I want to start this writing with The Duquesa de Alba. The Duquesa de Alba is a painting from Francisco de Goya, famous painter of the 18th century, you might know him for his horrifying and black painting: Saturn devouring his son. The painting on the left depicts the Duchess in her mourning dress one year after her husband’s death. She is pointing to the floor at the words “Solo Goya”. Also, her rings have the words “Alba” and “Goya”. The painting remained with Goya til the day of his death. At the time, the Duchess was incredibly important and powerful in Spain, she was also said to be the most beautiful woman in the entire empire, it was said that “even a single hair of her inspired desire”. As you can imagine by now, the legends behind this painting are varied and extensive, but leaving that aside, the painting clearly shows that Goya was no ordinary painter nor person, he was a profoundly great artist.
The painting today is invaluable, you can visit the Duchess yourself in the Hispanic Society Museum in New York City. I have to say that admiring the painting in person is a profound experience, to say the least when I had the opportunity to see her I was dumbfounded, speechless. Not only for its incredible beauty but for all that it signified, at least to me. The painting showed the great mastery and artistry of Goya, the beauty of the Duchess and you can also infer why Goya ascended to be considered one of the greatest painters of Spain. Three centuries after he painted it, he still embellishes with immense beauty the museums and inspires masses of people.
I couldn’t help but be reminded of Seneca and his letter to Lucilious, On noble aspirations:
For this is the most excellent quality that the noble soul has within itself, that it can be roused to honorable things.
No man of exalted gifts is pleased with that which is low and mean, the vision of great achievment summons him and uplifts him.
There are no better words to describe what it feels to find yourself before an act of greatness, be it a great book, a great painting or a new scientific discovery. Indeed, it rouses and inspires us to reach beyond our capacities, it makes us actually think of our potential.
The soul, according to Seneca, is like fire. It doesn’t stand still, it is always in motion and when roused by the wind, it grows and snarls even harder. We are ambitious creatures by nature. But this fire, this natural ambition, can be stirred and become a force of good or more often than not, of folly, it depends on how it is directed.
If ambition is directed towards the better things in life, then it will be a force of good:
He will place himself beyond the jurisdiction of chance; he will wisely control prosperity; he will lessen adversity, and will despise what others hold in admiration. It is the quality of a great soul to scorn great things and to prefer that which is ordinary rather than that which is too great. Seneca
So, what are these “better things in life”?
In one word, virtue, the excellence of living. If your ambition would be placed in virtue you would go beyond the jurisdiction of chance because you would not leave circumstances to fortune, but to cause and effect, you would wisely control prosperity because you would rule over possessions and pleasures and not them over you.
But what happens when you don’t rule over your pleasures?
It is the quality of a great soul to scorn great things and to prefer that which is ordinary rather than that which is too great. For the one condition is useful and life-giving; but the other does harm just because it is excessive.
What enemy was ever so insolent to any opponent as are their pleasures to certain men?
Living for pleasure alone, that is slavery disguised as ambition.
The capacity to say no becomes then of extreme importance. This capacity to know when it is enough will allow us to set focus on the better ambitions and not on the illusory.
This is the point where ambition can diverse into its positive or its negative side. Ambition for pleasures and lust (vice) have no end, they ask for infinite satisfaction when the human soul has its boundaries.
The wretched man will give way to this infinite need of satisfying his desires and will use his ambition to feed vice, always having a little more and thinking that with just a little more he will be satisfied, but he will not. He will not even enjoy his pleasures, because at this point they will have become his masters and him a slave to his pleasures. Only by saying no and ruling over oneself can one truly enjoy the pleasures in life, and have the greatest pleasure of all, becoming his own master.
A political victory, a rise of rents,
the recovery of your sick, or the return of your absent friend, or some other
favorable event, raises your spirits, and you think good days are preparing for
you. Do not believe it. Nothing can bring you peace but yourself. Ralph Waldo Emerson
What do you see when you look at greatness? Fame and fortune? Or a calling to your capacities to rise for it?
These are some good questions to ask yourself, for the answer indicates whether you are a slave or a master.
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