Every two minutes on Twitter, someone tweets, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing” and wrongly attributes it to Edmund Burke. Burke never said any such thing. But the myth persists.
I’ve long wanted to write an essay on this phenomenon of wrongly attributed statements. If you dig, you often find that no one famous ever said anything like it. Obviously someone had to say it, at some point, but whoever he or she is, is lost to memory.
I first came across this phenomenon in 2000 when I was writing a piece for Lingua Franca. You know that saying (or some version thereof): Whoever is not a liberal [or a socialist or a progressive] when he is twenty has no heart; whoever is not a conservative when he is thirty has no brain? Everyone always says it was Churchill. It wasn’t. No one said it. Or least, again, no one famous. I even called the editor of Bartlett’s Quotations, whoever it was at the time (Justin Kaplan?), and he had no idea who had said it.
Since then, I’ve stumbled upon many more of these. One of my favorites is “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” General MacArthur cited it in his 1962 address at West Point and said it was from Plato. Nope. But the Imperial War Museum and Ridley Scott (Black Hawk Down) also claim Plato said it (the museum actually has the words, with the Plato attribution, carved into one of its facades). Still nope. Something sort of, kind of, like this was once said by Santayana, but not this.
At first, the whole thing annoyed me. You think someone said x, because everyone always says s/he did, and then you look it up just so you can get a citation, only to find that you can’t find the citation. So you look and look, only to find that that someone most definitely did not say x (or at least not that anyone knows of). So then, if you’re an obsessive like me, you keep looking because at this point you want to know who said the damn thing. Only to find out that no one knows who said it. And then, and only then, do you realize, once again, but as always too late, that you’ve fallen into the rabbit hole of the Wrongly Attributed Statement (WAS).
But the more I’ve thought about the WAS the more charming I’ve found it. Because in many ways the WAS is a tribute to the democratic genius of the crowd. Someone famous says something fine—Burke did write, in his Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents, “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle”—and some forgotten wordsmith, or more likely wordsmiths, through trial and error, refashions it over time into something finer: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” Which is really quite fine.
The false attribution: it’s our democratic poetry.
Update (May 6, 9:45 am)
So Santayana did in fact say “Only the dead have seen the end of war.” Thanks to commenter Bill for pointing that out. I actually had written that in the footnote of the paper to which I linked above, but for some reason I had forgotten that he in fact said exactly that. In my memory he had said a version of that. I am not immune!
Henry Farrell emails me that apparently Robert Merton, as with so many other things, was there first. In his book On the Shoulders of Giants. From the jacket copy:
With playfulness and a large dose of wit, Robert Merton traces the origin of Newton’s aphorism, “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Using as a model the discursive and digressive style of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, Merton presents a whimsical yet scholarly work which deals with the questions of creativity, tradition, plagiarism, the transmission of knowledge, and the concept of progress.
Update (10:45 am)
On FB, Jeff Shoulson wrote this:
It’s also interesting how the WAS in its democratic form is both different from and related to the renaissance humanist posture of sprezzatura, the fashion of sprinkling your speeches with pseudo-quotations of famous writers that are deliberately inaccurate so as to convince your audience that you hadn’t looked them up the night before to impress them.
Sprezzatura! Sprezzatura! Cue Lee Siegel!