Intelligence without Ambition Is a Bird without Wings

Salvador Dali? Walter H. Cottingham? Laura E. Riding? C. Archie Danielson? Anonymous?

dali08Dear Quote Investigator: Some individuals have impressive natural gifts and aptitudes but do not have strong desires or motivations. Their worthwhile potential achievements often remain unrealized. The following adage embodies this notion:

Intelligence without ambition is a bird without wings.

These words have been attributed to the famous surrealist artist Salvador Dali, but I have never seen a convincing citation. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence to support the ascription to Salvador Dali. A partially matching statement appeared in 1908: “A man without ambition is like a bird without wings”.

An exact match with an anonymous ascription appeared in 1996. In 1997 the statement was attributed to a person named C. Archie Danielson. These two names are alphabetically very close, and QI conjectures that a mistake led to the reassignment of the saying from Danielson to Dali. Detailed citations are given further below.

A wingless bird has been used in metaphors and similes for many years. In 1732 an influential compilation called “Gnomologia” was published by Thomas Fuller, and the following statement about money was included. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

He that is without Money, is a Bird without Wings.

In 1806 a translation of the work titled “The Rose Garden” by the 13th century Persian poet Saadi was published. One aphorism in the book referred to a wingless bird: 2

A student without inclination, is a lover without money; a traveller without observation, is a bird without wings; a learned man without works, is a tree without fruit; and a devotee without knowledge, is a house without a door.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Intelligence without Ambition Is a Bird without Wings


  1. 1732, Gnomologia: Adagies and Proverbs; Wise Sentences and Witty Sayings, Ancient and Modern, Foreign and British, Collected by Thomas Fuller, M.D., Quote Page 89, Printed for B. Barker at the College Arms, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1806, Persian Classicks, Volume I, The Gûlistân of Sâdy, Persian with an English translation by Francis Gladwin, Passage Number 71, Quote Page 319, Hindoostanee Press, Calcutta, India. (Google Books Full View) link