Bill O’Reilly started his most recent column “The Triumphant [sic] of Evil” [http://www.billoreilly.com/newslettercolumn?pid=31593; accessed 24 March 2011 at 9:00 p.m. PDT] with the following: “We begin with a quote from Edmond [sic] Burke: ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’ ”
This oft-repeated quotation strikes me as yet another reason to avoid phrases we are used to reading, as George Orwell counseled us in “Politics and the English Language.” The quoted language makes little sense and is not true. Other than that and the spelling of Mr. Burke’s first name, Mr. O’Reilly got off to a flying start.
I presume that what Mr. O’Reilly thinks that “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” might mean is “When good people do nothing, evil is more likely to triumph over good.” Mr. Orwell would have preferred that straightforward, less pretentious sentence, I suspect.
That straightforward sentiment is not what the quoted sentence states, however. Reading Mr. Burke in a literal manner, I cannot make sense of this sentence. Evil can triumph in many ways, some unrelated to the passivity or activity of good people. By contrast, many times good people have done all that humans could only to have evil triumph. [See the movie “Valkyrie” for an example.]
So let’s translate “The only thing necessary …” into “A sufficient condition for evil to triumph is … .” But is that true? I believe that good men have on occasion done nothing yet evil failed to triumph.
Moreover, it would help matters if, when good people do something, the something has some efficacy. “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing,” then, ignores that evil can triumph when good people behave stupidly.