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.

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


  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

If You Are Not a Liberal at 25, You Have No Heart. If You Are Not a Conservative at 35 You Have No Brain

Edmund Burke? Anselme Batbie? Victor Hugo? King Oscar II of Sweden? George Bernard Shaw? François Guizot? Jules Claretie? Georges Clemenceau? Benjamin Disraeli? Winston Churchill? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Some individuals change their political orientation as they grow older. There is a family of sayings that present a mordant judgment on this ideological evolution. Here are three examples:

Not to be a républicain at twenty is proof of want of heart; to be one at thirty is proof of want of head.

If you’re not a socialist before you’re twenty-five, you have no heart; if you are a socialist after twenty-five, you have no head.

If you aren’t a liberal when you’re young, you have no heart, but if you aren’t a middle-aged conservative, you have no head.

Political terminology has changed over time, and it differs in distinct locales. Within the context of these sayings the terms “républicain”, “socialist”, and “liberal” were all on the left of the political spectrum. Would you please explore this complex topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in a history book titled “Histoire de la Révolution de 1870-71” by French literary figure Jules Claretie. The book included a reprint of a public 1872 letter from academic and politician Anselme Polycarpe Batbie who employed the saying. Interestingly, Batbie, credited the remark to “Burke”. Below is an excerpt in French followed by an English translation. Boldface has been added: 1

Plusieurs de mes amis m’engageaient à répondre par le trait célèbre de Burke: « Celui qui n’est pas républicain à vingt ans fait douter de la générosité de son âme; mais celui qui, après trente ans, persévère, fait douter de la rectitude de son esprit. »

Several of my friends urged me to respond with Burke’s famous line: “Anyone who is not a republican at twenty casts doubt on the generosity of his soul; but he who, after thirty years, perseveres, casts doubt on the soundness of his mind.”

Batbie was probably referring to the statesman Edmund Burke who was noted for his support of the American Revolution and his later condemnation of the French Revolution. However, QI has not located the quotation under investigation in the writings of Burke. Anselme Batbie lived between 1828 and 1887.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading If You Are Not a Liberal at 25, You Have No Heart. If You Are Not a Conservative at 35 You Have No Brain


  1. 1874, Histoire de la Révolution de 1870-71 par Jules Claretie, Livre Second, Chapitre 2, Comment on letter: Le Conservateur du Gers publiait à ce propos la lettre de M. Batbie (On this subject, the Conservateur du Gers published Mr. Batbie’s letter), Letter location: Versailles, Letter date: 3 décembre 1872 (December 3, 1872), Quote Page 482, Column 1, Dépot Général de Vente a la Librairie Polo, Paris, France. (HathiTrust Full View) link

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]