Herman Melville's Moby Dick is an intense and rather gothic tale of seaman Ishmael's experience whaling under captain Ahab. It's a well-known story of obsession, revenge, mania, and ruin--the typically edifying material or a great American novel.
As everyone familiar with American literature already knows, the story centers on Ahab's pursuit of the white whale, which is indeed a rather theological beast. The whale is not God; God is an unassailable sovereign throughout the novel, the creator of the land and sky and seas and all that stirs and broods in them, including the leviathan of Ahab's obsession. God not only shapes the course of men's lives, in Moby Dick, but he haunts their profoundly troubled minds--and, according to Ishmael, all people are so troubled or cracked, not just Ahab.
Ahab is Melville's picture of mortal greatness in the world, a man defined by ambition that only he and God seem to know. This is precisely how Melville introduces Ahab. The first we hear about him is from Peleg, a Nantucket Quaker, former whaling captain himself, and now, along with Bildad, majority owner of the Pequod. He describes his captain of choice to Ishmael, the aspiring whaler, like this:
He's a grand, ungodly, god-like man, Captain Ahab; doesn't speak much, but, when he does speak, then you may well listen. Mark ye, be forewarned; Ahab's above the common; Ahab's been in colleges, as well as 'mong the cannibals; been used to deeper wonders than the waves; fixed his fiery lance in mightier, stranger foes than whales; His lance! aye, the keenest and surest that out of all our isle! Oh! He ain't Captain Bildad; no, and he ain't Captain Peleg; he's Ahab, boy; and Ahab of old, thou knowest, was a crowned king!
It's a fantastic description in a book where there is nothing deeper on earth than what lies beneath the waves and no mightier foe to combat than the whales that play in those mysterious deeps.
Ahab is on his own quixotic quest for a kind of greatness that is defined from within him, and it is about much more than wrestling whales or slaying a particularly infamous one in revenge. Like Job, Ahab has a complaint against God; like Jonah, Ahab dares to defy God. Unlike either, however, he refuses to bow before God, even when God turns his fury on him in Moby Dick.
The Disease of Ambition
Like God, Ahab is a mysterious being who "doesn't speak much" but when he does his words are able to upend everything casual and common to men, even the seagoing whaling sort. Neither God nor Ahab is well understood by others yet both haunt and torment the troubled minds of those who encounter them. But Ahab is an ungodly man of demonic dimensions, driven by the very ambition that makes him great and god-like in a most ungodly way.
"Be sure of this, O young ambition," Melville--or Ishmael--warns us just before we first hear of Ahab: "all mortal greatness is but disease."
Ahab's ambition is, for Melville it seems, the defining quality he has in common with the "Ahab of old," the "crowned king." Captain Ahab is an embodiment of the "demonic" sort of ambition that, according to James, upsets the world and is a source of everything vile (3:15). God opposes this kind of ambition and those animated by it--the selfishly ambitious who discover that God, who refuses to bend to our will or reward our arrogance, is their mightiest foe.
The biblical Ahab knew God was against him--could not possibly be for him given his life's ambition--and so does captain Ahab. Not only this, but they both realize their twisted ambition, whatever it may be, will eventually cost them their lives. So Captain Ahab, like king Ahab--and even Satan himself, it seems--gives free rein to this self-destructive disease. Unable to lay hold of God, Melville's Ahab vents the rage of his frustrated passions on the proxy-god that seems to be within reach: The White Whale.
Arrogant, striving, self-serving and self-aggrandizing ambition is demonic. James is quite blunt about this:
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice" (James 3:13-16).
Selfish ambition (eritheia) is the opposite of love and meekness; selfish ambition is a kind of passion that insists on its own way in the world and will be met with "wrath and fury" from God (Rom 2:8). It is the disease of greatness, but it is also common to all men. And it must be mortified in the minister of Christ (and everyone else pursuing holiness), or it will be wreaking havoc at home, in the Church, and wherever else he goes.
Yet, not all ambition is demonic. Paul writes to the Romans that he makes it his ambition (philotimeomai) to preach Christ where Christ has not already been named (Rom. 15:20). Paul's ambition, however, is rooted in the particularities of his call to suffer many things for Christ's sake as an apostle to the Gentiles. It is nearly the opposite, in application at least, of eritheia.
Godly ambition does not promote any cult of personality, but selflessly serves Christ and his Church, and seeks no other prize than his glory and what he has promised in the Gospel. Paul's ambition, therefore, drives him to acts of profound and costly self-denial in order to fulfill his mission: To become all things to all people, that he might save some. Paul's ambition--godly ambition--can join John the Baptist in declaring that Christ "must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:30). Godly ambition, in other words, mortifies selfish ambition.
The Subtlety of Eritheia
I suspect we do a poor job distinguishing between the two types of ambition, or of recognizing the perversity of eritheia. Selfish ambition, at least to a certain degree, is not only an acceptable sin in our culture but a seemingly necessary one for success. It may also be incentivized in a church culture caving to the temptation of elevating a public image of success above qualities like quiet, steady faithfulness in relative obscurity; a work-ethic rooted in giving and helping rather than getting and keeping; a willingness to go without and sacrifice for the good of others.
We cannot esteem worldly success without neglecting godliness and overlooking spiritual maturity. Worldly success is not a bad thing, but it is not to be confused with being above reproach or enjoying a good reputation, and it may indicate little more than selfish ambition (the disease of greatness). In ministers and congregations it may even dress itself in claims of kingdom growth, public witness, administrative acumen, evangelistic fruitfulness, entrepreneurial spirit, and so on. These are all highly desirable objects, but sin can twist each one into a pious-sounding cover for eritheia.
Our hearts are slippery things and may permit many things to pass for godly ambition that on closer inspection belong to the selfish, striving sort that stirs up envy and feeds jealousies, rivalries, and "every vile practice." This is the disease of Ahab and of all human striving after greatness by our own design and measure. It comes from setting and pursuing our own agenda in the world rather than submitting to the Lord and one another in Christ.
We see this striving ambition surface among the Disciples from time to time as they quarreled over greatness. They were disabused of it, it seems, when confronted by the reality of Christ crucified. There is the death of eritheia, the cure for the disease of striving after greatness on our terms. There the ambition of Christ is disclosed, an ambition that exposes and destroys every other ambition in us.
After the cross, the Apostles no longer quarrel about greatness. Neither did they find the message of Christ crucified nor the vessels of his church ill-fitted instruments for the work of the ministry. If we do, then the issue may well be our ambition rather than some wrong-headed piece of polity we are tempted to blame, much less our dim-witted brothers we cannot bend to our will or way of seeing things.
The ordination vow Presbyterian elders take to submit to our brothers in the Lord, like the call of Christ to take up our cross and follow him, is a call to kill the disease of demonic ambition that aspires to be great in the world, even "a crowned king." And there is some urgency to this: If we are not actively killing Ahab within us, then Ahab will surely carry us out to sea and leave us a wreck adrift on the waves of the deep.