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Famous Misquotations: The Triumph of Evil is That Good Men Do Nothing

All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

This often-used quotation is attributed to Edmund Burke, an Irish statesman and philosopher best known for his passionate support of the American Revolution. There is, however, no definitive source that confirms that Burke actually wrote or said this. The fact that there is no single source explains why there are over 80 variations of this quote. According to researcher Martin Porter, ” If it were genuine, it would have one, or possibly two, noteworthy variants at most.”  So how did this quotation come to be attributed to Burke in the first place? The quotation first appeared in Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations, 14th Edition (1968) citing as its source a letter that Burke wrote to William Smith (January 9, 1795); however, that letter does not contain any sentence similar to the cited quotation. An editor for the 15th edition of Bartlett’s claimed that the quotation must be a paraphrase from a speech that Burke delivered to Parliament (Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents) on April 23, 1770: “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.” It’s a bit of a stretch but it is the only reasonable explanation for a quotation that has proliferated on the internet, spawning 80 (and counting) variations.

For futher reading: The Never Said It by Paul Boller and John Geroge, Oxford University Press (1989). http://www.wikiquotes.com. http://tartarus.org/~martin/essays/burkequote.html

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