Why bad things happen to ambitious people

12 Jun

How many myths and legends from antiquity tell us that mankind’s greatest curse is ambition?

Prometheus: disemboweled over and over (and over and over) for bringing fire to human beings

The Tower of Babel: we attempt to build a tower to the sky and into Heaven, and are smote (smitten?) with, to dramatically understate the event, “communication difficulties”

Phaeton: incinerated when trying to fly the chariot of the sun

Icarus: drowns in the Mediterranean Sea after soaring too close to the sun (what I don’t understand about that one is why, if he and his father were imprisoned, they had access to such large quantities of wax)

Arachne: transformed into a spider when she attempts to challenge a goddess at weaving– and wins

Even Satan’s fall from heaven has a similar element to it: “Lucifer,” after all, means “light-bearer”

But the most potent example has to be the story of Adam and Eve

Tempted by the serpent, their sin is said to be disobedience of God’s explicit wishes, but their motivations were hardly malicious—they aspired to knowledge of good and evil, and were punished for this first striving toward reason.  They were too much like God.

The doctrine of Original Sin, holding that all people inherit this depravity or weakness (reason!), carries from early history to the modern world the idea that the human mind is evil, that reaching for higher ability or knowledge is unacceptable, and that choosing the dictates of one’s own mind above the strictures of authority is a sin.  And not only is use of (or desire to use) the mind a sin: the penalty is the “curse” of labor.  But work, our productive effort and creative capacity, is only another way we reflect the biblical idea of God (who kind of liked making things himself…).

And there’s another story that tracks this connection between knowledge and divinity even further.  Ancient Mesopotamia is considered the cradle of human civilization, and The Epic of Gilgamesh is considered one of the first works of human literature.  But let us consider this: when Enkidu, a savage man raised in the wilderness, has sexual intercourse with a woman and gains knowledge and understanding, she tells him:

“Thou art wise, Enkidu, art become like a God!” 

Human happiness, it seems, and human reason, are the prerogatives of the gods.  And if we’re very lucky, and very very good, we might get a taste of it in the afterlife.  Ambition, after all, is the curse of mankind.

But does that really hold?  Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:

“The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.”

If our curse really was pride rather than timidity, passivity, or stark naked terror, why would that strike so true?


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