Better to Light a Candle Than to Curse the Darkness

Eleanor Roosevelt? Confucius? Chinese Proverb? William L. Watkinson? E. Pomeroy Cutler? James Keller? Oliver Wendell Holmes? Adlai Stevenson? John F. Kennedy? Charles Schulz?

Dear Quote Investigator: I love the emphasis on constructive action in the following saying:

It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.

These words have been attributed to Eleanor Roosevelt, Confucius, and several other people. What do you think?

Quote Investigator: The earliest appearance located by QI occurred in a 1907 collection titled “The Supreme Conquest and Other Sermons Preached in America” by William L. Watkinson. A sermon titled “The Invincible Strategy” downplayed the value of verbal attacks on undesirable behaviors and championed the importance of performing good works. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

But denunciatory rhetoric is so much easier and cheaper than good works, and proves a popular temptation. Yet is it far better to light the candle than to curse the darkness.

In September 1907 Watkinson’s sermon “The Invincible Strategy” was reprinted in a periodical called “China’s Millions” which was published by a Protestant Christian missionary society based in China. 2

Thus, the expression was disseminated to a group of people in China. Nowadays, the words are sometimes ascribed to Confucius or labeled a Chinese proverb, but QI has not found compelling evidence to support that assignment.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading Better to Light a Candle Than to Curse the Darkness


  1. 1907 Copyright, The Supreme Conquest and Other Sermons Preached in America by W. L. Watkinson (William Lonsdale Watkinson), Sermon XIV: The Invincible Strategy, (Romans: xii, 21), Start Page 206, Quote Page 217 and 218, Fleming H. Revell Company, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1907 September, China’s Millions, The Invincible Strategy by Rev. Wm. L. Watkinson, (Sermon printed by special permission of the Methodist Publishing House from the book “The Supreme Conquest” by W. L. Watkinson), Start Page 135, Quote Page 137, Column 2, Morgan and Scott, London. (Google Books Full View) link

The Hottest Places in Hell Are Reserved for Those Who in a Period of Moral Crisis Maintain Their Neutrality

Dante Alighieri? John F. Kennedy? John A. Hutton? Theodore Roosevelt? W. M. Vines? Henry Powell Spring? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Dante Alighieri composed the famous tripartite epic poem “The Divine Comedy”. The following statement was supposedly included in the first part called “Inferno”:

The hottest places in Hell are reserved for those who in time of moral crisis preserve their neutrality.

I have been unable to find this expression in any English translations of the poem. One webpage at Goodreads asserts that President John F. Kennedy attributed the remark to Dante. Another webpage at Goodreads claims that civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. made the ascription to Dante. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Dante’s poem does include a section describing the fate of individuals who were neutral between good and evil. Their experiences were gruesome, but they were not placed in a location that was scorching hot.

Dante placed Satan at the lowest part of Hell which was at the center of the Earth, but that location was also not hot. Instead, Satan was trapped with ice around his waist.

QI believes that the statement under investigation evolved in a multistep process from a changing and imperfect interpretation of Dante’s work. In 1915 Theodore Roosevelt accurately wrote that Dante had “reserved a special place of infamy” for neutral angels. In 1917 a religious orator named W. M. Vines incorrectly stated that Dante had placed neutral individuals “in the lowest place in hell”.

In 1944 the spiritual writer Henry Powell Spring penned a book of aphorisms that included a statement ascribed to Dante that closely matched the modern quotation. John F. Kennedy used the saying several times in speeches in the 1950s and later. Kennedy also attributed the remark to Dante.

The remainder of this article consists of two main sections. First, selected citations are used to trace the expression chronologically. Second, a group of citations presents examples of the proposed denizens of the “worst place in hell”, “the hottest place in hell”, and “the very heart of hell”.

Thanks to top researcher Barry Popik for his valuable pioneering exploration of this topic. 1

Continue reading The Hottest Places in Hell Are Reserved for Those Who in a Period of Moral Crisis Maintain Their Neutrality


  1. Website: The Big Apple, Article title: “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who…maintain their neutrality”, Date on website: November 21, 2009, Website description: Etymological dictionary with more than 10,000 entries. (Accessed barrypopik on January 14, 2015) link

Life Isn’t Fair, But Government Must Be

Ann Richards? John F. Kennedy? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a new one-woman play titled “ANN” about Ann Richards who was the Governor of Texas in the 1990s. The theatrical presentation contains a memorable line about her philosophy of government. I am not sure if I remember it exactly, but the statement is similar to this:

Life isn’t fair, but government should be.

Did Ann Richards say this? When? When I searched I found some people claiming JFK said this.

Quote Investigator: Ann Richards was sworn in as governor of Texas on January 15, 1991, and she delivered a speech during the inauguration festivities that was reported on the next day in the San Antonio Express-News. The expression she spoke differed by one word from the phrase given in the query: 1

Focusing on her campaign themes of “A New Texas” and giving the government back to the people, Richards said, “There is nothing more fundamentally important to me than the understanding that this administration exists to serve the taxpayers.”

“Life isn’t fair, but government must be,” she said.

Interestingly, the Houston Chronicle also reported on the inauguration festivities and presented a line spoken by Richards; however, the wording was slightly different. The word “absolutely” was included: 2

Richards, in summoning the slain president’s memory, said: “Years ago, John Kennedy said that ‘Life isn’t fair.’ Life is not fair, but government absolutely must be.”

QI has not heard an audio recording of the speech by Richards and does not know which transcript is accurate. It is also conceivable that Richards employed the saying more than once on inauguration day. If she did say it twice, perhaps both versions were accurate.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Life Isn’t Fair, But Government Must Be


  1. 1991 January 16, San Antonio Express-News, “New governor vows return of government for the people” by Bruce Davidson, Page 1A, San Antonio, Texas. (NewsBank Access World News)
  2. 1991 January 16, Houston Chronicle, Section: A, “New governor greets the people – Richards, Bullock pledge a ‘New Texas’ by R.G. Ratcliffe and Clay Robison, Quote Page 1, Houston, Texas. (NewsBank Access World News)

What You Do Speaks So Loudly that I Cannot Hear What You Say

John F. Kennedy? Ralph Waldo Emerson? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: In 1960 President John F. Kennedy spoke at that Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City, Utah and used a quotation that he attributed to Ralph Waldo Emerson [JKU]:

What we are speaks louder than what we say, as Emerson said.

I was surprised when I came across this because my favorite saying about hypocrisy is the following:

What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.

I thought these words were written by Emerson, but now I am not so certain. Did Emerson express this idea in more than one way? Did Kennedy employ a misquotation? Surprisingly, I could not find either of these statements in a database of Emerson’s essays. Could you help me to unravel this?

Quote Investigator:The first quotation below is directly from an essay titled “Social Aims” by Ralph Waldo Emerson published in 1875. The other six quotes appeared in the years afterward. Most are credited to Emerson, but one is ascribed to a “great man”, and another is anonymous. It is remarkably commonplace for a popular saying to be simplified and streamlined over time:

1) Don’t say things. What you are stands over you the while, and thunders so that I cannot hear what you say to the contrary.

2) Don’t talk. What you are thunders so loudly above what you say that I cannot hear you.

3) Be still, for what you are stands over you and speaks so loudly I cannot hear what you say.

4) What you are stands over you and thunders, and denies what you say.

5) What you are, thunders so loud that I cannot hear what you say.

6) What you are speaks so loud I can not hear what you say

7) What you do speaks so loud, that I cannot hear what you say.

The ordering of the sayings given above is based on perceived simplification and not chronology. All of these items were published on or before 1900. The last item appeared in a sermon published in 1900, and the parishioners were told that the wisdom emanated from Emerson.

The variant that is the questioner’s favorite is nearly identical to item seven which has been ascribed to Emerson for more than one-hundred years. The words “loud” and “loudly” have been swapped. QI thinks that both quotations presented by the questioner are abridged and simplified forms of what Emerson actually wrote.

This belief concurs with quotation expert Ralph Keyes who identified saying number one above as the likely impetus for the modern sayings numbered six and seven [QVRE]. Here are selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading What You Do Speaks So Loudly that I Cannot Hear What You Say

The Only Thing Necessary for the Triumph of Evil is that Good Men Do Nothing

John F. Kennedy? Edmund Burke? R. Murray Hyslop? Charles F. Aked? John Stuart Mill?

Dear Quote Investigator: Here is a challenge for you. I have been reading the wonderful book “The Quote Verifier” by Ralph Keyes, and he discusses the mixed-up quotations that President John F. Kennedy sometimes declaimed in his speeches. Here is an example of a famous one with an incorrect attribution:

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.

Keyes says that the quote has not been successfully traced: 1

. . . which Kennedy attributed to Edmund Burke and which recently was judged the most popular quotation of modern times (in a poll conducted by editors of The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations). 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.

Will you explore this question?

Quote Investigator: First, “The Quote Verifier” volume has my highest recommendation. The impressive research of Keyes is presented in a fascinating, entertaining, and fun manner.

Edmund Burke died in 1797, and John Stuart Mill died in 1873. Both produced apothegms that are loosely similar to the quotation under investigation but are unmistakably distinct. The earliest known citation showing a strong similarity to the modern quote appeared in October of 1916. The researcher J. L. Bell found this important instance. The maxim appeared in a quotation from a speech by the Reverend Charles F. Aked who was calling for restrictions on the use of alcohol: 2

It has been said that for evil men to accomplish their purpose it is only necessary that good men should do nothing.

QI believes that the full name of Aked was Charles Frederic Aked, and he was a prominent preacher and lecturer who moved from England to America. The same expression was attributed to Aked in another periodical in 1920. Details for this cite are given further below.

The earliest attribution of the modern saying to Edmund Burke was found by top researcher Barry Popik. In July of 1920 a man named Sir R. Murray Hyslop delivered an address at a Congregational church conference that included the following: 3

Burke once said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men should do nothing.”

The search for the origin of this famous quotation has led to controversy. One disagreement involved the important reference book Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and the well-known word maven William Safire.

Below are selected citations in chronological order and a brief discussion of this altercation. Continue reading The Only Thing Necessary for the Triumph of Evil is that Good Men Do Nothing


  1. 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Quote Page 59, 109, and 286, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1916 October 31, San Jose Mercury Herald, Dr. Charles F. Aked On Liquor Traffic, Page 1, Section 2, [Page 9], San Jose, California. (Archive of Americana) (Thanks to Ken Hirsch for pointing out this citation in a post by J. L. Bell at the website Boston 1775; Verified with newspaper scans from Archive of Americana; Thanks to Mike at Duke University for obtaining images from Archive of Americana) link
  3. 1921, Volume of Proceedings of the Fourth International Congregational Council, Held in Boston Massachusetts June 29 – July 6 1920, Address Delivered July 5, 1920 to the International Congregational Council, “Some Present Features of the Temperance Crusade” by Sir R. Murray Hyslop, J. P., Page 166, [The National Council of the Congregational Churches of the United States, New York], The Pilgrim Press, Boston. (Google Books full view) link [Barry Popik’s web page link]