As I understand it, the first phrase is common. I'm afraid, I don't understand why is necessary the second "for" here (in bold). I think "to" is necessary here because "good men" isn't the subject, but the object.

The second phrase is mine. Does that sound good? Do you use only the first version as a standard phrase? Maybe you usually shorten this phrase like me. I think the second phrase has the same meaning as the original.

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.

For the triumph of evil needs good people to do nothing.

  • 2
    The "for" and the "needs" conflict in your version. It could be "The triumph of evil needs good people to do nothing." or "For evil to triumph, good people need only do nothing (refrain from acting)."
    – ColleenV
    Commented Aug 11, 2021 at 12:57
  • "For" is required. The basic construction is It is necessary for [something to happen]. Commented Aug 11, 2021 at 13:46
  • @ColleenV, Why in your first sentence is "to do nothing", but in the second "need only do nothing" (without to)? Could you explain it, please?
    – Sergei
    Commented Aug 12, 2021 at 8:06
  • I didn’t write an answer because I’m not exactly sure how to explain it :) This might help with “need only” : ell.stackexchange.com/q/72208/9161 I could have said “needs good people only to do nothing”. There are a lot of ways to paraphrase it, and some choices might sound more like a “proverb” than others.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Aug 12, 2021 at 9:52

1 Answer 1


It is not a “standard phrase” but a quotation from Edmund Burke. (I have not read enough Burke to identify the exact source from memory.) We do not misquote quotations because we do not like their style. Burke’s is the high literary style of the eighteenth century.

Your rewriting is not grammatical. Here is a grammatical version:

The triumph of evil requires that good men do nothing.

However, that rendering does not express the original meaning.

The triumph of evil requires only that good men do nothing

Your analysis of the grammar of the original is wrong. “For good men to do nothing” is the complement to “necessary.” The grammar is hard to decipher because Burke plays with word order, ellipsis, and the wide field of usage of “for” to render an implausibly optimistic thought memorable and plausible. Here is a slightly revised version that makes the grammar and logic easier to analyze.

[In order] for evil to triumph, it is [both sufficient and] necessary for good men to do nothing.

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