Most of the Evil in This World Is Done by People with Good Intentions

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.

Continue reading Most of the Evil in This World Is Done by People with Good Intentions

Notes:

  1. 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

The Very Existence of Libraries Affords the Best Evidence That We May Yet Have Hope for the Future of Man

T. S. Eliot? Jayne Ann Krentz? Alan Bennett? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The Nobel laureate T. S. Eliot apparently stated that the establishment of libraries provided compelling evidence that humanity had a future. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: The renowned poet T. S. Eliot died in 1965, and the earliest match known to QI appeared many years later in 1992 within the novel “Perfect Partners” by Jayne Ann Krentz who started her career as a librarian before she become a top-selling romance author. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Since the days of ancient Alexandria libraries had stood for all the best that mankind could achieve.

The very existence of libraries held out hope for the future of the human race, as far as Letty was concerned. If people had enough sense to collect and store information and make it available to everyone, perhaps they would someday have enough sense to use that wisdom to stop wars and find a cure for cancer.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Very Existence of Libraries Affords the Best Evidence That We May Yet Have Hope for the Future of Man

Notes:

  1. 1992, Perfect Partners by Jayne Ann Krentz, Chapter 7, Quote Page 123, Pocket Books: A Division of Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans)

Good Artists Copy; Great Artists Steal

Steve Jobs? Pablo Picasso? T. S. Eliot? W. H. Davenport Adams? Lionel Trilling? Igor Stravinsky? William Faulkner? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The gifted entrepreneur Steve Jobs made some controversial comments about innovation during his career. He expressed strong agreement with the following aphorism which he ascribed to the famous painter Pablo Picasso:

Good artists copy; great artists steal.

Did Picasso really make this remark? Are there other examples of similar statements?

Quote Investigator: An intriguing precursor appeared in an article titled “Imitators and Plagiarists” published in The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1892. The author was W. H. Davenport Adams, and the terminology he used was transposed: “to imitate” was commendable, but “to steal” was unworthy. Adams extolled the works of the famed poet Alfred Tennyson, and presented several examples in which Tennyson constructed his verses using the efforts of his artistic antecedents as a resource. In the following passage Adams referred to his aphorism as a “canon”, and he placed it between quotation marks. Boldface has been added to some excerpts below: 1

Of Tennyson’s assimilative method, when he adopts an image or a suggestion from a predecessor, and works it up into his own glittering fabric, I shall give a few instances, offering as the result and summing up of the preceding inquiries a modest canon: “That great poets imitate and improve, whereas small ones steal and spoil.”

Note that Adams depicted poets who stole harshly, but the adage used by Jobs was accepting of the artist who copied or stole: one was good, and the other was great. Adams concluded his essay with additional praise for Tennyson and a condemnation of plagiarists. Oddly, the word “plagiarizes” was incorporated in later variants of the expression.

In 1920 the major poet T. S. Eliot published “The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism”, and he presented his own version of the maxim. Eliot interchanged the terminology used by Davenport by suggesting that: “to imitate” was shoddy, and “to steal” was praiseworthy. This change moved the expression closer to the modern incarnation employed by Steve Jobs: 2

One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Good Artists Copy; Great Artists Steal

Notes:

  1. 1892 June, The Gentleman’s Magazine, Volume 272, Imitators and Plagiarists (Part 2 of 2) by W. H. Davenport Adams, Start Page 613, Quote Page 627 and 628, Published by Chatto & Windus, Piccadilly, London. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1920, The Sacred Wood: Essays On Poetry and Criticism by T. S. Eliot, Section: Philip Massinger, Quote Page 114, Methuen & Company Ltd., London. (Internet Archive)