FACT CHECK: Did Edmund Burke Pen This Quote On The ‘Triumph Of Evil’?
An image shared on Facebook claimed that philosopher Edmund Burke once said, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”
While this maxim has been attributed to Burke since at least the 1920s, it appears nowhere in his written works and is widely considered spurious.
In 1961, President John F. Kennedy spoke before the Canadian Parliament, capping off his speech with a popular expression: “As the great parliamentarian Edmund Burke said, ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.'”
However, this saying, which predates Kennedy’s presidency and continues to be shared to this day, cannot be found in any of Burke’s writings.
According to the website Quote Investigator, the expression was attributed to Burke in the 14th edition of “Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations,” erroneously citing a letter from 1795, but the book was later amended.
“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,” Ralph Keyes, author of the book “The Quote Verifier,” wrote on the subject.
What Burke did say was, “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.” Published in 1770, this may be the inspiration for the quotation that appears in the meme.
The saying bears closer resemblance to the words of English philosopher John Stuart Mill, who in the 1860s wrote, “Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.”
Isaac Kramnick, a professor emeritus at Cornell University who has studied Burke, told The Daily Caller in an email, “I know the quote. I know it’s attributed to Burke. But I know that I have never seen it in his oeuvre.”
Jesse Norman, a member of the British Parliament who authored a book on the philosopher, told the Caller, “As far as I am aware Burke never said this.”
Etymologist Barry Popik has found attributions to Burke dating back to 1920.