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ILLUSTRATIONS OF AMBITION.
CHARACTER OF THE FIRST LORD HOLLAND.
“ Cromwell! I charge thee, fling away ambition;
By that sin fell the angels : how can man then,
“O, how wretched
SHAKSPEARE: Hen. VIII.
Tuis lesson, clear, forcible, and important as it is, does not seem to have been learned, certainly not taught, by the cardinal, until he had run his full career, and surmounted a thousand storms without a reflection on their danger. He was swamped at last, when it was too late to profit by his knowledge, and only then gave in to the above most moral
precept. His protégé Cromwell, though he had the reputation of a clever man, does not seem to have acted upon it any more than his master; and the end of both was unhappy. The
sage of an after reign analysed the subject, as he did every other, with great knowledge and power
of illustration. "Ambition,” says he, “is like choler; which is an humour which maketh men active, earnest, full of alacrity and stirring, if it be not stopped. But if it be stopped and cannot have its way, it becometh adust, and thereby malign and venomous.
So ambitious men, if they find the way open for their rising and still get forward, they are rather busy than dangerous; but if they be checked in their desires, they become secretly discontent, and look upon men and matters with an evil eye." *
We shall see, in the course of our speculations, how well this was exemplified in the instance of Swift and others; and, as my two last dreams were occupied with the lower sort of ambition (the ambition of vanity), unworthy in itself, and ridiculous rather than dangerous, we will now, from the above exhibition of the cardinal, take a higher flight, which leads to fear and pity more than laughter.
In truth the rise and fall of Wolsey was no common history, and it is difficult to say whether his success or reverses were the most striking. There is this essential difference, however, in his history from that of the thousand other victions that engage our notice in the world's page; that he was no mere adventurer, the child and sport of chance or fortune, like Alberoni, Ripperda †, or the Russian favourites, but a man trained to state affairs.
* Bacon's Essays, art. “ Ambition."
† A notable instance! Now Protestant, now Catholic ; now Mahommedan, now the founder of a new sect; now the favourite minister of Philip V. of Spain, now leader of the armies of Morocco : but the slave of ambition throughout. - E. P.
“ He was a scholar, and a ripe and good one ;
Though from an humble stock, undoubtedly
But, to those men that sought him, sweet as summer.” That such a man should fall, after attaining to the height he did, is nothing new in the history of man. That one who could reason so correctly on the subject, and give such rules to avoid misfortune, should almost court it, is somewhat more surprising; though that also is not new in cases where self predominates to the extinction of wisdom. This self was Wolsey's real sovereign, and blinded him to the evils the nature and consequences of which he so perfectly understood, and so well described to his amazed secretary.*
All these evils, too, are thoroughly foreseen by the tens of thousands who embark on the same sca, and view him in this admirable play as the useful beacon the deep-skilled poet intended him to be, and fall in the same manner as if they had never perused this pathetic lesson. Why this is, is the first, and a most pertinent, question.
The answer is as ready. Because, when unregulated passion and self-interest predominate, history and example avail nothing. 'Tis hence that I am never more interested and engrossed than when, in reading some eminent man's life (statesman or warrior), however he may have figured in the
eyes men, I come to his reflections at the close of it, and find, in his opinion, that all is vanity.
* " Enter Cromwell, amazedly."—Hen. VIII.
This original absorption of self; this yielding up of the senses to the mere dazzle of things, excluding all reflection as to their real value founded upon God's moral government of the world; this selfish. ness lies, I say, at the bottom of all those complaints of the instability of fortune, of the disappointment of (supposed) reasonable expectations, of the fallaciousness of promises, and of the virtuous indignation at the success of rogues and rascals, which all successful rivals are in the mind of him who is an example of mere worldly, and therefore of a vicious, ambition, that has been disappointed. A picture of this ambition has been so fearfully drawn by an eloquent and clear-minded prelate, that I do not scruple to present it to the reader. “How can he,” says this eminent divine, “who, in climbing the ladder of ambition, tramples at every step on sincerity and truth; who scruples not to circumvent a friend, to flatter a fool, to hold commerce with a knave, to descend to every mean compliance with the vices of the great and the follies of the vulgar; how can such a one think with patience of a religion which sets no value on the pomp and glory of the world ?”* Even the feelings of humiliation which old labourers in the political vineyard scruple not sometimes to relate to their friends, although the world at large stamp them with the character of fortunate, take their rise from any thing but modesty, and are the creation solely of an exuberant spleen. A pregnant, and at the same time melancholy, in
* Bishop Watson, Tracts, i. 232.
stance of this is to be found in some letters lately published of a person in any point of view, whether public or private, of no mean consideration; in fact, with the imputation of very sad faults from many who have drawn his character, beloved by numerous friends in social life, and a statesman of the very first class in the times in which he lived. Such was the first Lord Holland, to whose letters in the “ 'Selwyn Correspondence" I advert. To be sure Lord Chesterfield shows him little mercy in his character of him, telling us that “he was of the lowest extraction ; had consumed a fair younger brother's portion in the vices of youth (gaming included); and that he had no fixed principles, either of morality or religion, and was too unwary in ridiculing and exposing them;" meaning, of course, in endeavouring to do so. Nay, Lord Chesterfield goes on to say, that as he advanced in life his ambition became subservient to his avarice; that“ rem, quocunque modo, rem,” became his maxim ; and that he lived as Brutus died, calling virtue but
Whether this was deserved or not, is not here the question ; my point being only that Lord Holland, according to the views of the world, was a man of successful ambition; and yet, from a want of proper regulation and sense of religion, at the end of his life, unhappy. Lord Chesterfield testifies to his success. “ He had,” says he, “very great abilities, and indefatigable industry in business; great skill in managing, that is, in corrupting, the House
* Characters, art. “H. Fox."