Albert Einstein

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What does the quote "The world is too dangerous to live in, not because of the people who do evil, but because of the people who sit and let it happen" mean?

Quick answer:

This quote means that there are very few actively malevolent people, but there are a great many people who are too weak or lazy to challenge evil when they see it, or who refuse to acknowledge that it is happening. These are the people who allow evil to flourish through their inactivity.

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We cannot be quite sure who originally said this, as various sources credit it to either Albert Einstein, Edmund Burke, or John Stuart Mill. Regardless of who said it, it has a meaning that has resonance in every corner of the world. It is a criticism of those who passively stand by and allow evil to happen without doing anything about it.

I would argue that part of the meaning of this quote is an exhortation to be observant. While there may only be a handful of people in the world who would kidnap a child to enslave them, there are plenty more people who live in the same neighborhood as an enslaved child, and by taking the time to notice their surroundings, they could become aware of the problem.

Similarly, people who see but disregard human rights abuses, sexual harassment in the workplace, or even the mistreatment of animals are arguably as guilty as those perpetrating these societal wrongs.

In a nutshell, this quote is arguing that the dangers of this world are caused not by those who would seek to harm us, but by those who turn a blind eye and carry on their everyday lives because they are too indifferent to care.

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Versions of this quotation are attributed to Albert Einstein, John Stuart Mill, and Edmund Burke. As with many pieces of popular wisdom, the number of people who are supposed to have said it is a remark of its general acceptance. The meaning of the quotation is that there are relatively few people who are actively and intentionally evil, but a great many who are apathetic. It is the latter that gives the evil people the opportunity to wield power.

It may be argued that if there were no people doing evil things in the first place, the people who sat and allowed evil to happen would not be a problem. This, however, is not necessarily true. Who, for instance, was the evil genius behind slavery? There is no Hitler or Stalin on whom one can pin the blame for the slave trade. There were individual slave traders, but they merely acquiesced in a system that was already in place. Even the Portuguese merchants who first took slaves from the west coast of Africa were merely continuing a practice which had existed for thousands of years. It took action to abolish the slave trade, and only passivity to continue it when it was well-established. Such participation in evil, exploitative systems is far more often the result of weakness and inertia than it is of actively evil intent.

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This quotation is most commonly attributed to Albert Einstein, but difficult to track down: Wikiquote sources it from a tribute Einstein wrote for Pablo Casals, and gives the translation as "...the world is in greater peril from those who tolerate or encourage evil than from those who actually commit it." This is also a paraphrase of the famous quote attributed to Edmund Burke, "All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing," which is itself unsourced.

Regardless of the origin, the sentiment is one of action vs. inaction. It is not necessary for evil to destroy good, or even to subvert it, but to simply be allowed to continue without opposition. If good men refuse to act within their power to stop evil, they are as responsible for evil's spread as the evildoers themselves. In other words, action is a choice, but inaction is also a choice, and can have just as many consequences; if you stand by and watch a man drown when you could rescue him, you are as guilty of his death as you would be had you held his head underwater. In world events, if evil or corrupt leaders are allowed to act without consequence or comment by honorable leaders, the honorable leaders are (in)directly responsible for those evil actions.

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