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A wise man is cured of ambition by ambition itself; his aim is so exalted that riches, office, fortune, and favor cannot satisfy him. ~ Jean de La Bruyère
Why shall I not be content with these thoughts and this being which give a majesty to my nature and forego the ambition to shine in the frivolous assemblies of men where the genuine objects of my ambition are not revered or known? ~ Ralph Waldo Emerson
The climbing soul, leaving all that she has grasped already as too narrow for her needs, will thus grasp the idea of that magnificence which is exalted far above the heavens. But how can any one reach to this, whose ambitions creep below? ~ Gregory of Nyssa
Ambition is the death of thought. ~ Ludwig Wittgenstein
The poor, by thinking unceasingly of money, reach the point of losing the spiritual advantages of non-possession, thereby sinking as low as the rich. ~ E. M. Cioran
I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks. When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks. ~ Eugene V. Debs
The excellent man is he who condemns what he finds in his mind without previous effort, and only accepts as worthy of him what is still far above him and what requires a further effort in order to be reached. ~ José Ortega y Gasset

Ambition is word denoting strong desire for distinction, preferment, honor, political power, fame, or the object of such desires, or a general motivation, not necessarily tied to any particular goals.

Arranged alphabetically by author or source:
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  • How difficult the task to quench the fire and the pride of private ambition, and to sacrifice ourselves and all our hopes and expectations to the public weal! How few have souls capable of so noble an undertaking!
  • Virtue’s true reward is happiness itself, for which the virtuous work, whereas if they worked for honor, it would no longer be virtue, but ambition.
  • The lust for power, which of all human vices was found in its most concentrated form in the Roman people as a whole, first established its victory in a few powerful individuals, and then crushed the rest of an exhausted country beneath the yoke of slavery.

    For when can that lust for power in arrogant hearts come to rest until, after passing from one office to another, it arrives at sovereignty? Now there would be no occasion for this continuous progress if ambition were not all-powerful; and the essential context for ambition is a people corrupted by greed and sensuality.

    • Augustine, The City of God (c. 400), as translated by H. Bettenson (1972), Book 1, Chapter 31, p. 42.


  • It will not be amiss to distinguish the three kinds and, as it were, grades of ambition in mankind. The first is of those who desire to extend their own power in their native country, a vulgar and degenerate kind. The second is of those who labor to extend the power and dominion of their country among men. This certainly has more dignity, though not less covetousness. But if a man endeavor to establish and extend the power and dominion of the human race itself over the universe, his ambition (if ambition it can be called) is without doubt both a more wholesome and a more noble thing than the other two.
  • Things move violently to their place, and calmly in their place, so virtue in ambition is violent, in authority settled and calm.
  • 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, and are best pleased, when things go backward.
  • A young man's ambition, can there be a more fleeting prospect?
  • Almost all of them adopt convenient social, literary, or political prejudices so as to dispense with having to form an opinion of their own, just as they place their conscience in the shelter of common law, or of the commercial court. Having left home early in order to become remarkable men, they become mediocre, and crawl along the heights of society. Accordingly, their faces present us with this sour pallor; these false complexions, these dull, lined eyes, these talkative and sensual mouths where the observer recognizes the symptoms of the degeneration of thought and its turning round and round in the dull circle of specialization that kills the generative faculties of the brain, the gift of seeing the big picture, of generalizing and deducing.
  • Wilt thou debase the heart which God refined?
    No; let thy heaven-taught soul to heaven aspire,
    To fancy, freedom, harmony, resigned;
    Ambition's groveling crew forever left behind.
    • James Beattie, The Minstrel; or, The Progress of Genius (1771), book 1, stanza 7
  • Ambition is the way in which a vulgar man aspires.
    • Henry Ward Beecher, reported in Josiah Hotchkiss Gilbert, Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers (1895), p. 11.
  • AMBITION, n. An overmastering desire to be vilified by enemies while living and made ridiculous by friends when dead.
    • Ambrose Bierce, The Cynic's Dictionary (1906); republished as The Devil's Dictionary (1911).
  • Men accept servility in order to acquire wealth; as if they could acquire anything of their own when they cannot even assert that they belong to themselves.
  • Ambition is a gilded misery, a secret poison, a hidden plague, the engineer of deceit, the mother of hypocrisy, the parent of envy, the original of vices, the moth of holiness, the blinder of hearts, turning medicines into maladies, and remedies into diseases.
    • Thomas Brooks, reported in Josiah Hotchkiss Gilbert, Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers (1895), p. 12.
  • A wise man is cured of ambition by ambition itself; his aim is so exalted that riches, office, fortune, and favor cannot satisfy him.
    • Jean de La Bruyère, Characters, H. Van Laun, trans. (London: 1885) “Of Personal Merit,” #43.
  • There ought to be a place for people without ambition, I mean a better place than the one usually reserved.
  • Well is it known that ambition can creep as well as soar.
  • As fall the dews on quenchless sands,
    Blood only serves to wash Ambition's hands!
  • From my youth upwards
    My Spirit walked not with the souls of men,
    Nor looked upon the earth with human eyes;
    The thirst of their ambition was not mine,
    The aim of their existence was not mine;
    My joys—my griefs—my passions—and my powers,
    Made me a stranger; though I wore the form,
    I had no sympathy with breathing flesh
    • Lord Byron, Manfred in Manfred, Act 2, Scene 2, lines 50-58.


  • Love, a pleasant folly; ambition, a serious stupidity.
    • Nicolas Chamfort, Maxims and Considerations, E. P. Mathers, trans. (1926), #158.
  • The poor, by thinking unceasingly of money, reach the point of losing the spiritual advantages of non-possession, thereby sinking as low as the rich.
  • To rank the effort above the prize may be called love.
  • I think that all ambitions are lawful except those which climb upwards on the miseries or credulities of mankind. All intellectual and artistic ambitions are permissible, up to and even beyond the limit of prudent sanity. They can hurt no one. If they are mad, then so much the worse for the artist. Indeed, as virtue is said to be, such ambitions are their own reward.


  • Nearest the king, nearest the gallows.
    • Danish proverb, in A Book of Proverbs, edited by Raymond Lamont_Brown (1970), p. 135
  • I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks. When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks.
  • Ambition is like love, impatient
    Both of delays and rivals.
    • John Denham, The Sophy: A Tragedy (1642), Act I, scene ii.
  • Ambition, Interest, Pride without control,
    And Jealousy, the jaundice of the soul;
    Revenge, the bloody minister of ill,
    With all the lean tormentors of the will.


  • Ambition fortifies the will of man to become ruler over other men: it operates with deception, cajolery, and violence, it is the action of impurity upon impurity.
  • And why shall I not be content with these thoughts and this being which give a majesty to my nature and forego the ambition to shine in the frivolous assemblies of men where the genuine objects of my ambition are not revered or known?


  • Ambition has its disappointments to sour us, but never the good fortune to satisfy us.


  • Let not Ambition mock their useful toil,
    Their homely joys, and destiny obscure;
    Nor Grandeur hear with a disdainful smile,
    The short and simple annals of the poor.
    • Thomas Gray, Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard (1750), St. 8.
  • The climbing soul, leaving all that she has grasped already as too narrow for her needs, will thus grasp the idea of that magnificence which is exalted far above the heavens. But how can any one reach to this, whose ambitions creep below? ... He therefore who keeps away from all bitterness and all the noisome effluvia of the flesh, and raises himself on the aforesaid wings above all low earthly ambitions, or, more than that, above the whole universe itself, will be the man to find that which is alone worth loving, and to become himself as beautiful as the Beauty which he has touched and entered.


  • Where ambition can be so happy as to cover its enterprizes, even to the person himself, under the appearance of principle, it is the most incurable and inflexible of all human passions.
    • David Hume, The History of England (1754-62), Volume I, Part IV, "William the Conqueror".


  • Ambition, like a torrent, ne'er looks back;
    And is a swelling, and the last affection
    A high mind can put off; being both a rebel
    Unto the soul and reason, and enforceth
    All laws, all conscience, treads upon religion,
    and offereth violence to nature's self.
    • Ben Jonson, Catiline His Conspiracy (1611), Act III, scene ii.
  • Capitalist-private property relations are the source of class inequalities, which is the primary factor in my being a member of a class that bears all the burdens of society without enjoying its advantages. Under the influence of illegitimate-capitalist values, I was pursuing the alleviation of social-economic hardship through individual advancement. This is a wholly inadequate remedy to social problems because it doesn’t challenge the fundamental injustice of class-exploitation and class-oppression, which are responsible for creating the socio-economic ills in the first place. Unaware of my class interest, I was perpetuating my own oppression by engaging in competitive capitalist practices that ensure the smooth functioning of the system as the exploiting minority profits in more ways than one off the division and disunity engendered by competition, so prevalent amongst the exploited. Look around: competition, euphemistically called “individuality,” permeates and is systematically promoted to the masses of people while the corporate conglomerations and Fortune 500 are busy “merging and monopolizing.”
    • Kevin Rashid Johnson, Defying the Tomb: Selected Prison Writings and Art of Kevin Rashid Johnson (2010)


  • Ambition never comes to an end.
    • Yoshida Kenkō, Tsurezure-Gusa (Essays in Idleness) (ca. 14th century).
  • For the modern psychologist, … industry has remained as the only virtue—with its satellites, ambition and success—a conception of virtue which the Ancients would never have hesitated to relegate to the lowest of men, to pariahs and to slaves.
    • Ludwig Klages, The Science of Character, W. Johnston, trans., p. 15.


  • Ambition is but Avarice on stilts and masked.
  • Most people would succeed in small things, if they were not troubled with great ambitions.


  • Whenever men are not obliged to fight from necessity, they fight from ambition; which is so powerful in human breasts, that it never leaves them no matter to what rank they rise. The reason is that nature has so created men that they are able to desire everything but are not able to attain everything.
  • Reason can no longer restrain one who is lured by the fury of ambition.
    • Karl Marx, “Reflections of a Youth on Choosing an Occupation” (1835), Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, L. Easton, trans. (1967), p. 36.


  • Just see these superfluous ones! Wealth they acquire and become poorer thereby. Power they seek for, and above all, the lever of power, much money—these impotent ones!
    See them clamber, these nimble apes! They clamber over one another, and thus scuffle into the mud and the abyss.
    Towards the throne they all strive: it is their madness—as if happiness sat on the throne! Ofttimes sitteth filth on the throne—and ofttimes also the throne on filth.
    Madmen they all seem to me, and clambering apes, and too eager. Badly smelleth their idol to me, the cold monster: badly they all smell to me, these idolaters.


  • That man is intellectually of the mass who, in the face of any problem, is satisfied with thinking the first thing he finds in his head. On the contrary, the excellent man is he who condemns what he finds in his mind without previous effort, and only accepts as worthy of him what is still far above him and what requires a further effort in order to be reached.


  • All sins have their origin in a sense of inferiority, otherwise called ambition.
  • Glory ought to be the consequence, not the motive, of our actions; and although it happen not to attend the worthy deed, yet it is by no means the less fair for having missed the applause it deserved.
  • Ambition first sprung from your blest abodes;
    The glorious fault of Angels and of Gods.
  • Ambition is the grand enemy of all peace.
  • There are very few philosophers and artists who are absolutely detached from ambition and respect for power, from "people of position." And among those who are more delicate or more sated, snobism replaces ambition and respect for power in the same way superstition arises on the ruins of religious beliefs.


  • If any man stopped and asked himself whether he’s ever held a truly personal desire, he’d find the answer. He’d see that all his wishes, his efforts, his dreams, his ambitions are motivated by other men. He’s not even struggling for material wealth, but for the second-hander’s delusion—prestige. A stamp of approval, not his own. He can find no joy in the struggle and no joy when he has succeeded. He can’t say about a single thing: this is what I wanted because I wanted it, not because it made my neighbors gape at me. Then he wonders why he’s unhappy.
    • Ayn Rand, Howard Roark describing "second-hand men" in The Fountainhead (1996), p. 607.
  • I am not unambitious. I am just too ambitious for what you call ambitions.
  • In classical cultures, an ascended class had to justify itself before those now below in the social structure. But the culture revolution of our time has eliminated this need for class- as well as self-justification. Nevertheless, those below still seek to emulate the ascendant social class, without being convinced of its superiority.
    • Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic (1966), chapter 2.
  • The need of success … might have made me strive to say what might please the multitude, rather than what was true and useful, and instead of a distinguished author which I might possibly become, I should have ended in becoming nothing but a mere scribbler.
    • Rousseau, Confessions (Wordsworth: 1996), p. 391.
  • A narcissist, for example, inspired by the homage paid to great painters, may become an art student; but, as painting is for him a mere means to an end, the technique never becomes interesting … The result is failure and disappointment, with ridicule instead of the expected adulation. … All serious success in work depends upon some genuine interest. … Consequently, the man whose sole concern with the world is that is shall admire him is not likely to achieve his object.


  • 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.
    • Sallust, Bellum Catilinae (ca. 1st century), X, 5.
  • Virtue is chok'd with foul ambition.
  • The poor man’s son ... devotes himself for ever to the pursuit of wealth and greatness. To obtain the conveniencies which these afford, he submits in the first year, nay in the first month of his application, to more fatigue of body, and more uneasiness of mind, than he could have suffered through the whole of his life from the want of them. ... He makes his court to all mankind; he serves those whom he hates, and is obsequious to those whom he despises. Through the whole of his life he pursues the idea of a certain artificial and elegant repose which he may never arrive at, for which he sacrifices a real tranquillity that is at all times in his power.
    • Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Part 4, Chapter 1
  • Ambition is an idol on whose wings
    Great minds are carry'd only to extreme;
    To be sublimely great, or to be nothing.
    • Thomas Southerne, The Persian Prince, or the Loyal Brother (1682), Act I, scene 1.
  • But when a miser thinks of nothing but gain or money, or when an ambitious man thinks of nothing but glory, they are not reckoned to be mad, because they are generally harmful, and are thought worthy of being hated. But, in reality, Avarice, Ambition, Lust, &c., are species of madness, though they may not be reckoned among diseases.
    • Baruch Spinoza, Ethics (1677), Part IV: "Of Human Bondage, or the Strength of the Emotions", Prop. 44.
  • Ambition often puts men upon doing the meanest offices; so climbing is performed in the same posture with creeping.
    • Jonathan Swift, Thoughts on Various Subjects from Miscellanies (1711-1726).


  • 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.
  • To endure is greater than to dare; to tire out hostile fortune; to be daunted by no difficulty; to keep heart when all have lost it; to go through intrigue spotless; and to forgo even ambition when the end is gained — who can say this is not greatness?
  • Full of hopes beyond their power though not beyond their ambition.
    • Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War (5th century BC), Book III, 39.
  • When we are beginning to live, then we are dying. There is, therefore, nothing more profitless than ambition.
  • The First thing that strikes a traveler in the United States is the innumerable multitude of those who seek to emerge from their original condition; and the second is the rarity of lofty ambition to be observed in the midst of the universally ambitious stir of society. No Americans are devoid of a yearning desire to rise, but hardly any appear to entertain hopes of great magnitude or to pursue very lofty aims. All are constantly seeking to acquire property, power, and reputation.
  • “Nothing but ambition, nothing but the desire to get on, that's all there is in his soul,” she thought; “as for these lofty ideals, love of culture, religion, they are only so many tools for getting on.”
    • Leo Tolstoy, Anna describing her husband, Anna Karenina, C. Garnett, trans. (New York: 2003), Part 2, Chapter 28, p. 192.


  • Vain the ambition of kings
    Who seek by trophies and dead things
    To leave a living name behind,
    And weave but nets to catch the wind.
  • I remind young people everywhere I go, one of the worst things the older generation did was to tell them for twenty-five years "Be successful, be successful, be successful" as opposed to "Be great, be great, be great". There's a qualitative difference.
    • Cornel West, Speech in San Francisco: Democracy Matters (1 October 2004)
  • Ambition is the last refuge of the failure.
    • Oscar Wilde, "Phrases and Philosophies for the use of the Young", in The Chameleon (Oxford, December 1894).
  • The people ... have marred themselves by imitation of their inferiors. They have taken the sceptre of the Prince.


  • Too low they build who build beneath the stars.
    • Edward Young, Night Thoughts (1742-1745), Night VIII, line 225.

Hoyt's New Cyclopedia Of Practical Quotations[edit]

Quotes reported in Hoyt's New Cyclopedia Of Practical Quotations (1922), p. 20-21.
  • Nor strive to wind ourselves too high
    For sinful man beneath the sky.
    • Christian Year, Morning.
  • Prima enim sequentem, honestum est in secundis, tertiisque consistere.
    • When you are aspiring to the highest place, it is honorable to reach the second or even the third rank.
    • Cicero, De Oratore, I.
  • On what strange stuff Ambition feeds!
  • By low ambition and the thirst of praise.
  • On the summit see,
    The seals of office glitter in his eyes;
    He climbs, he pants, he grasps them! At his heels,
    Close at his heels, a demagogue ascends,
    And with a dexterous jerk soon twists him down,
    And wins them, but to lose them in his turn.
  • Il gran rifiuto.
    • The great refusal.
    • (Supposed to refer to Celestine V., elected Pope in 1294, who resigned five months later).
    • Dante Alighieri, Inferno, Canto III. LX.
  • But wild Ambition loves to slide, not stand,
    And Fortune's ice prefers to Virtue's land.
    • John Dryden, Absalom and Achitophel (1681), Part I, line 198.
  • They please, are pleas'd, they give to get esteem
    Till, seeming blest, they grow to what they seem.
  • For all may have,
    If they dare try, a glorious life, or grave.
  • Sublimi feriam sidera vertice.
    • I strike the stars with my sublime head.
    • Horace, Carmina, Book I. 1.
  • Nil mortalibus arduum est:
    Cœlum ipsum petimus stultitia.
    • Nothing is too high for the daring of mortals: we would storm heaven itself in our folly.
    • Horace, Carmina, I. 3. 37.
  • Vestigia nulla retrorsum.
    • No steps backward.
    • Horace, Epistles. I. 1. 74.
  • I see, but cannot reach, the height
    That lies forever in the light.
  • The shades of night were falling fast,
    As through an Alpine village passed
    A youth, who bore, 'mid snow and ice
    A banner with the strange device,
  • He was utterly without ambition [Chas. II.]. He detested business, and would sooner have abdicated his crown than have undergone the trouble of really directing the administration.
  • The man who seeks one thing in life, and but one,
    May hope to achieve it before life be done;
    But he who seeks all things, wherever he goes,
    Only reaps from the hopes which around him he sows
    A harvest of barren regrets.
    • Owen Meredith (Lord Lytton), Lucile (1860), Part I, Canto II, Stanza 8.
  • Here may we reign secure, and in my choice
    To reign is worth ambition, though in Hell.
    Better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.
  • But what will not ambition and revenge
    Descend to? who aspires must down as low
    As high he soar'd, obnoxious first or last
    To basest things.
  • If at great things thou would'st arrive,
    Get riches first, get wealth, and treasure heap,
    Not difficult, if thou hearken to me;
    Riches are mine, fortune is in my hand,
    They whom I favor thrive in wealth amain,
    While virtue, valor, wisdom, sit in want.
  • Who knows but He, whose hand the lightning forms.
    Who heaves old ocean, and who wings the storms,
    Pours fierce ambition in a Cæsar's mind.
  • Oh, sons of earth! attempt ye still to rise.
    By mountains pil'd on mountains to the skies?
    Heav'n still with laughter the vain toil surveys,
    And buries madmen in the heaps they raise.
  • But see how oft ambition's aims are cross'd,
    And chiefs contend 'til all the prize is lost!
  • Be always displeased at what thou art, if thou desire to attain to what thou art not; for where thou hast pleased thyself, there thou abidest.
  • Licet ipsa vitium sit ambitio, frequenter tamen causa virtutum est.
    • Though ambition in itself is a vice, yet it is often the parent of virtues.
    • Quintilian, De Institutione Oratoria, II. 22.
  • Ambition is no cure for love!
    • Walter Scott, The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), Canto I, Stanza 27.
  • O fading honours of the dead!
    O high ambition, lowly laid!
    • Walter Scott, The Lay of the Last Minstrel (1805), Canto II, Stanza 10.
  • The very substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream.
  • Ill-weav'd ambition, how much art thou shrunk!
    When that this body did contain a spirit,
    A kingdom for it was too small a bound;
    But now, two paces of the vilest earth
    Is room enough.
  • Mark but my fall, and that that ruin'd me.
    Cromwell, I charge thee, fling away ambition.
    By that sin fell the angels; how can man then,
    The image of his Maker, hope to win by it?
  • 'Tis a common proof,
    That lowliness is young ambition's ladder,
    Whereto the climber upward turns his face;
    But when he once attains the upmost round,
    He then unto the ladder turns his back,
    Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
    By which he did ascend.
  • The noble Brutus
    Hath told you Cæsar was ambitious;
    If it were so, it was a grievous fault;
    And grievously hath Cæsar answered it.
  • I have no spur
    To prick the sides of my intent, but only
    Vaulting ambition, which o'erleaps itself,
    And falls on the other.
  • Si vis ad summum progredi ab infimo ordire.
    • If you wish to reach the highest, begin at the lowest.
    • Syrus, Maxims.
  • Ambition destroys its possessor.
  • The favorites of fortune or of fame topple from their pedestals before our eyes without diverting us from ambition.
    • Vauvenargues, Reflections and Maxims, E. Lee, trans. (1903), p. 180.
  • And mad ambition trumpeteth to all.
  • Ambition has but one reward for all:
    A little power, a little transient fame,
    A grave to rest in, and a fading name!

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