In looking up famous quotes online, from time-to-time I find that someone has done an extensive mini-study to uncover the truth behind their origins (in fine Straight Dope style), or, in this case, to show the many inexact variations that have evolved through repetition.
An interesting example is the true origin of the mixed quote attributed to Andrew Tytler about the cycle of human freedom, going from bondage to spiritual faith to courage to Liberty to abundance to selfishness to complacency to apathy to dependence and back to bondage. This is often connected with another quote as though the two were originally spoken together, not merely complementary.
An online researcher claims to have tracked these quotes back to their true origins, arguing that they came–most likely–from two ordinary sources, a letter to the editor of a newspaper and a minor professional lecturer. Discovery by more famous people, and repetition in formal settings, created their fame, with Tytler then credited because he said similar things. We can’t credit a pair of unknown squibs with quotable wisdom, can we? I don’t know if the author of this little study was correct, but he’d apparently done his homework and it was fun to follow his evidence and reasoning to their conclusions.
It’s unlikely I’m the only one to notice these mini-studies online, but if the subject interests you, here is another nice example I found today.
The quote is from Edmund Burke, an 18th Century English (Irish) political theorist, philosopher, and politician.
“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”
[Which I would reframe, myself, as: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do too little because it is inconvenient.”]
Here is the website discussing the many variants of Burke’s quote: