded on mankind’s disposition to go along with all the passions of the rich and the powerful.

  • Our obsequiousness to our superiors more frequently arises from our admiration for the advantages of their situation, than from any private expectations of benefit from their goodwill.
    • Their benefits can extend but to a few.
    • But their fortunes interest almost everybody.
  • We are eager to assist them in completing a system of happiness that approaches perfection.
    • We desire to serve them for their own sake, without any other recompense but the vanity or the honour of obliging them.
  • Our deference to their inclinations is not chiefly founded:
    • on a regard to the utility of such submission
    • on the order of society, which is best supported by the submission.
      • Even when the order of society requires that we should oppose the rich and powerful, we can hardly bring ourselves to do it.

Kings are the people’s servants, to be obeyed, resisted, deposed, or punished, as required by the public convenience.

  • This is the doctrine of reason and philosophy.
  • But it is not the doctrine of Nature.
    • Nature would teach us to:
      • submit to them for their own sake,
      • tremble and bow down before them,
      • regard their smile as a reward sufficient to compensate any services, and
      • dread their displeasure as the severest of all mortifications, though no evil were to follow from it.
    • Few men have the magnanimity required:
      • to treat them in any respect as men, and
      • to reason and dispute with them ordinarily
        • Only those who are assisted by familiarity and acquaintance can do such things.
  • The following are insufficient to balance this natural disposition to respect them:
    •  the strongest motives,
    • the most furious passions, fear, hatred, and resentment.
  • Their conduct must justly or unjustly have excited the extreme of all those passions, before the people can be brought to:
    • violently oppose them, or
    • desire to see them punished or deposed.
      • Even when the people have been brought this length, they are:
        • apt to relent every moment, and
        • easily relapse into their habitual state of deference.
      • They cannot stand their monarch’s mortification.
        • Compassion soon takes the place of resentment.
        • They forget all past provocations.
        • Their old principles of loyalty revive.
        • They run to re-establish the ruined authority of their old masters, with the same violence with which they had opposed it.
          • The death of Charles I brought the Restoration of the royal family.
          • James II was seized by the populace from escaping by ship.
            • The people’s compassion for him then almost prevented the Revolution.
              • It made the Revolution go on more heavily than before.


1.3.19. Are the great insensible of the easy price at which they acquire the public admiration?

  • Or do they imagine, just like others, that it must be bought with sweat or blood?
  • By what important accomplishments is the young nobleman instructed to:
    • support the dignity of his rank, and
    • render himself worthy of that superiority over his fellow-citizens, given to him by his ancestors’ virtue?
  • Is it by any kind of knowledge, industry, patience, self-denial, or virtue?
    • All his words and motions are attended to.
    • He learns a habitual regard to every circumstance of ordinary behaviour.
  • He studies to perform all those small duties with the most exact propriety.
    • He is conscious:
      • how much he is observed, and
      • how much people are disposed to favour all his inclinations.
    • He acts with that freedom and elevation which the thought of this naturally inspires.
      • His air, manner, and deportment, all mark that elegant and graceful sense of his own superiority.
      • Those who are born to inferior stations can hardly ever arrive at this.
  • These are the arts by which he proposes to:
    • make people more easily submit to his authority, and
    • govern their inclinations according to his own pleasure.
      • He is seldom disappointed in this.
  • These arts, supported by rank and preeminence, are ordinarily sufficient to govern the world.
    • Louis XIV was regarded all over Europe as the perfect model of a great prince.
    • But through what talents and virtues did he acquire this great reputation?
      • Was it by:
        • the scrupulous and inflexible justice of all his undertakings,
        • the immense dangers and difficulties with which they were attended, or
        • his relentlessness in pursuing them?
      • Was it by:
        • his extensive knowledge,
        • exquisite judgment, or
        • his heroic valour?
    • It was by none of these qualities.
    • First of all, he was the most powerful prince in Europe.
      • He consequently held the highest rank among kings.
      • His historian says:
        • ‘he surpassed all his courtiers in:
          • his shape’s gracefulness
          • and the majestic beauty of his features.
        • The sound of his voice was noble and affecting.
          • It gained those hearts which his presence intimidated.
        • He had a step and a deportment which could suit only him and his rank.
          • It would have been ridiculous in any other person.
        • He caused embarrassment to those who spoke to him.
          • This flattered the secret satisfaction for his own superiority.
        • An old officer was confounded and faultered in asking him a favour.
          • The officer was unable to conclude his discourse, and said to him:
          • Your majesty, I hope you will believe that I do not tremble like this before your enemies.
            • He then could easily obtain what he demanded.’
    • These frivolous accomplishments were supported by his rank and by other talents and virtues not much above mediocrity.
      • They established him in the esteem of his own age.
      • They drew much respect for his memory, even from posterity.
    • Compared with these in his own times and presence, no other virtue appeared to have any merit.
      • Knowledge, industry, valour, and beneficence, trembled, were abashed, and lost all dignity before them.


1.3.20. But the man of inferior rank cannot hope to distinguish himself by these kinds of accomplishments.

  • Politeness is so much the virtue of the great, that it will do little honour to anybody but themselves.
  • The vain man imitates their manner and affects to be eminent by his ordinary behaviour’s superior propriety.
    • He is rewarded with a double share of contempt for his folly and presumption.
    • Why should the man, whom nobody looks at, be very anxious about how he himself holds up his head or uses his arms while walking?
      • He is surely occupied with a very superfluous attention.
      • It marks a sense of his own importance, which no other mortal can go along with.

The chief characteristics of a private man’s behaviour should be the most perfect modesty and plainness, with self-negligence consistent with the respect due to others.

  • He should distinguish himself by more important virtues.
  • He must acquire dependants to balance the dependants of the great.
  • He can only pay them through:
    • the labour of his body, and
    • the activity of his mind.
  • He must therefore cultivate these.
    • He must acquire:
      • superior knowledge in his profession, and
      • superior industry in its exercise.
    • He must be:
      • patient in labour,
      • resolute in danger, and
      • firm in distress.
    • He must bring these talents into public view by:
      • the difficulty, importance, and good judgment of his undertakings, and
      • the severe and unrelenting application with which he pursues them.
    • Probity and prudence, generosity and frankness, must characterize his ordinary behaviour.
    • He must be forward to engage in all those situations, in which:
      • the greatest talents and virtues are required to act with propriety, and
      • the greatest applause is to be acquired by those who can acquit themselves with honour.


The man of spirit and ambition, depressed by his situation, impatiently looks around for some great opportunity to distinguish himself.

  • Any circumstance which can afford this is desirable to him.
  • He even looks forward to a foreign war or civil dissension.
  • With secret delight, he sees the chance of drawing mankind’s attention and admiration, through all its confusion and bloodshed.

On the contrary, the man of rank and distinction has his whole glory in the propriety of his ordinary behaviour.

  • He is contented with the humble renown which this can afford him.
  • He has no talents to acquire any other.
  • He is unwilling to embarrass himself with what can be attended with difficulty or distress.
    • To figure at a ball is his great triumph.
    • To succeed in an intrigue of gallantry is his highest exploit.
  • He has an aversion to all public confusions:
    • not from:
      • the love of mankind, nor
        • For the great never look on their inferiors as their fellow-creatures.
      • the lack of courage,
        • For he is seldom not brave.
    • but from a consciousness that:
      • he has none of the virtues required in such situations, and
      • the public attention will certainly be drawn away from him by the virtue of others
  • He may be willing to:
    • expose himself to some little danger, and
    • make a campaign when it is the fashion.
  • But he is horrified at the thought of any situation which demands the continual and long exertion of patience, industry, fortitude, and application of thought.
    • These virtues are hardly seen in men born to those high stations.

Accordingly in all governments and monarchies, the highest offices generally belong to men educated in the middle and inferior ranks of life.

  • These men have been carried by their own industry and abilities, though:
    • loaded with the jealousy, and
    • opposed by the resentment of those born their superiors.
  • The great regard them:
    • first with contempt,
    • afterwards with envy.
  • They are finally contented to truckle with the same abject meanness which they desire to impose on the rest of mankind.


1.3.21. The fall from greatness so insupportable because of the loss of this easy empire over mankind’s affections

  • The family of the king of Macedon was led in triumph by Paulus Aemilius.
    • Their misfortunes made them divide, with their conqueror, the Roman people’s attention.
    • The young royal children were insensible of their situation.
      • Their sight struck the spectators with the tenderest sorrow and compassion amidst the public rejoicings.
    • The king appeared next in the procession.
      • He seemed confounded, astonished, and bereft of all sentiment, by his great calamities.
    • His friends and ministers followed after him.
      • As they moved along, they often looked at their fallen king and always burst into tears.
      • Their whole behaviour demonstrated that they did not think of their own misfortunes, but were entirely occupied by the superior greatness of his.
  • On the contrary, the generous Romans beheld him with disdain and indignation.
    • They regarded as unworthy of all compassion the man who could be so mean-spirited as to bear to live under such calamities.
    • Yet what did those calamities amount to?
      • According to most historians, he was to spend his remaining days:
        • under the protection of a powerful and humane people,
        • in a state which seemed worthy of envy,
        • in a state of plenty, ease, leisure, and security, from which it was impossible for him even by his own folly to fall.
      • But he was no longer to be surrounded by that admiring mob of fools, flatterers, and dependants.
      • He was no longer:
        • to be gazed upon by multitudes,
        • the object of their respect, gratitude, love, and admiration.
      • The passions of nations were no longer to mould themselves upon his inclinations.
      • This insupportable calamity bereaved the king of all sentiment.
        • It made his friends forget their own misfortunes.
        • Roman magnanimity could not conceive how any man could be so mean-spirited as to bear to survive.



Francois de la Rochefoucauld


1.3.22. My Lord Rochefoucauld says, ‘Love is commonly succeeded by ambition; but ambition is hardly ever succeeded by love.’

  • Once ambition fully possesses the breast, it will not admit a rival nor a successor.
    • All other pleasures sicken and decay to those used to ambition or even the hope of public admiration.
  • Many discarded statesmen have studied:
    • to get the better of ambition for their own ease and
    • to despise those honours which they could not attain.
  • How few of them have been able to succeed?
    • Most have spent their time in the most listless and insipid indolence.
    • They chagrined at the thoughts of their own insignificancy.
    • They were incapable of being interested in private life:
      • without enjoyment, except when they talked of their former greatness
      • without satisfaction, except when they were employed in some vain project to recover it
  • Are you resolved never to barter your liberty for the lordly servitude of a court, but to live free, fearless, and independent?
    • There seems to be only one way to continue in that virtuous resolution:
      • Never enter the place from whence so few have been able to return.
      • Never come within the circle of ambition nor ever compare yourself with those masters of the earth who have already engrossed the attention of half of mankind before you.


1.3.23. It appears very important to be in the view of general sympathy and attention.

  • That great object:
    • divides the wives of politicians, and
    • is the end of half of the labours of human life.
  • It is the cause of all the tumult, bustle, rapine, and injustice, which avarice and ambition have introduced into this world.
  • It is said that people of sense hate place.
    • They hate sitting at the head of the table.
    • They are indifferent on who is pointed out to the company by that frivolous circumstance, which the smallest advantage can overbalance.
  • But no man despises rank, distinction preeminence unless:
    • he is raised very much above or sunk very much below the ordinary standard of human nature, and
    • he is either :
      • so confirmed in wisdom and real philosophy
        • It does not matter to him if he is not attended to, nor approved of.
      • so habituated to the idea of his own meanness.
        • He is so sunk in slothful and sottish indifference, as to have entirely forgotten the desire for superiority.


1.3.24. Prosperity has its dazzling splendour from being the natural object of mankind’s joyous congratulations and sympathetic attentions.

  • The gloom of adversity is most darkened by the feeling that our misfortunes are the objects of our brethren’s contempt and aversion, and not of fellow-feeling.
  • Because of this, the most dreadful calamities are not always the ones most difficult to support.
  • It is often more mortifying to appear in public under small disasters, than under great misfortunes.
    • Small disasters excite no sympathy.
    • But great misfortunes call forth a very lively compassion, even if they cannot excite anything like the sufferer’s anguish.
      • In this case, the spectators’s sentiments are less wide of those of the sufferer.
      • Their imperfect fellow-feeling lends him some assistance to support his misery.
  • Before a gay assembly, a gentleman would be more mortified to appear covered with filth and rags than with blood and wounds.
    • They would pity him for being wounded.
    • They would laugh at him for being filthy.
  • The judge who orders a criminal to be set in the pillory, dishonours him more than if he had condemned him to the scaffold.
  • The great prince who caned a general officer at the head of his army, disgraced him irrecoverably.
    • The punishment would have been much less had he shot him.
    • By the laws of honour, striking with a cane dishonours but striking with a sword does not, for an obvious reason.
  • Dishonour is the greatest evil to a gentleman.
    • The slighter punishments inflicted on a gentleman come to be regarded as the most dreadful punishment, among a humane and generous people.
    • Therefore, they are universally laid aside with regard to persons of that rank.
    • The law respects their honour always, while it takes their life many times.
  • No European government, except that of Russia, is capable of the brutality of:
    • scourging a person of quality, or
    • setting him in the pillory for any crime.


1.3.25. A brave man:

  • is not rendered contemptible by being brought to the scaffold.
    • His behaviour may gain him universal esteem and admiration.
    • The spectators’ sympathy supports him.
      • It saves him from the shame that he feels.
        • Shame is the most unsupportable of all the sentiments.
  • is rendered contemptible by being set in the pillory.
    • No behaviour here can make him agreeable.
    • There is no sympathy in this case.
      • If there is any, it is not with his pain, but with his shame, not his sorrow.
    • Those who pity him, blush and hang down their heads for him.
      • He droops in the same way.
      • He feels degraded by the punishment, not by the crime.

On the contrary, the man who dies with resolution is naturally regarded with esteem and approbation.

  • He wears the same undaunted expression.
  • If the crime does not deprive him of the respect of others, the punishment never will.
  • He does not suspect that his situation is the object of contempt or derision to anybody.
  • He can properly assume the air of perfect serenity, triumph, and exultation.



Jean Francois Paul de Gondi, Cardinal de Retz


1.3.26. The Cardinal de Retz says:

  • ‘Great dangers have their charms, because there is some glory to be got, even when we miscarry.
  • But moderate dangers are horrible because the loss of reputation always attends the lack of success.’
  • His maxim has the same foundation with what we have observed regarding punishments.


1.3.27. Human virtue is superior to pain, poverty, danger, and death.

  • It does not even require its utmost efforts to despise them.
  • But the constancy of human virtue is more likely to fail when it is:
    • exposed to insult and derision, and
    • set up for scorn.
  • Compared with mankind’s contempt, all other external evils are easily supported.

Words: 3,900

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