In the early days of 2022, little captured the attention of the American public more than the Netflix film “Don’t Look Up.” The film recently broke Netflix’s record for most viewing hours in a single week.
The plot follows the journey of a washed-up astronomer (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his graduate assistant (Jennifer Lawrence), who discover a massive comet projected to destroy the Earth in six months. Yet in their quest to warn the world they find a largely apathetic public, leaders and citizens all too focused on trivial distractions to care about the impending doom. The most significant — and socially relevant — commentary of the film: everyone is looking down.
Indeed, the destruction of the planet is caused by the catastrophic failure of every social institution to respond with appropriate haste — be it the government, big business, media, or even activism. People are simply too consumed by immediate goods to care about the threat.
Even DiCaprio and Lawrence’s characters, meant to be the woke protagonists, squander away their vital duty, distracted by drug addiction and casual sex. The world of “Don’t Look Up” is one looking down — a global population focused on passive consumption, plagued by numerous vices, and motivated by selfish pleasure.
Here in the real world, we are not too far off. The modern West is itself a culture looking down — it focuses with near exclusivity on goods and services immediate and presently gratifying. Our culture is dominated by passions, of pursuit for the sake of good feelings and satisfaction.
Activity is reduced to binge streaming, social media scrolling, face stuffing, and chronic porn watching. Passive consumption is both mode and motivation.
Even supposed “innovations” are pursued for the sake of increased consumption. Forget the interstate highway system, the Concorde, and the moon landing — “real” progress means a flashier Marvel movie, more effective birth control, and a faster Amazon home delivery system for groceries and products.
What emerges is a stagnant, passive society, built on consumption rather than creation. It is a status of decadence, as described in Ross Douthat’s “The Decadent Society,” where “the combination of wealth and technological proficiency with economic stagnation, political stalemates, cultural exhaustion, and demographic decline creates a strange kind of ‘sustainable decadence,’ a civilizational languor.” With consumption as the end, there is simply little interest in pursuing anything beyond the attainment of immediate sense goods.
It is important to note the escapist tendency in decadence, too — a retreat from the responsibility, suffering, and toil that characterize daily life. The comfort and pleasure of sensible goods allow one to forget, to escape from reality even if just for a short while.
It is the psychology of an addict, as Sam Lieth recently wrote in The Spectator, “a behavior that seeks to medicate fear, sorrow, boredom, regret, anomie, heartbreak, or the existential heebie-jeebies… the desire to take your eye off the ball for a bit.” But this escapist behavior is not unique to conventional junkies. In the decadent society, addiction is not the exception, but the norm.
Thus Western culture is stuck in the mire of decadence, constantly looking down and too apathetic to do otherwise. However, deadly comets — both literal and metaphorical — will inevitably head our way. Many already are. So how might we once again elevate our gazes? The answer is straightforward: ambition.
Ambition is the antithesis of modern decadence. Yet today it is a relic, something of Greek epics, history books, and fictional characters in movies. Even many on the religious right have rejected ambition, conflating it with the material accumulation and corruption inherent to the decadent society. But properly understood, ambition is a virtue: a desire for greatness, a speculative pursuit of goodness and truth for their own sakes.
The ambitious man does not subsist in decadence. His ends are not consumption but production, act rather than indecision. He necessarily embodies courage, commitment, and responsibility — for ambition necessarily requires risk.
To be ambitious requires a throwing to the wolves, to place oneself and one’s ideas in the public eye, open to evisceration and judgment by the polity at large. In an ambition-less world, the brave man will be ridiculed, and even ostracized by the jealous horde — Elon Musk and Joe Rogan are now learning this fact as they fight the bounds of decadence in their respective fields.
Yet man is built for ambition. We possess an intellect and will that yearn for truth and goodness, and as such, we are never satisfied with stagnation. We naturally aspire to see, explore, learn, and adventure.
It is ambition that drove St. Paul and the other apostles to catechize the known world, motivated the first sailors set out from Europe in the Age of Exploration, and inspired priests to set up evangelical missions in hostile lands. It is the vision that materialized the “Pieta” and the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, that built the Pyramids of Giza in Egypt and is still building La Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. It is what brought men together in Philadelphia to sign a document “forming a more perfect union,” inspired soldiers through the desolation of war, and led to human footsteps on the moon.
To be sure, not all ambitious men will succeed. The higher one soars, the greater the potential fall. Of course risks are unavoidable. If we are to throw ourselves to the wolves, some will inevitably be eaten. But in a way, it is this very danger that validates the greatness of those who try.
Further, we must not forget the morality of our pursuit. There is a synonym for ambition, one often used in the Catholic tradition: hope. A theological virtue, hope is the desire and yearning for communion with God in heaven.
Hope is not just a wish that something might happen, but a drive for attaining the object and an orientation of one’s life, through grace, to achieve that goal. Hope represents ambition in its highest form, each proximate aspiration a stepping stone as we strive towards the perfect truth and goodness of God — he who alone can ultimately satisfy our searching.
Thus, in the face of our decadent world, we should embrace ambition in whatever vocation we find ourselves. Contend with the challenges and responsibilities of life. Ponder and ask the tough questions, then try and solve them. Lead in a space whose leaders have abdicated their responsibility — there are many. Take risks and face the wolves. Build something. Pray.
And as all great men have done throughout history, look up. Look to the heights of your human nature, your field of work, the literal frontier of the stars, and ultimately, to heaven itself — pursuing in hope the perfect truth and goodness which resides there.
Our decadent, stagnated, passive world is at risk, but ambition holds the key to victory. Great men will be needed, and as human beings, we all have the potential to be one of them.
Samuel D. Samson is a writer working in Washington D.C. Sam’s work focuses on the intersection of contemporary politics with St. Thomas Aquinas’s natural law theory and classical teleology. You can follow him on Twitter @SamuelDSamson.