Quotations about:
    ambition


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Violent zeal for truth has a hundred to one odds to be either petulancy, ambition, or pride.

Jonathan Swift (1667-1745) English writer and churchman
“Thoughts on Religion” (1726)
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Added on 23-Jan-23 | Last updated 23-Jan-23
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Cleverness is not wisdom,
nor is thinking thoughts that are not mortal.
Life is short; this being so,
who would pursue great things
and not bear with what is at hand? These
are the ways of madmen and
men of evil counsel, at least
in my judgment.

[τὸ σοφὸν δ’ οὐ σοφία,
τό τε μὴ θνατὰ φρονεῖν
βραχὺς αἰών· ἐπὶ τούτωι
δὲ τίς ἂν μεγάλα διώκων
τὰ παρόντ’ οὐχὶ φέροι; μαι
νομένων οἵδε τρόποι καὶ
κακοβούλων παρ’ ἔμοιγε φωτῶν.]

Euripides (485?-406? BC) Greek tragic dramatist
Bacchæ [Βάκχαι], l. 395ff (Stasimon 1, Antiphon/Antistrophe 1) [Chorus/Χορός] (405 BC) [tr. Kirk (1970)]
    (Source)

The chorus of Bacchantes is playing with the similarly-rooted sophon (cleverness) and sophia (wisdom). (Source (Greek)). Alternate translation:

That science which beyond the scope
Of frail humanity aspires.
Haunts not the bosom of the Sage.
Short is life, and they who follow
Ambition's splendid treacherous lure
Taste not the blessings of the present hour:
I deem their conduct frantic and unwise.
[tr. Wodhull (1809)]

But cleverness is not wisdom, nor is thinking on things unfit for mortals. Life is short, and on this account the one who pursues great things does not achieve that which is present. In my opinion, these are the ways of mad and ill-advised men.
[tr. Buckley (1850)]

Beyond the range of mortal eyes
'Tis not wisdom to be wise.
Life is brief, the present clasp,
Nor after some bright future grasp.
Such were the wisdom, as I ween,
Only of frantic and ill-counseled men.
[tr. Milman (1865)]

That wisdom is not wise Which aims beyond man’s power.
Short is our life; to grasp at much is but to lose the present good, --
And this to me seems like the deed of frenzied and of foolish men.
[tr. Rogers (1872), l. 378ff]

Ah, not with knowledge is Wisdom bought;
And the spirit that soareth too high for mortals
Shall see few days: whosoever hath caught
At the things too great for a man's attaining,
Even blessings assured shall he lose in the gaining.
Such paths as this, meseemeth, be sought
Of the witless folly that roves distraught.
[tr. Way (1898)]

But the world's Wise are not wise,
Claiming more than mortal may.
Life is such a little thing;
Lo, their present is departed,
And the dreams to which they cling
Come not. Mad imagining
Theirs, I ween, and empty-hearted!
[tr. Murray (1902)]

Sophistry is not wisdom, and to indulge in thoughts beyond man’s ken is to shorten life; and if a man on such poor terms should aim too high, he may miss the pleasures in his reach. These, to my mind, are the ways of madmen and idiots.
[tr. Coleridge (1907)]

And what passes for wisdom is not;
unwise are those who aspire,
who outrange the limits of man.
Briefly, we live. Briefly,
then die. Wherefore, I say,
he who hunts a glory, he who tracks
some boundless, superhuman dream,
may lose his harvest here and now
and garner death. Such men are mad,
their counsels evil.
[tr. Arrowsmith (1960)]

To know much is not to be wise.
Pride more than mortal hastens life to its end;
And they who in pride pretend
Beyond man's limit, will lose what lay
Close to their hand and sure.
I count it madness, and know no cure can mend
The evil man and his evil way.
[tr. Vellacott (1973)]

Wisdom is not what is wise,
nor to think non-mortal thoughts.
Life is fleeting; can it be, then, that one seeks after what is greater,
not accepting circumstance?
These are the manners of a madman and, to me, of evil counsel'd persons.
[tr. Neuburg (1988)]

A knowing mind that ignores its own limits
has a very short span. And the man
who aims too high
never reaps what lies within his grasp.
Such is the folly --
and I know none worse --
of perversely ambitious, fanatical men.
[tr. Cacoyannis (1982)]

But shallow wisdom is untrue.
To think beyond this life
Cuts short our life. He who
Pursues the great, forfeits
What lies at hand. Such temperaments
According to my thought, belong
To madmen and the ill-advised.
[tr. Blessington (1993)]

So cleverness is not wisdom
nor is it wise to think thoughts unfit for mortals.
Life is short. Given such brevity
who would pursue ambitious ends
And lose what lies at hand?
These, in my opinion at least,
are the ways of madmen and evil counsellors.
[tr. Esposito (1998)]

Wisdom? It's not wise
to lift our thoughts too high;
we are human, and our time is short.
A man who aims at greatness
will not live to own what he has now.
That, I believe, is the belief of men
whose judgment is foul.
They are insane.
[tr. Woodruff (1999)]

Intellect is not wisdom.
And to think in a manner
not right for mortals means
Life will be short. Who
Would pursue great things
If doing so meant losing what
Is already his?
That is the way, as I see it,
And bad counsel, of madmen.
[tr. Gibbons/Segal (2000), l. 469ff]

Cleverness is not wisdom
nor is it wise to think thoughts not mortal.
Our life is short: this being so,
a man who pursues great things
may miss what lies at hand. To live thus
is to be, in my judgment
a madman and a fool.
[tr. Kovacs (2002)]

The wise are not wise if they don’t consider a human’s lot.
Life is short.
He who constantly pursues great achievements in this life, won’t have time to enjoy those he already has achieved.
So far as I can tell, these are the doings of madmen and evil minds.
[tr. Theodoridis (2005)]

Cleverness is not wisdom;
Thinking heavenly
Thoughts, short life; in that case,
Who, in hunting greater things,
Would not be content with present fortune?
These are ways of men insane, with-
out understanding, so it seems to me.
[tr. Valerie (2005)]

But being clever isn't wisdom.
And thinking deeply about things
isn't suitable for mortal men.
Our life is brief -- that's why
the man who chases greatness
fails to grasp what's near at hand.
That's what madmen do,
men who've lost their wits.
That's what I believe.
[tr. Johnston (2008), l. 497ff]

Cleverness is not wisdom,
that over-reaching mortals
simply shorten their lives.
Life is brief enough as it is,
so hold it all to hand.
Wild ambition is a kind of madness:
stretch too hard for the summit
and you will fail and fall
and plummet back to land.
[tr. Robertson (2014)]

Cleverness is not wisdom,
and neither is reaching beyond thoughts meant for mortals.
Our lives are short.
Spend all your time reaching
and you miss what’s in front of you.
This is the madman’s way.
Or at least the ill-counseled.
But that’s just my opinion.
[tr. Pauly (2019)]

Cleverness is not wisdom, and those who'd seem wise as the gods -- their live will be short. Those who seek greatness will not see the snake at their feet. Mad ways set all on the road to disaster.
[tr. Behr/Foster (2019)]

It is not wisdom [sophiā] to be overly sophos, and to think things unbefitting mortal men. Life is short, and in it he who pursues great things does not achieve that which is present. In my opinion, these are the ways of mad and ill-counseling men.
[tr. Buckley/Sens/Nagy (2020)]

Wisdom is not wit;
Nor is thinking thoughts which belong not to mortals.
Life is brief. And because of this
Whoever seeks out great accomplishments
May not grasp the things at hand.
These are the ways of madmen
And wicked fools, I think.
[tr. @sentantiq (2021)]

 
Added on 10-Jan-23 | Last updated 10-Jan-23
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Away with empire, and oppressive laws;
None but the fool can wish for regal power,
That he may proudly lord it o’er his equals.

[οὔτ᾽ εἰκὸς ἄρχειν οὔτ᾽ ἐχρὴν ἄνευ νόμου
τύραννον εἶναι” μωρία δὲ καὶ ϑέλειν
ὃς τῶν ὁμοίων βούλεται χρατεῖν μόνος.]

Euripides (485?-406? BC) Greek tragic dramatist
Antigone [Ἀντιγόνη], frag. 172 (TGF, Kannicht) (c. 420-406 BC) [tr. Wodhall (1809)]
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Barnes frag. 11, Musgrave frag. 5. (Source (Greek)). Alternate translation:


It is neither reasonable to rule, nor ought there to be a king [law].
It is folly for a man even to want [...]
who wishes to hold sole power over his peers.
[Source]

 
Added on 27-Dec-22 | Last updated 27-Dec-22
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At court, far from regarding ambition as a sin, people regard it as a virtue, or if it passes for a vice, then it is regarded as the vice of great souls, and the vices of great souls are preferred to the virtues of the simple and the small.

[A la cour, bien loin de faire un crime de l’ambition, on s’en fait une vertue; ou si elle y passe pour un vice, du reste on la regarde comme le vice des grandes âmes, et l’on aime mieux les vices des grandes âmes que les vertus des simples et des petits.]

Louis Bourdaloue
Louis Bourdaloue (1632-1704) French Jesuit priest, preacher
Quoted in Bernart Gorethuysen, The Bourgeois: Catholicism vs. Capitalism in Eighteenth-Century France (1927) [tr. Ilford (1968)]
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Added on 29-Nov-22 | Last updated 29-Nov-22
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You see we make our writers into something very strange. […] We destroy them in many ways. First, economically. They make money. It is only by hazard that a writer makes money although good books always make money eventually. Then our writers when they have made some money increase their style of living and are caught. They have to write to keep up their establishment, their wives, and so on, and they write slop. It is slop not on purpose but because it is hurried. Because they are ambitious. Then, once they have betrayed themselves, they justify it and you get more slop. Or else they read the critics. If they believe the critics when they say they are great then they must believe them when they say they are rotten and they lose confidence. At present we have two good writers who cannot write because they have lost confidence through reading the critics. If they wrote, sometimes it would be good and sometimes not so good and sometimes it would be quite bad, but the good would get out. But they have read the critics, and they must write masterpieces. The masterpieces the critics said they wrote. They weren’t masterpieces, of course. They were just quite good books. So now they cannot write at all. The critics have made them impotent.

Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) American writer
Green Hills of Africa, ch. 1 (1935)
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Speaking of American writers.
 
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The conflict between what one is and who one is expected to be touches all of us. And sometimes, rather than reach for what one could be, we choose the comfort of the failed role, preferring to be the victim of circumstance, the person who didn’t have a chance.

Merle Shain (1935-1989) Canadian journalist and author
(Attributed)
 
Added on 4-Mar-22 | Last updated 4-Mar-22
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If his inmost heart could have been laid open, there would have been discovered that dream of undying fame, which, dream as it is, is more powerful than a thousand realities.

Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864) American writer
Fanshawe, ch. 2 (1828)
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It was true that I didn’t have much ambition, but there ought to be a place for people without ambition, I mean a better place than the one usually reserved. How in the hell could a man enjoy being awakened at 6:30 a.m. by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, shit, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so?

Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) German-American author, poet
Factotum, ch. 55 (1975)
 
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It is in vain to Say that Democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious or less avaricious than Aristocracy or Monarchy. It is not true in Fact and no where appears in history. Those Passions are the same in all Men under all forms of Simple Government, and when unchecked, produce the same Effects of Fraud Violence and Cruelty. When clear Prospects are opened before Vanity, Pride, Avarice or Ambition, for their easy gratification, it is hard for the most considerate Phylosophers and the most conscientious Moralists to resist the temptation. Individuals have conquered themselves, Nations and large Bodies of Men, never.

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
Letter to John Taylor (17 Dec 1814)
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Added on 19-Oct-21 | Last updated 19-Oct-21
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It occurs to me that there is a proper balance between not asking enough of oneself and asking or expecting too much. It may be that I set my sights too high and so repeatedly end a day in depression. Not easy to find the balance, for it one does not have wild dreams of achievement, there is no spur even to get the dishes washed. One must think like a hero to behave like a merely decent human being.

May Sarton
May Sarton (1912-1995) Belgian-American poet, novelist, memoirist [pen name of Eleanore Marie Sarton]
Journal of a Solitude, “February 4th” (1973)
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I don’t know whether my life has been a success or a failure But not having any anxiety about becoming one instead of the other, and just taking things as they come along, I’ve had a lot of extra time to enjoy life.

Arthur "Harpo" Marx (1888-1964) American comedian, actor, mime, musician [b. Adolph Marx]
Harpo Speaks!, ch. 1, opening words (1961) [with Rowland Barber]
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Added on 19-Mar-21 | Last updated 19-Mar-21
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In this decline of all public virtue, ambition, and not avarice, was the passion that first possessed the minds of men; and this was natural. Ambition is a vice that borders on the confines of virtue; it implies a love of glory, of power, and pre-eminence; and these are objects that glitter alike in the eyes of the man of honour, and the most unprincipled: but the former pursues them by fair and honourable means, while the latter, who finds within himself no resources of talent, depends altogether upon intrigue and fallacy for his success.

[Sed primo magis ambitio quam avaritia animos hominum exercebat, quod tamen vitium propius virtutem erat. Nam gloriam, honorem, imperium bonus et ignavus aeque sibi exoptant; sed ille vera via nititur, huic quia bonae artes desunt, dolis atque fallaciis contendit.]

Sallust (c. 86-35 BC) Roman historian and politician [Gaius Sallustius Crispus]
Bellum Catilinae [The War of Cateline], ch. 11, sent. 1-2 [tr. Murphy (1807)]
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Also known as Catilinae Coniuratio [The Conspiracy of Cateline]. (Source (Latin)). Alternate translations:

At first, indeed, the minds of men were less influenced by avarice than ambition, a vice which has some affinity to virtue; for the desire of glory, power, and preferment is common to the worthy and the worthless; with this difference, that the one pursues them by direct means; the other, being void of merit, has recourse to fraud and subtlety.
[tr. Rose (1831)]

But at first ambition more than avarice influenced the minds of the Romans. Which vice however was the nearer to virtue. For glory, honour, command, the good and slothful equally wish for themselves. But the former strives by the right course; to the latter because good qualities are wanting, he works by tricks and deceits.
[Source (1841)]

At first, however, it was ambition, rather than avarice, that influenced the minds of men; a vice which approaches nearer to virtue than the other. For of glory, honor, and power, the worthy is as desirous as the worthless; but the one pursues them by just methods; the other, being destitute of honorable qualities, works with fraud and deceit.
[tr. Watson (1867)]

At first it was not so much avarice as ambition which spurred men's minds, a vice, indeed, but one akin to virtue. Glory, distinction, and power in the state are equally desired by good and bad, though the first strives to reach his goal by the path of honor, the second, in the lack of honest arts, uses the weapons of falsehood and deceit.
[tr. Pollard (1882)]

But at first men’s souls were actuated less by avarice than by ambitions -- a fault, it is true, but not so far removed from virtue; for the noble and the base alike long for glory, honour, and power, but the former mount by the true path, whereas the latter, being destitute of noble qualities, rely upon craft and deception.
[tr. Rolfe (1931)]

At first people's minds were taxed less by avarice than by ambition, which, though a fault, was nevertheless closer to prowess: for the good man and the base man have a similar personal craving for glory, honour, and command, but the former strives along the truth path, whereas the latter, because he lacks good qualities, presses forward by cunning and falsity.
[tr. Woodman (2007)]
 
Added on 27-Oct-20 | Last updated 4-Oct-22
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Hence the lust for money first, then for power, grew upon them; these were, I may say, the root of all evils. For avarice destroyed honour, integrity, and all the other noble qualities; taught in their place insolence, cruelty, to neglect the gods, to set a price on everything. Ambition drove many men to become false; to have one thought locked in the breast, another ready on the tongue; to value friendships and enmities not on their merits but by the standard of self-interest, and to show a good front rather than a good heart. At first these vices grew slowly, from time to time they were punished; finally, when the disease had spread like a deadly plague, the state was changed and a government second to none in equity and excellence became cruel and intolerable.

[Igitur primo imperi, deinde pecuniae cupido crevit: ea quasi materies omnium malorum fuere. Namque avaritia fidem, probitatem ceterasque artis bonas subvortit; pro his superbiam, crudelitatem, deos neglegere, omnia venalia habere edocuit. Ambitio multos mortalis falsos fieri subegit, aliud clausum in pectore, aliud in lingua promptum habere, amicitias inimicitiasque non ex re, sed ex commodo aestumare magisque voltum quam ingenium bonum habere. Haec primo paulatim crescere, interdum vindicari; post, ubi contagio quasi pestilentia invasit, civitas inmutata, imperium ex iustissumo atque optumo crudele intolerandumque factum.]

Sallust (c. 86-35 BC) Roman historian and politician [Gaius Sallustius Crispus]
Bellum Catilinae [The War of Catiline; The Conspiracy of Catiline], ch. 10, sent. 3-6 [tr. Rolfe (1931)]
    (Source)

Discussing the corruption of Rome in the years after the final defeat of Carthage.

Alt. trans.:
"A love of money, and a lust for power, took possession of every mind. These hateful passions were the source of innumerable evils. Good faith, integrity, and every virtuous principle, gave way to avarice; and in the room of moral honesty, pride, cruelty, and contempt of the gods succeeded. Corruption and venality were introduced; and everything had its price. Such were the effects of avarice. Ambition was followed by an equal train of evils; it taught men to be false and deceitful; to think one thing, and to say another; to make friendship or enmity a mere traffic for private advantage, and to set the features to a semblance of virtue, while malignity lay lurking in the heart. But at first these vices sapped their way by slow degrees, and were often checked in their progress; but spreading at length like an epidemic contagious, morals and the liberal arts went to ruin; and the government, which was before a model of justice, became the most profligate and oppressive." [tr. Murphy (1807)]

"First a love of money possessed their minds; then a passion for power; and these were the seeds of all the evils that followed. For avarice rooted out faith, probity, and every worthy principle; and, in their stead, substituted insolence, inhumanity, contempt of the gods, and a mercenary spirit. Ambition obliged many to be deceitful; to belie with their tongues the sentiments of their hearts; to value friendship and enmity, not according to their real worth, but as they conduced to interest; and to have a specious countenance, rather than an honest heart. These corruptions at first grew by degrees, and were sometimes checked by correction. At last, the infection spreading like a plague, the state was entirely changed, and the government, from being the most righteous and equitable, became cruel and insupportable." [tr. Rose (1831)]

"Therefore at first the love of money, then that of power increased. These things became as it were the foundation of all evils. For avarice overthrew faith, honesty, and all the other good acts; and instead of them it taught men pride, cruelty, to neglect the gods, and to consider everything venal. Ambition forced many men to become false, to have one thing hidden in their hearts, another ready on their tongue, to value friendships and enmities, not accordingly to reality, but interest, and rather to have a good appearance than a good disposition. These things at first began to increase by degrees, sometimes to be punished. Afterwards when the infection swept on like a pestilence, the state was changed, the government from the most just and best, became cruel and intolerable." [Source (1841)]

"At first the love of money, and then that of power, began to prevail, and these became, as it were, the sources of every evil. For avarice subverted honesty, integrity, and other honorable principles, and, in their stead, inculcated pride, inhumanity, contempt of religion, and general venality. Ambition prompted many to become deceitful; to keep one thing concealed in the breast, and another ready on the tongue; to estimate friendships and enmities, not by their worth, but according to interest; and to carry rather a specious countenance than an honest heart. These vices at first advanced but slowly, and were sometimes restrained by correction; but afterwards, when their infection had spread like a pestilence, the state was entirely changed, and the government, from being the most equitable and praiseworthy, became rapacious and insupportable." [tr. Watson (1867)]

"At first the lust of money increased, then that of power, and these, it may be said, were the sources of every evil. Avarice subverted loyalty, uprightness, and every other good quality, and in their stead taught men to be proud and cruel, to neglect the gods, and to hold all things venal. Ambition compelled many to become deceitful; they had one thought buried in their breast, another ready on their tongue; their friendships and enmities they valued not at their real worth, but at the advantage they could bring, and they maintained the look rather than the nature of honest men. These evils at first grew gradually, and were occasionally punished; later, when the contagion advanced like some plague, the state was revolutionized, and the government, from being one of the justest and best, became cruel and unbearable." [tr. Pollard (1882)]

"Hence it was the desire for money first of all, and then for empire, which grew; and these factors were the kindling (so to speak) of every wickedness. For avarice undermined trust, probity, and all other good qualities; instead it taught men haughtiness, cruelty, to neglect the gods, to regard everything as for sale. Ambition reduced many mortals to becoming false, having one sentiment shut away in the heart and another ready on the tongue, assessing friendships and antagonisms in terms not of reality but of advantage, and having a good demeanour rather than a good disposition. At first these things grew gradually; sometimes they were punished; but after, when the contamination had attacked like a plague, the community changed and the exercise of command, from being the best and most just, became cruel and intolerable." [tr. Woodman (2007)]

"At first the desire of power, then the desire of money increased; these were effectively the material of all evils, because avarice overturned faith, probity, and all other noble arts; in their place, it taught men to be arrogant and cruel, to neglect the gods, and to consider all things for sale. Ambition compelled many men to become liars; to hold one thing hidden in the heart, and the opposite thing at the tip of one’s tongue; to judge friends and enemies not in objective terms, but by reference to personal gain; and finally, to make a good appearance rather than to have a good mind. As these vices first began to increase, they were occasionally punished; but afterward, once the contagion had spread like a plague, the state as a whole was altered, and the government, once the noblest and most just, was made cruel and intolerable." [tr. @sententiq (2017)]

That it is the nature of ambition, to make men liars and cheaters; to hide the truth in their breasts, and show, like jugglers, another thing in their mouths; to cut all friendships and enmities to the measure of their own interest, and to make a good countenance without the help of good will. [tr. Cowley? (17th C)]
 
Added on 23-Oct-20 | Last updated 23-Oct-20
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He sent me off to Troy …
And I hear his urgings ringing in my ears:
“Always be the best, my boy, the bravest,
and hold your head up high above the others.
Never disgrace the generation of your fathers.
They were the bravest champions born in Corinth,
In Lycia far and wide.

Homer (fl. 7th-8th C. BC) Greek author
The Iliad [Ἰλιάς], Book 6, l. 245ff (6.245-251) (c. 750 BC) [tr. Fagles (1990)]

This is the first appearance of the Greek "Αἰὲν ἀριστεύειν καὶ ὑπείροχον ἔμμεναι ἄλλων" ["Always strive for excellence and prevail over others"] in the Illiad, Glaucus telling of his father's command to him. Peleus urges Achilles with the same words in Book 11. The two passages are sometimes confused.

Alt. trans.:

By his decree I sought the Trojan town,
By his instructions learn to win renown;
To stand the first in worth as in command,
To add new honours to my native land;
Before my eyes my mighty sires to place,
And emulate the glories of our race."
[tr. Pope (1715-20)]


He sent me forth
To fight for Troy, charging me much and oft
That I should outstrip always all mankind
In worth and valor, nor the house disgrace
Of my forefathers, heroes without peer
In Ephyra, and in Lycia’s wide domain.
[tr. Cowper (1791), l. 254ff]

Me he sent to Troy, and gave me very many commands, always to fight bravely, and to be superior to others; and not to disgrace the race of my fathers, who were by far the bravest in Ephyra, and ample Lycia.
[tr. Buckley (1860)]

To Troy he sent me, and enjoin'd me oft
To aim at highest honours, and surpass
My comrades all; nor on my father's name
Discredit bring, who held the foremost place
In Ephyre, and Lycia's wide domain.
[tr. Derby (1864), ll. 245-249]


He sent me to Troy and bade me very instantly to be ever the best and to excel all other men, nor put to shame the lineage of my fathers that were of noblest blood in Ephyre and in wide Lykia.
[tr. Leaf/Lang/Myers (1891)]

When he sent me to Troy he urged me again and again to fight ever among the foremost and outvie my peers, so as not to shame the blood of my fathers who were the noblest in Ephyra and in all Lycia.
[tr. Butler (1898)]


He sent me to Troy and straitly charged me ever to be bravest and pre-eminent above all, and not bring shame upon the race of my fathers, that were far the noblest in Ephyre and in wide Lycia.
[tr. Murray (1924)]


He sent me here to Troy, commanding me to act always with valour, always to be the most noble, never to shame the line of my progenitors, great men first in Ephyra, then in Lycia.
[tr. Fitzgerald (1974)]


 
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For, though th’ ascent be rough, and steep the fall,
Ambition has but one reward for all:
A little power, a little transient fame,
A grave to rest in, and a fading name!

William Winter (1836-1917) American dramatic critic and author
“The Queen’s Domain,” The Queen’s Domain, and Other Poems (1858)
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In the most deeply significant of the legends concerning Jesus, we are told how the devil took him up into a high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time; and the devil said unto him: “All this power will I give unto thee, and the glory of them, for that is delivered unto me, and to whomsoever I will, I give it. If thou, therefore, wilt worship me, all shall be thine.” Jesus, as we know, answered and said “Get thee behind me, Satan!” And he really meant it; he would have nothing to do with worldly glory, with “temporal power;” he chose the career of a revolutionary agitator, and died the death of a disturber of the peace. And for two or three centuries his church followed in his footsteps, cherishing his proletarian gospel. The early Christians had “all things in common, except women;” they lived as social outcasts, hiding in deserted catacombs, and being thrown to lions and boiled in oil.

But the devil is a subtle worm; he does not give up at one defeat, for he knows human nature, and the strength of the forces which battle for him. He failed to get Jesus, but he came again, to get Jesus’ church. He came when, through the power of the new revolutionary idea, the Church had won a position of tremendous power in the decaying Roman Empire; and the subtle worm assumed the guise of no less a person than the Emperor himself, suggesting that he should become a convert to the new faith, so that the Church and he might work together for the greater glory of God. The bishops and fathers of the Church, ambitious for their organization, fell for this scheme, and Satan went off laughing to himself. He had got everything he had asked from Jesus three hundred years before; he had got the world’s greatest religion.

Upton Sinclair (1878-1968) American writer, journalist, activist, politician
The Profits of Religion, Book Seven “The Church of the Social Revolution” (1917)
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O sacred hunger of ambitious minds
And impotent desire of men to reign,
Whom neither dread of God, that devils bindes,
Nor lawes of men, that commonweales containe,
Nor bands of nature, that wilde beastes restraine,
Can keepe from outrage and from doing wrong,
Where they may hope a kingdome to obtaine.
No faith so firme, no trust can be so strong,
No love so lasting then, that may endure long.

Edmund Spenser (c. 1552-1599) English poet
The Faerie Queene, Book 5, Canto 12, st. 1 (1589-96)
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Be fit for more than the thing you are now doing. Let everyone know that you have a reserve in yourself, — that you have more power than you are now using. If you are not too large for the place you occupy, you are too small for it.

James A. Garfield (1831-1881) US President (1881), lawyer, lay preacher, educator
“Elements of Success,” speech at Spencerian Business College, Washington, DC (29 Jun 1869)
    (Source)

Reprinted in in B. A. Hinsdale, ed., President Garfield and Education: Hiram College Memorial, ch. 8 (1882).
 
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CHARLIE MCCARTHY: Ambition is a poor excuse for not having sense enough to be lazy.

Edgar Bergen (1903-1978) American actor, radio performer, ventriloquist
(Attributed)
 
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Never be limited by other people’s limited imaginations. There were people who said, “You can’t go into space. You can’t go to the moon.” If you adopt their attitudes, then the possibility won’t exist because you’ll have already shut it out. Yes, you can hear other people’s wisdom, but you’ve got to re-evaluate the world for yourself.

Mae Jemison (b. 1956) American engineer, physician, astronaut
Interview, Chicago Sun-Times (May 1994)
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If your dreams don’t scare you, they aren’t big enough.

Muhammad Ali (b. 1942) American boxer [b. Cassius Clay]
(Attributed)
 
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What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task.

Viktor Frankl (1905-1997) German-American psychologist, writer
Man’s Search for Meaning, Part 2 (1946)
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Anxiety is the handmaiden of contemporary ambition.

Alain de Botton (b. 1969) Swiss-British author
Status Anxiety (2004)
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There is a loftier ambition than merely to stand high in the world. It is to stoop down and lift mankind a little higher. There is a nobler character than that which is merely incorruptible. It is the character which acts as an antidote and preventive of corruption.

Henry Van Dyke (1852-1933) American clergyman and writer
“Salt,” Baccalaureate Sermon, Harvard University (19 Jun 1898)
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I heard a saying in Egypt, that ambition
Is like the sea wave, which the more you drink
The more you thirst — yea — drink too much, as men
Have done on rafts of wreck — it drives you mad.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) English poet
The Cup, Act 1, sc. 3 [Synorix] (1884)
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Ambition is a Lust that’s never quench’d,
Grows more inflam’d and madder by Enjoyment.

Thomas Otway (1652-1685) English dramatist
The History and Fall of Caius Marius, Act 5, sc. 4 (1680)
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Wisdom is corrupted by ambition, even when the quality of the ambition is intellectual. For ambition, even of this quality, is but a form of self-love ….

Henry Taylor (1800-1886) English dramatist, poet, bureaucrat, man of letters
Notes from Life, “Wisdom” (1847)
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Focusing your life solely on making a buck shows a certain poverty of ambition.

Barack Obama (b. 1961) American politician, US President (2009-2017)
Commencement Address, Knox College, Galesburg, IL (4 Jun 2005)
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Ambition hath one heel nailed in hell, though she stretch her finger to touch the heavens.

John Lyly (c. 1553-1606) was an English writer [also Lilly or Lylie]
Midas: A Comedy, Act 2, sc. 1 [Sophronia] (1592)
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Sometimes misquoted as "nailed in well." Sometimes misattributed to Lao-tzu.
 
Added on 23-Aug-17 | Last updated 5-Sep-17
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Mama exhorted her children at every opportunity to “jump at de sun.” We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground.

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) American writer, folklorist, anthropologist
Dust Tracks on a Road, ch. 2 “My Folks” (1942)
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Ambition is but Avarice on stilts and masked.

Walter Savage Landor (1775–1864) English writer and poet
Imaginary Conversations, Third Series, “Lord Brooke and Sir Philip Sidney” (1828)
 
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Ambition makes more trusty slaves than need.

Ben Jonson (1572-1637) English playwright and poet
Sejanus, His Fall, Act 1, sc. 2 (1603)
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Ambition is only vanity ennobled.

Jerome K. Jerome (1859-1927) English writer, humorist [Jerome Klapka Jerome]
“On Vanity and Vanities,” The Idle Thoughts of an Idle Fellow (1889)
 
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Ambition has its disappointments to sour us, but never the good fortune to satisfy us. Its appetite grows keener by indulgence and all we can gratify it with at present serves but the more to inflame its insatiable desires.

Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790) American statesman, scientist, philosopher
“On True Happiness,” The Pennsylvania Gazette (20 Nov 1735)
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There is nothing which spreads more contagiously from teacher to pupil than elevation of sentiment: Often and often have students caught from the living influence of a professor a contempt for mean and selfish objects, and a noble ambition to leave the world better than the found it; which they have carried with them throughout life.

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) English philosopher and economist
“On Education,” speech, University of St Andrews (1 Feb 1867)
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All ambitions are lawful except those which climb upward on the miseries or credulities of mankind.

Joseph Conrad (1857-1924) Polish-English novelist [b. Teodor Josef Konrad Korzeniowski]
A Personal Record (1912)
 
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The greatest evil which fortune can inflict on men is to endow them with small talents and great ambition.

Luc de Clapiers, Marquis de Vauvenargues (1715-1747) French moralist, essayist, soldier
Reflections and Maxims [Réflexions et maximes], #562 [tr. Stevens] (1746)
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Let us be content to do little, if God sets us at little tasks. It is but pride and self-will which says, “Give me something huge to fight, — and I should enjoy that — but why make me sweep the dust?”

Charles Kingsley (1819-1875) English clergyman, historian, essayist, novelist (pseud. "Parson Lot")
Letter, “To a lady who consulted him about Sisterhoods” (24 Jul 1854)
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My ambition is handicapped by my laziness.

Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) German-American author, poet
Factotum, ch. 45 (1975)
 
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KATE: One’s religion is whatever he is most interested in, and yours is — Success.

HARRY: Ambition — it is the last infirmity of noble minds.

James Barrie (1860-1937) Scottish novelist and dramatist
The Twelve-Pound Look (1910)
 
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A noble man compares and estimates himself by an idea which is higher than himself; and a mean man by one which is lower than himself. The one produces aspiration; the other, ambition. Ambition is the way in which a vulgar man aspires.

Henry Ward Beecher (1813-1887) American clergyman and orator
Life Thoughts (1858)
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Sometimes misattributed to Marcus Aurelius.
 
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Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection, we can catch excellence.

Lombardi - we can catch excellence - wist_info quote

Vince Lombardi (1913-1970) American football coach
(Attributed)
 
Added on 2-Sep-16 | Last updated 2-Sep-16
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Dreadful will be the day when the world becomes contented, when one great universal satisfaction spreads itself over the world. Sad will be the day for every man when he becomes absolutely contented with the life that he is living, with the thoughts that he is thinking, with the deeds that he is doing, when there is not forever beating at the doors of his soul some great desire to do something larger which he knows that he was meant and made to do because he is a child of God.

Phillips Brooks (1835-1893) American clergyman, hymnist
Daily Thoughts from Phillips Brooks (1893)
 
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Give me the young man who has brains enough to make a fool of himself.

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) Scottish essayist, novelist, poet
Virginibus Puerisque, ch. 2 “Crabbed Age and Youth” (1881)
 
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Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great.

Mark Twain (1835-1910) American writer [pseud. of Samuel Clemens]
(Attributed)

Quoted in Gay MacLaren, Morally We Roll Along (1938). A recollection of something Twain said to the author when she was a child. More information here.
 
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In my stars I am above thee, but be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ’em.

Shakespeare - greatness thrust - wist_info

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) English dramatist and poet
Twelfth Night, Act 2, Sc. 5, l. 147ff [Malvolio] (1601)
    (Source)

The phrase appears three times in the play:

  1. As above, Malvolio reading the forged love letter from Maria.
  2. Act 3, sc. 4, l. 42ff, Malvolio recalling the phrases from the letter.
  3. Act 5, sc. 1, l. 393ff, the Fool reciting the second half of the phrase.
See also Boorstin.
 
Added on 11-Nov-15 | Last updated 30-Jun-22
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Even a feeble-minded man wants to be like other men.

Daniel F. Keyes (1927-2014) American author
Flowers for Algernon (novel) (1966)
 
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Lust of absolute power is more burning than all the passions.

[Cupido dominandi cunctis affectibus flagrante est.]

Tacitus (c.56-c.120) Roman historian, orator, politician [Publius or Gaius Cornelius Tacitus]
Annals, 15.53 (AD 117)
 
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The man who sticks to his plan will become what he used to want to be.

James Richardson (b. 1950) American poet
Vectors: Aphorisms and Ten Second Essays, #349 (2001)
 
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Let us think the unthinkable, let us do the undoable, let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all.

Douglas Adams (1952-2001) English writer
Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency (1987)
 
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To understand the heart and mind of a person, look not at what he has already achieved, but at what he aspires to.

Kahlil Gibran (1883-1931) Lebanese-American poet, writer, painter [Gibran Khalil Gibran]
(Attributed)
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I am very sure that any man of common understanding may, by proper culture, care, attention and labor, make himself whatever he pleases, except a great poet.

Lord Chesterfield (1694-1773) English statesman, wit [Philip Dormer Stanhope]
Letter to his son, #113 (9 Oct 1746)
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Whenever men cease fighting through necessity, they go to fighting through ambition, which is so powerful in human breasts that, whatever high rank men climb to, never does ambition abandon them.

Niccolò Machiavelli (1469-1527) Italian politician, philosopher, political scientist
The Discourses on Livy, Book 1, ch. 37 (1517) [tr. Gilbert (1958)]
    (Source)

Alt. trans.:
  • "[Ambition] is so powerful a passion in the human breast, that however high we reach we are never satisfied."
  • "For when no longer urged to war on one another by necessity, they are urged by ambition, which has such dominion in their hearts that it never leaves them to whatsoever heights they climb." [tr. Thomson (1883)]
  • "Whenever the necessity for fighting is taken away from them, they fight for the same of ambition, which is so powerful a passion in the human breast that, no matter the rank to which a man may rise, he never abandons it." [tr. Bondanella (1997)]
 
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Most people would succeed in small things if they were not troubled with great ambitions.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) American poet
“Table Talk,” Drift-Wood (1857)
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The ambitious deceive themselves when they propose an end to their ambition; for that end, when attained, becomes a means.

François VI, duc de La Rochefoucauld (1613-1680) French epigrammatist, memoirist, noble
Réflexions ou sentences et maximes morales [Maxims], # 32 (1665-1678)
 
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