A popular phrase warning against complacency has been misattributed to the eighteenth-century Irish philosopher and statesman Edmund Burke.
“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” the alleged quote reads. Recent examples on social media can be viewed (here), (here), (here), (here), (here), and (here).
There is no evidence, to date, that Burke said these words, nor has the exact quote been found in his writings.
David Bromwich, Sterling Professor of English at Yale University and author of “The Intellectual Life of Edmund Burke,” told Reuters that Burke “never said it.”
“I don’t know that anyone famous did, but the misattribution has had a long life,” he added.
One of the most notable attributions of the quote to Burke was by President John F. Kennedy in a speech before Canadian lawmakers in Ottawa, on May 17, 1961 (here).
“Burke was sometimes exorbitant, but he was never silly; and the thing that strikes you about this saying, on a moment’s reflection, is how little sense it makes: the silence of good men isn’t the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil. The persons advancing the evil, whether in command or the rank-and-file, must be strong and determined; and the lukewarm must be either cowed into submission or willing to go along because the evil seems to prosper,” Bromwich told Reuters.
Burke did say something resembling the quote in his “Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents” (1770): “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”
Bromwich pointed to this as the probable source of the misattribution in his intellectual biography of Burke.
Indeed, Richard Bourke, Professor of the History of Political Thought at the University of Cambridge and author of “Empire and Revolution: The Political Life of Edmund Burke,” told Reuters that the quote was a misattribution - a paraphrase based on the related statement in Burke’s “Thoughts on the Causes of this Present Discontents.”
Burke studied in Trinity College Dublin, and the university also suggests that a paraphrase is likely (here).
In 2010, the website ‘Quote Verifier’ tracked the earliest known attributions of the quote (here), although could not find an exact source.
Quote Verifier mentioned that in 1867 British philosopher John Stuart Mill made an inaugural address at the University of St Andrews with a similar, but not identical, quote: “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” (here) (here)
No one has ever been able to confirm attribution, or determine who said the exact quote, Ralph Keyes, author of “The Quote Verifier” wrote in the book published in 2006 (www.jstor.org/stable/4614974).
False. The quote on the triumph of evil is misattributed to the eighteenth-century Irish philosopher Edmund Burke. The quote is possibly a paraphrase, although a definitive source has yet to be found.
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