Four Principles of Quotation
I find that I am not the first to present the manifold forms of Burke’s
Triumph of Evil quote. Lee Frank had already given his own list,
Earlier in the same Web page, Lee introduces the quote as follows,
- The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to
All that is needed for the forces of evil to triumph is for enough
good men to do nothing.
All that is required for evil to prevail is for good men to do
In order for ‘evil’ to prevail, all that need happen is for ‘good’
people to do nothing.
All that is needed for evil to prevail is for good men to do
The surest way for evil to prevail is for good men to do nothing.
All it will take for evil to prevail is for good people to do
All that is necessary for the forces of evil to take root in the
world is for enough good men to do nothing.
All that is needed for the forces of evil to succeed is for enough
good men to remain silent.
All it takes for Evil to prevail in this world is for enough good
men to do nothing.
The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to
The asterisk at the end of the quote gives a hypertext link to the end
of his essay, where the variant forms he has found are collected.
Here is where you would expect that famous quote from Edmund Burke.
Something like ‘All that’s necessary for the forces of evil to win
in the world is for enough good men to do nothing.’ Not sure of the
exact quote, I looked it up. Here’s what I found: ‘When bad men
combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one,
an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.*’ Not quite the
same thing, but easy to understand the transformation, a good quote
made better by its passing into common wisdom.
Furthermore the quote had already been exposed as bogus in the
alt.quotations newsgroup. Here is Frank Lynch writing on 9 February 1999:
P Caldwell wrote:
> I heard a quote on TV:
> "For evil to triumph it is enough only that good men do nothing".
> Does anyone know who said it or where I can find out?? I love it.
The quote you seek is generally attributed to Edmund Burke, an 18th
Century British Statesman, famous for impeaching Warren Hastings, a book
on the French Revolution ("Reflections on the Revolution In France") and
some fairly liberal positions towards the American colonies. To my
knowledge, no one has ever *found* the quote in any of his writings, and
it remains more elusive than 1943 copper pennies. Your form is close
enough, given that the original has never been found; however, I’ve
usually seen it more in the form of "All that is necessary for the
forces of evil to succeed/triumph is for enough good men to do nothing."
A number of authors on the Web, like Lee Frank, associate the bogus
triumph-of-evil quote with the quite genuine quote about good men
combining, as here,
- And this, I must confess, I find very puzzling. Am I missing
something obvious to everyone else? Because to me the two quotes seem
quite different, both in form and meaning. They only share two words of
any significance, ‘men’ and ‘good’, both of which are common in
general discourse and very common when the discourse is political. The
possible meaning that might be attached to the triumph-of-evil quote,
are fully (perhaps too fully) explored in the first
- IF GOOD MEN FAIL
by David Sisler
‘When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall
one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.’
That quote from Edmund Burke in ‘Thoughts on the Cause of Present
Discontents’ has, in general use, come to be delivered as, ‘The
only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do
Which ever version you prefer, the message is the same: evil will,
therefore good must.
The bad-men-combine quote is about the need to form political groupings
to counter similar formations by one’s adveraries, and has nothing at
all to do with the circumstances under which evil is going to succeed.
Anyway, the complete answer to the origins of the triumph-of-evil quote
is not to be found on the Web, but in a very neat dictionary of
misquotations I have discovered by Paul F Boller and John George called
They never said it (Oxford University Press, 1989).
Boller and George give a number of references, among which are Safire’s
New York Times articles ‘Triumph of Evil’, of 9 March 1980, and
‘Standing Corrected’, of 5 April 1981. So Bartlett’s is the culprit,
and the invention as recent as the 60s of the last century. It would
seem in fact that the yoking together of the triumph-of-evil quote with
the bad-men-combine quote goes back to Ms Beck. The two quotes often
occur side-by-side on internet quote lists, which is probably why
people assume one must be a paraphrase of the other.
The much-quoted triumph-of-evil statement appeared in the 14th
edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations (1968), with a letter
Burke wrote William Smith on January 9, 1795, given as the source.
But the letter to Smith was dated January 29, 1795, and it said
nothing about the triumph of evil. When New York Times columnist
William Safire asked Emily Morrison Beck, editor of the 15th
edition of Bartlett’s, about the source, she acknowledged she
hadn’t located the statement in Burke’s writings ‘so far’, but
suggested it might be a paraphrase of something Burke said in a
speech he gave in 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.’ Safire thought her
suggestion was a ‘pretty long stretch,’ but she included it in her
introduction to the new edition of Bartlett’s.
Boller and George’s little book is a fascinating read. Their preface
traces the history of quotes in the USA as instruments of political
rhetoric. First their use, then their misuse, and finally their
invention. The purely mendacious activity of conscious quote-faking
they associate with the political right,
And certainly tracing the triumph-of-evil quote over the Web does keep
taking you far more often than you would like to extreme rightist pages
from the USA - John Birchers, libertarians, gun nuts,
pro-life extremists of the abortion debate, and so on.
The heart of darkness of the world wide web.
Radicals have plenty of quotations from Karl Marx, anyway, and
probably see no need to add to the Marxist treasure-house. Extreme
rightists in America have a real problem, in any case; they would
like to cite the Founding Fathers, but rarely find what they want
in Franklin, Washington, and Jefferson. Hence the quote-faking.
The bad-men-combine quote is interesting because here we can see a
genuine quote of Burke’s, and monitor the extent of its misuse. By an
odd coincidence it comes from same work of Burke quoted at the end of
the ‘Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents’. Let us look at
it exactly in context. Here is Burke in full flood, employing his usual
A bit of background: eighteenth century politics in England was
dominated by the opposition of two groups, the Whigs and the Tories.
What they believed need not concern us here, although it is worth
emphasising that their ideas do not have a simple map into the
left/right divide of modern European politics. The Whigs were the
dominant party, or at least they had been from about 1715 up to the
time when Burke was writing in 1770, but in the late 1760s the power
structure established by the Whigs was beginning to crumble. Burke was
a Whig, and is calling on the Whigs to unite against a new Tory
power-base that had grown up around George III under the Earl of
Bute, which was extra-parliamentary, and therefore, to Burke,
unconstitutional. Whig power was held together not by a modern party
structure, but by a system of patronage and influence that ran from top
to bottom of society, and Burke is urging the Whigs to unite into a
party to combat the new Tory threat. The bad men are the Tories. The
good men are the Whigs. The fall of the good men would be their fall
from office. The struggle would be contemptible because, without party
unity, they would not stand a chance, and they would be
unpitied because their adveraries would be merciless.
Whilst men are linked together, they easily and speedily
communicate the alarm of any evil design. They are enabled to
fathom it with common counsel, and to oppose it with united
strength. Whereas, when they lie dispersed, without concert, order,
or discipline, communication is uncertain, counsel difficult, and
resistance impracticable. Where men are not acquainted with each
other’s principles, nor experienced in each other’s talents, nor at
all practised in their mutual habitudes and dispositions by joint
efforts in business; no personal confidence, no friendship, no
common interest, subsisting among them; it is evidently impossible
that they can act a public part with uniformity, perseverance, or
efficacy. In a connection, the most inconsiderable man, by adding
to the weight of the whole, has his value, and his use; out of it,
the greatest talents are wholly unserviceable to the public. 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.
The bad-men-combine quote is therefore a call for politicians to unite
into parties. Of course, modern politicians do this automatically, and
don’t require encouragement from Burke or from anyone else.
If we look at its use on the web, we find that, in a sample of 100 pages
where it occurs: -
- 40 of the pages are made up entirely of lists of quotes.
- 46 of the pages contain the quote, but it is presented as a kind of
banner, usually at the top or bottom of the page. In other words it is
out of context, and we cannot tell what meaning the quoter thinks it
- 6 pages contain the quote with sufficient context for it to be clear
that it has been understood correctly.
- 8 pages contain the quote with sufficient context for it to be clear
that it has been understood incorrectly.
Unfortunately the pages where it is understood tend be ‘specialist’
pages, often devoted to Burke studies. The pages where it is
misunderstood are those of general interest, which suggests that unless
you have read the original quote in Burke you are liable misunderstand
Here is a typical example of its misuse:
What the heroes need to help them associate against the bad men is,
in this context, armaments and military support. Burke’s quote is no
longer about making effective parties, but making effective armies, and
the falling one by one is not loss of office, but death in battle.
- Today there are brave men and women fighting for their freedom and
independence against great odds. In Afghanistan, in Angola, and in
Nicaragua, lightly armed freedom fighters face Soviet tanks,
artillery, and helicopter gunships. Edmund Burke, that great
British statesman who championed the cause of American
independence, once wrote, ‘When bad men combine, the good must
associate; else they may fall one by one ...’ Well, today, we
cannot sit back and idly watch as the new imperialism grinds down
courageous people fighting for their liberty. We must give those
heroes what they need, not just to fight and die for freedom but to
win for freedom.
The quoter is President Reagan, in a speech of 6 February 1986. A few
days later (20 February), he used the same device in a speech made in
Granada, a country the USA had recently invaded,
The meaning is extended to include military invasion. The President
- Edmund Burke, a British parliamentarian who championed the cause of
American independence, once wrote, ‘When bad men combine, the good
must associate; else they will fall one by one ...’ Well, those
words still ring true. That’s why we came to your aid.
Can we learn anything from all this? Going back to the triumph-of-evil
quote, we may ask, how can we defend ourselves from the bogus quote? It
is clearly unreasonable for anyone to have to prove a quote bogus.
This Burke quote, for example, is, I am certain, bogus,
And that is why the United States must help those struggling for
freedom in Nicaragua. In the cause of liberty, all free people are
part of the same family. We should stand together as brothers and
sisters. And if we do, the Nicaraguan people will be able to free
themselves from Communist tyranny and win the liberty that you now
enjoy in Grenada.
But to prove it, you would need to read through the complete works of
Burke and note its absence. Even this would not be conclusive proof.
Official ‘Complete Works’ are rarely complete. And it could always be
argued that Burke said it, but never wrote it down, after which it was
handed down in a little-known but trustworthy oral tradition, to emerge
at the beginning of the 21st century on a couple of isolated web pages
in some remote corner of the internet. It should therefore be the
responsibility of the quoter to prove a quote genuine.
- The hottest fires in hell are reserved for those who
remain neutral in times of moral crisis
--- Edmund Burke
I therefore formulate and offer to the world the following Principles
for Quotations, two for quoters and two for readers, which, if
universally followed, would make an immense improvement to the
reliability of the information available on the world wide web.
- Principle 1 (for readers)
- Whenever you see a quotation given with an author but no source assume
that it is probably bogus.
- Principle 2 (for readers)
- Whenever you see a quotation given with a full source assume that it is
probably being misused, unless you find good evidence that the quoter
has read it in the source.
- Principle 3 (for quoters)
- Whenever you make a quotation, give the exact source.
- Principle 4 (for quoters)
- Only quote from works that you have read.