The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”― Edmund Burke (in a letter addressed to Thomas Mercer).
Most have heard Burke’s famous observation about how easy it is to allow evil to prosper. His elaboration on the subject is less well known. His 18th century prose style is all that separates Burke’s discourse on the need for people of good will to combine against ‘bad men” from an observation on today’s common behavior.
He wrote the pamphlet that contains the paragraph quoted below to chasten the nepotism of King George III and the bad influence it had of the House of Commons. But substitute mobs in the streets, or on anti-social media, or politicians of easy ethics for that body and it is as topical as sunscreen. Understanding the cause of our current discontents is not less obvious today than a quarter of a millennium ago. Opposing these discontents is similarly ineffective when single, unsupported, desultory, unsystematic, and disunited.
Whilst men are linked together, they easily and speedily communicate the alarm of any evil design. They are enabled to fathom it with common counsel, and to oppose it with united strength. Whereas, when they lie dispersed, without concert, order, or discipline, communication is uncertain, counsel difficult, and resistance impracticable. Where men are not acquainted with each other’s principles, nor experienced in each other’s talents, nor at all practised in their mutual habitudes and dispositions by joint efforts in business; no personal confidence, no friendship, no common interest, subsisting among them; it is evidently impossible that they can act a public part with uniformity, perseverance, or efficacy. In a connection, the most inconsiderable man, by adding to the weight of the whole, has his value, and his use; out of it, the greatest talents are wholly unserviceable to the public. No man, who is not inflamed by vain-glory into enthusiasm, can flatter himself that his single, unsupported, desultory, unsystematic endeavours, are of power to defeat the subtle designs and united cabals of ambitious citizens. When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall, one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.
–Edmund Burke, Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents 82-83 (1770) in: Select Works of Edmund Burke, vol. 1, p. 146 (Liberty Fund ed. 1999).