What do these quotes mean? These quotes came to me together as a compliment. Does it mean good luck or does it mean something bad?

Like dogs in a wheel, birds inside a cage, or squirrels in a very chain, ambitious men still climb and climb, with great labor, and incessant anxiety, but never achieve the top. What we actually learn, from any given set of circumstances, determines whether we become increasingly powerless or more powerful.

Edit: The two quotations as usually quoted or misquoted are shown below.

Like dogs in a wheel, birds in a cage, or squirrels in a chain, ambitious men still climb and climb, with great labor, and incessant anxiety, but never reach the top. – Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, 1621, as misquoted and often misattributed to Robert Browning.

What we actually learn, from any given set of circumstances, determines whether we become increasingly powerless or more powerful. – Blaine Lee, in The Power Principle: Influence with Honor

  • 3
    Googling, the first quote is from Robert Browning, and there's no "very" in the quote (his grammar was much too good for that). The second quote is by somebody else (Blaine Lee), and I don't really know why they were put together, and what message the pair of them together is meant to convey. Separately, each is pretty clear. Mar 11 '12 at 16:45
  • @Peter Shor: I think you took the wrong adjoining attribution there. It seems to me the quote is from Robert Burton as indicated here, for example. I can't make any sense at all of the added "very". Mar 11 '12 at 18:18
  • @FumbleFingers: I did indeed. Mar 11 '12 at 18:22
  • @FumbleFingers, very is used in sense “True, real, actual (eg) ‘The fierce hatred of a very woman’”; ie as veritable would be used. (In this case it amounts to an archaic-looking filler word.) Aug 17 '12 at 16:14
  • For all I know, that could be the very truth. But whereas I can accept my first sentence as "valid, but archaic", I really can't see it working like that in OP's first example. Besides, as Peter points out, the original author didn't use the word anyway. So it seems to me there's no point straining to find justification for OP's mistranscription in this case. Aug 17 '12 at 16:44

Per the comments, the quote is from Robert Burton (1577-1640), so we're dealing with almost medieval imagery here.

Although the first steam engines appeared around the time Burton was born, they were crude affairs, and not widely adopted in his lifetime - and Burton being an Oxford classicist, he probably didn't know much about them anyway. Dogs really were sometimes used in treadmills to provide motive power for drawing water from a well, for example (horses, donkeys, and oxen would be used where more power was needed). Obviously the dog never actually gets anywhere; he walks because he'd probably be whipped if he didn't.

The usage bird in a cage still exists, but Burton's sense misses its target on the modern ear, since we now associate this with unnatural confinement. He was alluding to the fact that the caged bird flutters around, but again doesn't get anywhere for all his efforts.

Squirrels in a very chain is a misquote (the word "very", which shouldn't be there, makes no sense anyway). It's a pretty obscure image, but I think back in Burton's day squirrels were sometimes kept as "pets" - on light chains, for the owner's amusement in watching the poor creature scamper around. Again, with no hope of getting anywhere, or actually escaping.

Today, most people would understand all these images are examples of cruel entrapment, but Burton simply presents them as situations where the animal keeps moving because it's in its nature to move. He's thus comparing this to the constant mental and physical exertions of "ambitious" men (not a pejorative term to him). He means men of great ability and vision, who will advance humanity by their tireless efforts, make those efforts because it's in their nature to do so.

The second quote has no connection at all to the first. It's from Blaine Lee Pardoe (1946-2009), a writer of science fiction, and business management books. Doubtless the quote is from the latter - it's just a standard "how to be successful and get rich" aphorism, meaning that if you approach life with the right attitude (i.e. - the one his business management book is going to teach you) then you can use any situation as a lesson, from which you'll learn how to become more powerful and successful. By implication, people who don't buy his book and follow his advice will be unable to do this, and will learn nothing from life except that they are powerless "losers".

Taken in conjunction in a complimentary context, OP is being praised for having an active, enquiring mind, with the expectation that he will use this to become successful, wise, and powerful.


In my opinion, I don't think these quotes mean anything bad. The first implies that in order to get to the top, it takes more than just being ambitious. The second says every circumstance is a lesson that teaches and the more you learn the greater you rise in life. I think it is just advice.

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