A
 
Web www.artsmart.co.za
A R T S M A R T
arts news from kwazulu-natal

literature
www.artsmart.co.za
enquiries@artsmart.co.za
 A current news
crafts - dance - drama - film & tv - literature
music - supper theatre - visual arts
miscellaneous news - festivals
letters to the editor
home page
archives A
crafts - dance - drama - film & tv - literature
music - supper theatre - visual arts
miscellaneous news - festivals
 

NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2003-09-14)

In no 45 of this series, a few months ago, I mentioned the “avalanche of fraud and corruption” that has manifested itself in South African government at every level. Sadly, it roars on unabated. The most recent case has reached very high levels of government indeed. It involves a deal connected with the purchase of armaments, and implicated in it is Mr X, a local businessman with political connections who has recently been brought to trial in the Durban Magistrate’s Court. Understandably miffed by this turn of events, he addressed the media outside the courtroom after paying his bail. This is how our morning newspaper reported the event:

“Quoting late civil rights activist Martin Luther King, Mr X said: For evil to prevail, good men must remain silent. I will not remain silent, but I will take up David’s sword.”

(The allusion to David’s sword is lost on me. If he had David’s fight with Goliath in mind, David’s weapon of choice was some sort of slingshot, and the sword with which he beheaded Goliath belonged to Goliath, who had no further use for it, being dead. But that is not relevant to our present concerns.)

What is relevant is that the words attributed to Martin Luther King were not his. He was quoting Edmund Burke (1729-1797), the Irish philosopher and statesman. Or was he?

The same issue of the same newspaper (25 August 2003) contained a letter on an unrelated subject from a reader. (He was writing about an armed attack on a church in Cape Town a few years ago.) By an almost incredible coincidence, his letter was not only headed “A David and Goliath story…” but included the same quotation (supposedly) from Edmund Burke. In this case it was given as: “It is necessary only for the good man to do nothing for evil to triumph.”

The sentiment expressed is the same, but the words and the sentence structure could hardly be more different. Does evil prevail or triumph? Do good men (or the good man) remain silent, or do nothing? Must they, or is it necessary that they do? Does the triumph of evil begin the sentence or end it?

Curiosity aroused, I set off in search of the original statement. To my chagrin, my books yielded nothing at all. As a last resort I went to the Internet, and there it was. (I am indebted to The Columbia World of Quotations, 1996, for what follows.) This was the form the statement took: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.

So here we have yet another way of arranging the words to say the same thing. If nothing else, this is a small tribute to the versatility of the English language.

But Columbia had more to say. “Ascribed in various forms to Burke, though never found in his writings. Possibly it is a distillation of the words found in Thoughts on the Cause of the Present Discontents (1770).”

So here is a singular little puzzle. If Burke didn’t write these words, why are they attributed to him? If they are a distillation of Burke’s words, who did the distilling? And why do we all know the statement, in one form or another, so well? Probably, I think, because Martin Luther King quoted it. I can only wonder where he found it, and precisely what it said.

The last word this time must go to our Mr X, addressing the press in our opening paragraph. He ended his statement with this ringing declaration: “Evil is present in society and government. During the trial I will keep my ear to the ground to see if good men stand up.” Good luck, Mr X – that’s a tricky manoeuvre.

Contextually Yours, Ulysses Online.




 A current news
crafts - dance - drama - film & tv - literature
music - supper theatre - visual arts
miscellaneous news - festivals
letters to the editor
home page
archives A
crafts - dance - drama - film & tv - literature
music - supper theatre - visual arts
miscellaneous news - festivals
a co-production by caroline smart services and .durbanet. site credits
copyright © subsists in this page. all rights reserved. [ edit ] copyright details  artsmart