Friday, 31 July 2009

For evil to triumph ...

... it is only necessary that you don’t look up the source of a quote.

How often have you used these words of Edmund Burke, or something similar: “For evil to triumph, it is only necessary that good men do nothing?”

If you’re PC enough, you may have changed ‘men’ to ‘people’, but hey, you’re close enough to what Burke said, aren’t you? And everyone knows he was right —right?

Except that if this 2002 essay by a chap called Martin Porter is correct, Burke never said it at all —indeed, never even came close to saying it.

I stumbled across it when I wanted to ‘quote’ Burke myself, and decided I just needed the reference. But as hard as I looked, I couldn’t find one. Then I discovered Mr Porter’s page, and he seems to explain why. (The follow-up essay is also well-worth reading, and I was intrigued to find Mr Porter has also devised his own online Bible concordance, as well as a few other things.) It is a fascinating case of everyone feeding off everyone else. I have even found the Burke misquote with which Porter begins his essay used as a quote in other online material by people who apparently don’t realize it is taken out of context.

The reason I think this is worth pointing out, however, is Porter’s final comments (after giving a truly exhaustive list of the variations on ‘pseudo-Burke’):

Burke will use the words ‘good’ and ‘evil’, but he never reduces politics to the primitive level of describing his side as the good people and his opponents as the forces of evil they have to combat. In the pseudo-quote you do get the feeling of Buzz Lightyear, and the other good men of Star Command, fighting the evil Emperor Zurg, sworn enemy of the Galactic Alliance. And despite appearing to be precise, the exact meaning is not altogether clear. Are the men good in an absolute sense, or are they being described as good because they see the evil? Can they be described as good if they do nothing? Are not other things necessary for evil to triumph? Some degree of public enthusiasm for the evil, for example?


The pseudo-quote is therefore without authenticity or meaning, and is just another of those political slogans which are used not as an assistance to, but as a substitute for real thought. It is not a deep truth, although it is constantly treated as one. Burke incidentally hated such things. He thought that cheap political slogans, or ‘maxims’ as he called them, enabled politicians to invoke principles of expediency, so they could pursue their own selfish interests instead of fulfilling their obligations to country, party and people. To him they were quite distinct from the deeps truths, or as he calls them ... ‘first principles’ [...]. (My emphasis)

Lazy thinking and clichéd sloganizing are, I think, ‘evils’, evident, for example, in camps run by adults for children which claim to teach them ‘critical thinking’ by comparing the existence of God with invisible unicorns (it’s called ‘begging the question’, by the way). They are evils because they keep us from the truth, and whereas the truth does, indeed, set us free (John 8:32), falsehood, especially when knowingly perpetrated by those in power, is a form of captivity.

Learning to think for yourself is an empowering thing. But even here, modern society errs, for what is commonly regarded as ‘thinking for yourself’ is generally nothing more than ‘valuing your own opinion’ —and, of course, one of the laziest examples of uncritical thinking is the slogan, “Everyone is entitled to their opinion.” They are not.

By the way, I would recommend you go and read the bits of the quote from Porter I’ve left out!

John Richardson
31 July 2009

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  1. Thank you for this piece. The author may have pulverized the subject, but on inspection, the maxim is evidently false, or at least commonplace. It sounds more like Cicero, at his more superficial.
    Burke, that great Anglo-Irish Anglican (with a Catholic mother) should certainly be studied (in his own words, too).

    A propos of bogus quotations, someone who has taught Religious Education in British schools says the commonest quotation in exam scripts is "Jesus said, 'You are all equal.'" Folk memories and false memories are everywhere.
    I know this is true, because, like George Washington, I cannot tell a lie.)

    Mark B.

  2. Mark, on false Bible quotes, I'd like to add, "The lion will lie down with the lamb."

    Even this is nothing compared with the modern stained glass window in a church which got a whole Bible quote wrong. I can't remember the details, but it was in the Church Times a few years ago. Astonishingly, no one, not even on the board that granted the faculty, noticed til it was in.

  3. Was it that text from the Letter to the Laodiceans, 'Non opertet quod credis si modo sincerus es'?

  4. "oportet"!

    Praevisio Meus Amicus Est

  5. It is nontheless true that evil seeps in, as it were, unless/until opposed by those ... who might oppose it (if we prefer not to call them "good"). Evil is not the norm, but neither is good, so evil does take over, if ... nobody does anything.