The Only Thing Necessary for the Triumph of Evil is that Good Men Do Nothing
. . . which Kennedy attributed to Edmund Burke and which recently was judged the most popular quotation of modern times (in a poll conducted by editors of The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations). Even though it is clear by now that Burke is unlikely to have made this observation, no one has ever been able to determine who did.Will you explore this question?
Quote Investigator: First, “The Quote Verifier” volume has my highest recommendation. The impressive research of Keyes is presented in a fascinating, entertaining, and fun manner. Second, yes, QI will try to trace this expression. Edmund Burke and John Stuart Mill both produced apothegms that are loosely similar to the quotation under investigation but are unmistakably distinct.
The earliest known citation showing a strong similarity to the modern quote appeared in October of 1916. The researcher J. L. Bell found this important instance. The maxim appeared in a quotation from a speech by the Reverend Charles F. Aked who was calling for restrictions on the use of alcohol: 2
It has been said that for evil men to accomplish their purpose it is only necessary that good men should do nothing.QI believes that the full name of Aked was Charles Frederic Aked, and he was a prominent preacher and lecturer who moved from England to America. The same expression was attributed to Aked in another periodical in 1920. Details for this cite are given further below.
The earliest attribution of the modern saying to Edmund Burke was found by top researcher Barry Popik. In July of 1920 a man named Sir R. Murray Hyslop delivered an address at a Congregational church conference that included the following: 3
Burke once said: ..“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.”The search for the origin of this famous quotation has lead to controversy. One disagreement involved the important reference book Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and the well-known word maven William Safire.
Below are selected citations in chronological order and a brief discussion of this altercation.
In 1770 the Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke wrote about the need for good men to associate to oppose the cabals of bad men. The second sentence in the excerpt below is listed in multiple quotation references and shares some points of similarity to the saying under investigation, bit it is clearly dissimilar: 4
No man, who is not inflamed by vain-glory into enthusiasm, can flatter himself that his single, unsupported, desultory, unsystematic endeavours are of power to defeat the subtle designs and united Cabals of ambitious citizens. When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.In 1867 the British philosopher and political theorist John Stuart Mill delivered an inaugural address at the University of St. Andrews. The second sentence in the excerpt below expresses part of the idea of the quotation under investigation: 5
Let not any one pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.In 1895 a medical bulletin printed a comment that was similar to John Stuart Mill’s adage. The wording of the second half matched closely though no attribution was given: 6
He should not be lulled to repose by the delusion that he does no harm who takes no part in public affairs. He should know that bad men need no better opportunity than when good men look on and do nothing. He should stand to his principles even if leaders go wrong.Burke’s quote continued in use in the early 1900s. In 1910 a pithy form of the saying appeared in the Chicago Daily Tribune: 7
Burke said, ‘When bad men combine, good men must organize.’In October 1916 the San Jose Mercury Herald reported on a speech by Charles F. Aked in favor of prohibition as mentioned at the beginning of this article. Aked used an expression similar to the quotation under investigation; however, he used the locution “it has been said” to signal that he was not claiming originality. Thus, the saying was probably in circulation before 1916. Here is a longer excerpt: 8
“The people in the liquor traffic,” said the speaker, “simply want us to do nothing. That’s all the devil wants of the son of God—to be let alone. That is all that the criminal wants of the law—to be let alone. The sin of doing nothing is the deadliest of all the seven sins. It has been said that for evil men to accomplish their purpose it is only necessary that good men should do nothing.”Note the second half of the adage is very close to the modern statement. The use of the word “evil” in the first half matches the modern version, but the phrase “evil men” harks back to the term “bad men” used by Burke and Mill.
In June 1920 a periodical called “100%: The Efficiency Magazine” published a maxim that was identical to the one above. The saying was again attributed to Rev. Charles F. Aked and it occurred twice: once in the subhead of the article and once in the body. The following passage referred to a “constructive publication”, but it was never identified in the article body: 9
The slogan of a recently established constructive publication is “For evil men to accomplish their purpose, it is only necessary that good men do nothing,” quoting the Rev. Charles F. Aked. While this is recognized as true of municipal politics, is it not also being evidenced as an actual condition in American industry?In July 1920 a different version of the saying appeared anonymously in a magazine called the Railway Carmen’s Journal. This variant used the term “bad men” and occurred in isolation at the beginning of an editorial section: 10
For bad men to accomplish their purposes it is only necessary that good men do nothing.On July 5, 1920 the temperance crusader Sir R. Murray Hyslop of Kent, England, delivered an address at a church conference, the Fourth International Congregational Council. The address was published in 1921, and it contained a version of the now famous statement which Hyslop attributed to Burke. This is the earliest example of this attribution that QI knows about and it was found by Barry Popik who presented it on his website: 11
Burke once said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.” Leave the Drink Trade alone and it will throttle all that is good in a nation’s life. Let it alone, that is all that is required. Cowardice will suffice for its triumph. Courage will suffice for its overthrow.On July 30, 1920 a business digest periodical that lists articles published in other magazines included an entry for the piece in 100% magazine. The subhead for the article was reproduced so the maxim appeared in this digest magazine and was further propagated: 12
Are We Helping the Radicals? “For Evil Men to Accomplish Their Purpose, It Is only Necessary That Good Men Do Nothing.” Perhaps the “Do Nothing” Attitude Is Responsible for Much of the Industrial Unrest. By Charles H Norton, General Manager Collins Service. 100% June ’20 p. 64. 1000 words.In 1924 the “Surrey Mirror” of Surrey, England reported on a meeting of an organization called the “World Brotherhood Federation”. A speaker named Robert A. Jameson employed an instance of the saying which he attributed to Burke: 13
As Edmund Burke had said, much more than 100 years ago: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil was that good men should do nothing.”In 1950 the saying appeared in the Washington Post and was attributed to Burke as noted in the Yale Book of Quotations: 14 15
It is high time that the law-abiding citizens of Washington, and particularly those in organized groups dedicated to civic betterment, became alert to this danger and demanded protection against organized gangdom.In 1955 a U.S. Congressman named O. C. Fisher wrote a short piece in “The Rotarian”, and he used an instance of the saying credited to Burke: 16
This situation is best summed up in the words of the British statesman, Edmund Burke, who many years ago said: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
He is a good man but he does nothing. His inaction is often the handmaid of evil. As the great Edmund Burke once said, for evil to succeed, it is only necessary for good men to do nothing.In 1961 President John F. Kennedy addressed the Canadian Parliament and used a version of the quotation that he credited to Edmund Burke: 17
At the conference table and in the minds of men, the free world’s cause is strengthened because it is just. But it is strengthened even more by the dedicated efforts of free men and free nations. As the great parliamentarian Edmund Burke said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
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