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.