It Is the Greatest of All Mistakes, To Do Nothing Because You Can Only Do Little

Edmund Burke? Sydney Smith? Bob Geldof? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Trying to solve an enormous problem can be demoralizing. Each action can only achieve a small amount of progress. The following saying is designed to help maintain morale:

Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.

This notion has been credited to Irish philosopher Edmund Burke and English cleric Sydney Smith. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Currently, QI has located no substantive evidence that Edmund Burke employed this saying. Burke died in 1797, and he received credit in 1981.

The earliest match located by QI appeared in the 1850 book “Elementary Sketches of Moral Philosophy” by Reverend Sydney Smith. This posthumous work was based on lectures delivered by Smith at the Royal Institution of London between 1804 and 1806. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

It is the greatest of all mistakes, to do nothing because you can only do little: but there are men who are always clamouring for immediate and stupendous effects, and think that virtue and knowledge are to be increased as a tower or a temple are to be increased, where the growth of its magnitude can be measured from day to day, and you cannot approach it without perceiving a fresh pillar, or admiring an added pinnacle.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1861 “The Age” newspaper of Melbourne, Australia reprinted Smith’s passage containing the saying without attribution: 2

Do What You Can.—It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do little; but there are men who are always clamoring for immediate and stupendous effects, and that virtue and knowledge are to be increased as a tower or a temple are to be increased . . .

In 1862 the “Bristol Times” of England also reprinted the passage containing the saying without attribution. 3

In 1903 “The Irish Monthly” published a collection of sayings under the Latin title “Aurea Dicta”. Smith received credit for the key statement: 4

Remember always in books keep the best company.—Sydney Smith.

It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do little.—The Same.

In 1912 “The Chat” of Brooklyn, New York printed the saying followed by statements that were not in the original text: 5

A great writer once said, “It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because we can only do a little. Do what you can. If you apply this to your work you will succeed.”

The saying continued to circulate in 1975 with an ascription to Sydney Smith in a Louisville, Mississippi newspaper: 6

It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do a little. Do what you can.—Sydney Smith.

In 1981 “As Lambs To The Slaughter: The Facts About Nuclear War” by Paul Rogers, Malcolm Dando, and Peter van den Dungen included a version of the saying attributed to Edmund Burke. This was the earliest ascription to Burke seen by QI. The saying was highlighted by being placed within a box: 7

‘Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.’
Edmund Burke

In 1986 an interview with Irish rock musician Bob Geldof appeared in a Calgary, Canada newspaper. Geldof is best known for organizing anti-poverty efforts via the supergroup Band Aid and the charity concert Live Aid. Geldof attributed the saying to Burke: 8

What I do want to say is this: That Band-Aid worked. You did brilliantly. But never forget what it was all about. The story of Africa continues until such times as we’ve cracked it. Just remember what the great Edmund Burke (an 18th century philosopher) once said. ‘Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.’

In 1999 “The Detroit News” profiled a local automobile executive who was attempting to help needy children in Romania: 9

“No one makes a greater mistake than he who does nothing because he thinks he can only do a little,” Bardell said. “That is my favorite quote, and it is by Edmund Burke, a British statesman.”

In conclusion, Sydney Smith should receive credit for the passage published in 1850 which was based on a speech he delivered at the Royal Institution between 1804 and 1806. QI has not yet found any substantive evidence that Edmund Burke employed this saying.

(Great thanks to Mardy Grothe whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. He operates a valuable website listing many quotations organized by topic.)

Notes:

  1. 1850, Elementary Sketches of Moral Philosophy: Delivered at the Royal Institution, in the Years 1804, 1805, and 1806, By the Late Rev. Sydney Smith, Lecture XIX: On the Conduct of the Understanding – Part II, Quote Page 290 and 291, Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1861 July 27, The Age, Do What You Can (Filler item), Quote Page 7, Column 3, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1862 May 31, Bristol Times, (Untitled article), Quote Page 6, Column 5, Bristol, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  4. 1903 August, The Irish Monthly, Volume 31, Aurea Dicta, Start Page 479, Quote Page 479, M. H. Gill & Son, Dublin. (Google Books Full View) link
  5. 1912 July 11, The Chat, (Filler item), Quote Page 6, Column 7, Brooklyn, New York. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1975 November 6, Winston County Journal, Section 2, The Quiet Corner, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Louisville, Mississippi. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1981, As Lambs To The Slaughter: The Facts About Nuclear War by Paul Rogers, Malcolm Dando, and Peter van den Dungen, Part 4: What Has To Be Done, Chapter 13: What You Can Do, (Quotation in a box at the bottom of the page), Quote Page 269, Arrow Books in association with Ecorpa, London. (Verified with scans)
  8. 1986 February 16, Sunday Herald (Calgary Herald), Section: Calgary Herald Sunday Magazine, Handing over the torch by Ben Wicks, Start Page 6, Quote Page 7, Column 3, Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Newspapers_com)
  9. 1999 May 2, The Detroit News and Free Press, Livonia man begins mission to aid needy kids of Romania by Shawn D. Lewis (The Detroit News), Quote Page 3B, Column 3, Detroit, Michigan. (Newspapers_com)