It’s a very powerful, motivating statement: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” In a speech, it would get a strong response from the audience. Because it feels true. It is not, however, the best advice for plotting a novel.
Is the Only Thing Necessary for the Triumph of Evil That Good Men Do Nothing?
My main issue with this colloquialism as plot advice is that it suggests that good men doing something will automatically defeat evil. In an emotional, even symbolic, sense, that could be true. In a plot climax, there should be a little more to it. After all, if you’re really plotting against your characters (like you should be), then, the scales are loaded against them.
Participation alone isn’t enough. They have to sweat for it.
Yes, I realize that the main point is that the inaction of good is a guaranteed win for evil (a valuable point), but as far as plot complications go, what if good takes the wrong action? Couldn’t that also help evil win? What if evil anticipates good’s actions and uses it to win? Complications like that make the plot a lot less straight forward and, generally, more interesting.
Of course, the “original” quotes offer slightly different advice.
The “Original” Quotes
I put original in quotes because it’s still somewhat uncertain. According to Quote Investigator, there is no evidence of that exact quote being said or written. But there is evidence of similar quotes by some of the same authors and speakers the saying is attributed to.
Reverend Charles F. Aked
In 1916, Reverend Charles F. Aked said one of the most similar versions when supporting Prohibition.
“It has been said that for evil men to accomplish their purpose, it is only necessary for good men should do nothing.”
I’d say that this one is good for two things plot-wise: 1. inspiration for a motivational speech that relies on emotional appeals and 2. verification that without resistance (A.K.A. conflict), there is no story.
And there’s a part of me that feels like the quote needs a footnote: *Assuming the evil men aren’t totally incompetent. In that case, all bets are off.
The earliest version, and my personal favorite (plot-wise) was recorded in 1770 when Edmund Burke gave a bit of variation on the advice.
“When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.”
This reminds me of “The Hangman” with its emphasis on inaction leading to people falling one by one. This one touches on the point of view of the “bad men” – with their lack of empathy. It also hints at the additional dangers of villains joining forces (generally more dangerous than a single opponent).
Unlike the others, this one also emphasizes the good people working together rather than simply acting. Instead of saying that good people need to do something, it says that they need to do something together. An interesting point.
So why isn’t this quote more famous? It has more depth. It has more important points for people to consider. Wouldn’t that make it more valuable? Wouldn’t that make people more interested in it?
And if you want to check out more possible origins to the saying on Quote Investigator, you’ll find it’s not the only quote with facets that got left out of the saying.
What’s the Takeaway?
I guess there are a couple of big ideas involved in this random babble.
- Shorter words will usually win.
- People respond more to emotional appeals than logical ones.
- People have been misquoting for centuries.
- Popular quotes aren’t always the best plot advice.
Who knew? (Ok, ok. Don’t rub it in.)