T. S. Eliot? Ayn Rand? Reinhold Niebuhr? Isabel Paterson? Krister Stendahl? C. S. Lewis? June Bingham? Paul Simon? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: Tyrannical systems are often created by people who believe that they have the highest and noblest intentions. Totalitarian countries, theocratic dictatorships, and abusive cults are typically founded and promoted by those who are convinced that their actions will benefit humankind. Here is a pertinent adage about self-deception and fallibility:
Most of the evil in this world is done by people with good intentions.
The above statement has been attributed to the famous poet and playwright T.S. Eliot, but I have never seen a solid citation. Would you please explore this topic?
Quote Investigator: There is no evidence that T. S. Eliot wrote or spoke the statement above. On the other hand, he did write two thematically related remarks which are presented further below.
The viewpoint of the adage can be expressed in many different ways which makes it very difficult to trace. A match occurred in 1914 within a trade journal called “The Creamery and Milk Plant Monthly”. A section presenting miscellaneous news stories included a short item discussing milk pasteurization. The anonymous author of the item wrote the following. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1
But the fact is, that the greatest harm in the world has been done by people with good intentions. The bad ones seldom have power enough to do great harm.
Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.
T. S. Eliot collaborated on a play titled “The Rock” which was first performed in 1934. In 1936 a collection of poems from Eliot included choruses from “The Rock”. The following thematic match appeared: 2
O Lord, deliver me from the man of excellent intention and impure heart: for the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked.
In 1943 journalist and political philosopher Isabel Paterson published “The God of the Machine” which contained the following passage: 3
Most of the harm in the world is done by good people, and not by accident, lapse, or omission. It is the result of their deliberate actions, long persevered in, which they hold to be motivated by high ideals toward virtuous ends. This is demonstrably true; nor could it occur otherwise. The percentage of positively malignant, vicious, or depraved persons is necessarily small, for no species could survive if its members were habitually and consciously bent upon injuring one another.
The individualist philosopher Ayn Rand wrote an entry in her personal journal in 1945 that included a match: 4
In effect, fools say that all the problems, personal and political, can be solved by finding “men of good will.” But the “good” is never defined. And actually, most of the evil in this world is done by and through “good” intentions. The cause of evil is stupidity, not malice.
In 1961 author June Bingham published “Courage to Change: An Introduction to the Life and Thought of Reinhold Niebuhr”. The author and her husband encountered the influential theologian Niebuhr during a conference held in Spring 1949. They spoke together during a multi-hour train ride after the conference. Niebuhr employed an instance of the saying during this 1949 conversation according to Bingham: 5
“Most of the evil in this world,” Niebuhr continued, “does not come from evil people. It comes from people who consider themselves good.”
How do you mean?”
“The worst evil,” he said, “is a corruption of the good. You might even say that evil is a parasite on the good.”
Also in 1949 fantasy writer and lay theologian C. S. Lewis published an essay titled “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment” which included a thematic match: 6
Of all tyrannies a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
T. S. Eliot’s play “The Cocktail Party” was first performed in 1949, and the script was published in 1950. A thematic match to the statement under exploration occurred in the lines delivered by a character named Sir Henry Harcourt-Reilly: 7
Half of the harm that is done in this world
Is due to people who want to feel important.
They don’t mean to do harm—but the harm does not interest them.
Or they do not see it, or they justify it
Because they are absorbed in the endless struggle
To think well of themselves.
In 1958 an editorial in “The Odessa American” of Texas included an instance of the saying: 8
Thus we conclude that most of the evil in the world is done by good people. It is done by good people under the impression that what they do is good. When evil ensues, it is because good people have used bad methods to obtain what they think is good.
In 1965 an editorial in a Harlingen, Texas newspaper presented an interpretation of the thought expressed in Paterson’s 1943 book: 9
Isabel Paterson brings out this point very well in her book, “God of the Machine.” She points out in the chapter entitled, “The Humanitarian with the Guillotine,” that most of the evil in the world is actually instigated by “good” people, in their frantic effort to compel conformity by all others.
In 1969 “The Cincinnati Enquirer” of Ohio reported on a conference during which the Dean of the Harvard Divinity School Krister Stendahl spoke. He employed a version of the saying: 10
“It seems to me that most of the evil is being done by good people. People of goodwill have always irritated me because they get involved in living by qualities and setting standards they really have not earned.”
In 1976 Krister Stendahl published a collection of essays including “Judgment and Mercy” which contained this passage 11
Nobody can come to grips with the drama of history unless he recognizes that most of the evil in this world is done by people who do it for good purposes.
Stendahl presented a theological elaboration of the statement:
Real evil in this world happens when Satan disguises himself as an angel of light (2 Cor. 11:14). Real evil in this world consists in evil being done for good, for humanity, for freedom, for ideology, or for any of the other pseudo-gods of human life.
In 1984 U.S. Congressman Paul Simon published “Politics and Morality in the Nation’s Capital”. He referenced the remark by Niebuhr, and the accompanying footnote pointed to the 1961 book by June Bingham: 12
I believe, a general awareness of the validity of Reinhold Niebuhr’s statement, “Most of the evil in this world does not come from evil people. It comes from people who consider themselves good.”
In conclusion, the earliest match for this saying located by QI appeared within an anonymous news item in a trade journal. T. S. Eliot did not employ this saying although he did make two thematically related remarks. Isabel Paterson, Ayn Rand, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Krister Stendahl all employed versions of the saying based on substantive citations, but the adage was already in circulation.
Image Notes: Angel and devil icons from OpenIcons at Pixabay.
(Great thanks to Catholic Thinker, Terry Teachout, and Matuzak whose exchange on twitter led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to the International T. S. Eliot Society whose webpage on “Popular Quotes Attributed to T. S. Eliot” noted that the statement under exploration had been misattributed to Eliot. The webpage also listed Eliot’s two thematic matches.)
Update History: On December 22, 2019 the C.S. Lewis citation was added.
- 1914 November, The Creamery and Milk Plant Monthly, Volume 3, Number 3, Knowledge, zeal and efficiency, Quote Page 45, Column 1, National Milk Publishing Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1936, Collected Poems 1909-1935 by T. S. Eliot, (Thomas Stearns Eliot), Choruses from “The Rock”, Section V, Quote Page 194, Harcourt, Brace and Company, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1943 Copyright, The God of the Machine by Isabel Paterson, Chapter 20: The Humanitarian With the Guillotine, Quote Page 235, G. P. Putnam’s Sons, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1999, Journals of Ayn Rand, Edited by David Harriman, Journal Entry Date: June 3, 1945, Quote Page 277, A Plume Book: Penguin Putman, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1961, Courage to Change: An Introduction to the Life and Thought of Reinhold Niebuhr by June Bingham, Chapter 1: The Speaker, Quote Page 8, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1970, God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics by C. S. Lewis (Clive Staples Lewis), Edited by Walter Hooper, Chapter 4: The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment, (Note: “The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment” first appeared in “20th Century: An Australian Quarterly Review”, vol. III, No. 3 (1949), pp. 5-12), Start Page 287, Quote Page 292, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, Michigan. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1950, The Cocktail Party: A Comedy by T. S. Eliot (Thomas Stearns Eliot), Quote Page 99, Faber and Faber, London. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1958 July 29, The Odessa American, Editorial: Good and Evil, Quote Page 16, Column 1, Odessa, Texas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1965 January 31, Valley Morning Star, Individuals Have Right To Err Under Freedom, Quote Page C8, Column 1, Harlingen, Texas. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1969 May 18, The Cincinnati Enquirer, Value System Must Change, Three Claim by Allen Howard (The Enquirer Staff), Quote Page 6A, Column 3, Cincinnati, Ohio. (Newspapers_com) ↩
- 1976 Copyright, Paul Among Jews and Gentiles and Other Essays by Krister Stendahl, Chapter: Judgment and Mercy, Quote Page 105 and 106, Fortress Press, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Amazon Look Inside) ↩
- 1984, The Glass House: Politics and Morality in the Nation’s Capital by Paul Simon, Chapter 8: Religion, Quote Page 84, The Continuum Publishing Company, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩