No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

Clare Boothe Luce? Oscar Wilde? Walter Map? Marie Belloc Lowndes? James Agate? Leo Pavia? Walter Winchell? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: For centuries moral philosophers have propounded a conventional viewpoint about the rewards and punishments delivered by a deity. Here is an example from the “Summa Theologica” by Saint Thomas Aquinas who lived during the 13th century: 1

For as punishment is to the evil act, so is reward to a good act. Now no evil deed is unpunished, by God the just judge. Therefore no good deed is unrewarded, and so every good deed merits some good.

A comically acerbic statement transforms this perspective. Here are two versions:

  • Every good deed brings its own punishment.
  • No good deed goes unpunished.

These words are often attributed to playwright and diplomat Clare Boothe Luce and to the famous wit Oscar Wilde. Would you please explore the provenance of this saying?

Quote Investigator: Clare Boothe Luce did receive credit for the saying by 1949, but the attribution was weak because the phrase had been circulating for multiple years before that date. Also, the saying was implausibly assigned in 1972 to Oscar Wilde who had died in 1900. Details are given further below.

Courtier Walter Map wrote “De Nugis Curialium” (“Courtiers’ Trifles”) in the 12th century. The Medieval Latin text was translated into English and published by an Oxford University scholar in 1923. Map described the actions of Eudo who was a rapacious adherent of an inverted morality. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2

He put the worst of men to command the bad, he gave additional authority and power to those who were wickedest in their attacks on the innocent, and promoted over all others those to whom pity was unknown. He spared none of his band who inclined to spare any, left no good deed unpunished, no bad one unrewarded; and when he could find no rival and no rebel on earth, like Capaneus, he challenged opposition from heaven. He spoiled churchyards, violated churches, and desisted not either for fear of the living or respect for the dead…

The passage above contained a match for the saying under examination, but it was not really in proverbial form. It was a remark about one person or about a class of wicked people instead of a general adage.

In August 1927 the prominent author Marie Belloc Lowndes published a short story in “The Windsor Magazine” titled “A Breaker of Hearts” which included an interesting precursor statement. Lowndes referred to “kindness” which is one type of “good deed”: 3

“Are you doing a wise thing, Laura? It’s dangerous work, you know, bringing about a marriage between middle-aged people. The couple don’t always thank you afterwards.”

“Kindness,” said the Duchess thoughtfully, “often brings its own punishment. But I don’t think it will in this case!”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In October 1927 Lowndes employed the saying again when she published a different short story In “The Windsor Magazine”. She placed the statement between quotation marks. She may have been signaling that it was already in circulation, or she may have been attempting to popularize her own expression by highlighting it: 4

“Few women are as foolishly generous as you are. Do remember that ‘kindness brings its own punishment.'”

In 1938 drama critic James Agate published “Ego 8” which was the eighth volume in a series based on his diaries. Agate credited his friend Leo Pavia who was a concert pianist with an instance of the saying. This was the earliest strong match known to QI: 5

Pavia was in great form to-day: “Every good deed brings its own punishment.”

In 1942 the widely syndicated columnist Walter Winchell attributed an instance particularized to Washington to unnamed diplomats: 6

Reminds me of the line diplomats use: “No good deed goes unpunished in Washington.”

In 1949 an article published in Cumberland, Maryland 7 and Miami, Florida attributed the saying to Clare Boothe Luce: 8

From these unique surroundings she is forever doing “just a small favor” for friends or strangers, which invariably turn into a big favor or money-consuming effort. Yet Mrs. Luce is reported to have said, with a philosophical smile—“No good deed goes unpunished.”

In 1972 a syndicated columnist credited Oscar Wilde with an instance: 9

“No good deed goes unpunished,” said Oscar Wilde, and the decent, enlightened humanitarian approach of Americans by big cities has made of them the catchdrain of the poor of the nation.

In conclusion, in the 12th century a malevolent figure was described as follows: he “left no good deed unpunished, no bad one unrewarded”. In 1927 Marie Belloc Lowndes wrote the saying “kindness brings its own punishment”. In 1938 Leo Pavia received credit for the expression “Every good deed brings its own punishment”, and in 1942 Walter Winchell credited unnamed diplomats with “No good deed goes unpunished in Washington”. Future researchers may discover additional illuminating citations.

(Great thanks to Wilson Gray, Joseph Brown, and Darkside Johnny whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks to the many researchers who have explored this saying; entries can be found in the “Treasury of Women’s Quotations”, “Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs”, “The Yale Book of Quotations”, “The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs”, Barry Popik’s website, “The Oxford Dictionary of American Quotation”, “Cassell’s Humorous Quotations”, “American Heritage Dictionary of American Quotations”, and many other references. This article adds some citations that QI believes are helpful: Walter Map’s “De Nugis Curialium”, Marie Belloc Lowndes’s 1927 short stories, and the 1949 attribution to Clare Boothe Luce.)

Notes:

  1. 1917, The “Summa Theologica” of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Third Part, Translated by Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Fourth Number (QQ LXXXIV-Suppl. XXXIII), Chapter XIV: Of the Quality of Satisfaction, Quote Page 222,R. & T. Washbourne, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1983, De Nugis Curialium: Courtiers’ Trifles, Author: Walter Map, Edited and Translated by M. R. James, Revised by C. N. L. Brooke and R. A. B. Mynors, Section: Distinctio iv: The Fourth Distinction, Start Page 278, Quote Page 331, (Translation based on 1923 edition by E. Sidney Hartland with notes by Sir John Lloyd; 1983 edition brought together English text and Medieval Latin text), Published: Clarendon Press, Oxford, England. (Verified with hardcopy)
  3. 1927 August, The Windsor Magazine, A Breaker of Hearts by Mrs. Belloc Lowndes, Start Page 297, Quote Page 308 and 309, Ward, Lock & Company, London. (Verified with scans at archive.org)
  4. 1927 October, The Windsor Magazine, A Charming Young Couple by Mrs. Belloc Lowndes, Start Page 525, Quote Page 527, Ward, Lock & Company, London. (Verified with scans at archive.org)
  5. 1938, Ego 3: Being Still More of the Autobiography of James Agate by James Agate, Journal Entry Date: January 25, 1938, Quote Page 275, George G. Harrap & Company, London. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1942 October 2, The Philadelphia Inquirer, On Broadway by Walter Winchell, Quote Page 20, Column 1, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1949 July 22, The Cumberland News, Famous Women’s Favorite Sayings by Francesca Lodge, Quote Page 7, Column 3, Cumberland, Maryland. (Newspapers_com)
  8. 1949 July 27, Miami Daily News, Washington Whirl by Frances Lodge, Quote Page 9A, Column 1, Miami, Florida. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1972 August 7, The El Dorado Times, Plight Of Big Cities Tied To Nation’s Woes by Ernest Cuneo (United Feature Syndicate), Quote Page 4, Column 4, El Dorado, Arkansas. (Newspapers_com)