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.

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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