Is there passion without ambition? Let us think of passion, at the most extreme sense, as the condition of being fully immersed in a single idea, and fully directed in one’s powers and capacities toward serving that idea, likely at the expense of many things that also seem good or even necessary. Such passion can be short-lived — for example the passionate lovers who burn brightly and then burn out and lose interest. On the other hand, passion can endure. Enduring passion is more mysterious than that short-lived passion. To determine how ambition fits into either or both forms, we need to define them properly. What is the nature of the one versus the other?
Short-lived passion does not necessarily aspire to be short-lived. Lovers are left with many difficulties when passions fade. Yet there often is a vague awareness when one is in the grips of a passion that it will indeed eventually fade. Such is the case also with new hobbies, when one immerses oneself in the basic training and acquires all of the relevant instruments and materials and makes all the necessary arrangements perhaps to include others or to travel to some appropriate location, but very shortly after some initial experiences with the new hobby the passion quickly fades.
Frustration seems to be present when passion fades. Things that could be overlooked and easily tolerated in the beginning become sources of increasing frustration. The lovers’ imperfections, the hobbies’ resistance to mastery, being common frustrations.
The pleasure associated with the passion is perhaps the key element that changes. There is a pleasure in the successful pursuing of a perceived good, and a pleasure in the initial acquisition of that good, and a pleasure in anticipating additional goods to be acquired now that the original good has been obtained. The last of these seems to be the most vulnerable to change from pleasure to disappointment and frustration, which in turn affects the whole package of pleasure associated with that passion. The lover can come to realize that their beloved does not quite contain the precise network of goods originally perceived. This sours the pleasure associated with recollecting the pursuit of the person, it sours the pleasure associated with the present possession of that person, and it sours the pleasure associated with the anticipation of future goods available through that person. The hobbyist can discover the costs and difficulties of mastering the hobby are greater, and the pleasures of mastery more slowly manifest, or simply in themselves less satisfying perhaps by being too quickly manifest, or in themselves less aesthetically pleasing. For both the lover and the hobbyist, the original perceived goods prove fleeting, and the frustrations prove too costly, to sustain the passion.
Alternatively, perhaps it is possible for everything to go as expected, or indeed to exceed expectations, and thus sustain the passion. Or perhaps unexpected goods provide replacement pleasures that form a sort of bridge for the passion to continue. It seems unlikely that everything will go as expected, there seeming to be a self-deceit inherent in new passion, an excited optimism that feeds on itself as the imagination comes in to bleach out pre-existing dissatisfaction. Thus one finds oneself either blinded by passion, or very conflicted and scared about becoming blinded by passion, but never seemingly capable of remaining calm and sober in passion’s presence. This suggests that passion is first indulged and later potentially sustained by the discovery of unexpected goods capable of replacing the original pleasures as one discovers one’s original misperceptions and miscalculations.
But perhaps there is a way to overcome the difficult transitions from the initial indulgence phase of a passion to the subsequent sustainment phase of a passion. Seeing things in the future more clearly and desiring the sustaining goods from the beginning is one technique. Stretching the initial indulgence phase into the indefinite future would be the other technique. Both techniques require a future-focus to replace a focus on the immediate now, which is to say it requires an enjoyment of pleasures of anticipation of things not yet acquired over an enjoyment of pleasures of things presently acquired. One can enjoy the pursuit of riches, or one can enjoy the possession of riches, but these pleasures do seem to be mutually exclusive. One cannot perfectly enjoy the pursuit of riches while one is perfectly satisfied with one’s current possessions. Nor can one perfectly enjoy one’s current possessions when one is pursuing pleasures associated with the pursuit of additional riches. As was already said, the enjoyment of current possessions is likely to lack a sustainable passion to accompany it, which is to say, it is likely to lack a full enjoyment over time, requiring the re-starting of the indulgence phase of passion over-and-over-again. Thus the enjoyment of the pursuit of riches seems to be more stable as a form of enjoyment, yet this inherently undercuts the enjoyment one might have with their current possessions. Which of these is the better trade-off?
Although placed side-by-side, the pleasures of anticipation are inferior to the pleasures of possession, the anticipation of frustration changes things. One who has experienced specifically the ending or fading of pleasure of possession can become so averse to the fading experience that they lose interest in the pleasure of possession experience. Such a person, then, is more likely to find the pleasures of anticipation, which are inherently protected from the fading experience thus described, more attractive. Anticipation pleasure never disappoints, the challenge simply being how to sustain the anticipation, and this more under the individual’s control, since anticipation largely is a product of the imagination. Thus a powerful enough imagination can transport someone to a place where their passion is, in a sense, in its ideal form — both intense, so as to be fully satisfying, and sustainable.
The imagination is difficult to empower. It is at the mercy of several other mental faculties for its ability to create vivid, dazzling thoughts and visions. Memory contains the store of materials from which the imagination can create. Memory also contains the imagined thoughts and visions from other minds that it has come in contact with. Thus when one reads Dante’s Divine Comedy, one’s memory encounters these imagined places that themselves were constructed by the imagination with other materials from the memory. Since the imagination is dependent on the memory, it is important to have an empowered memory as well, and since the memory is most familiar with what it has most recently or most frequently encountered, the very experience of encountering is crucial for the empowerment of the memory, and by extension, the imagination. Of course, not all encounter is equally serviceable for the imagination, and it is up to the individual to experiment with encounter in order to determine what encounters best stock the memory and inspire the imagination.
What should one imagine in order to take pleasure in the anticipation thereof? I think the next stage of this discussion will require an extended exploration that I will put off for now. The seed of that next stage seems to lie with what we ourselves want to become, and who we want to be like (as we imagine them to be). Jerry Seinfeld wanted to be like the successful comedians he saw early on, Socrates wanted to spend eternity with great thinkers, Jesus wanted to be the foretold Messiah of the Hebrew Scriptures. The notion of the exemplar was popular in the 19th century, and it is a common question to children “what do you want to be when you grow up?” The desire to become something great can be very powerful, but it can be very difficult to determine what that something is. And that something that is suggested to you, or that you yourself think is right for you, can come to appear to be a mismatch. When this happens, it seems the only way forward is to return to the imagination, and to empower it. A final question: is the desire to become something great more about the specific something (e.g. comedian, philosopher, messiah) or more about the quality of greatness? If it is about achieving greatness (and the something is merely a vehicle for greatness), and we might note that this is a sort of standard meaning of the concept of ambition, then ambition seems to be essential to passion. Ambition is about the greatness and is the same for everyone, while passion is about something specific to the uniqueness of the individual person, and each, common ambition and individual passion, needs the other.