The lesser of two evils

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The term the lesser of two evils has been in use since the 1400s and may be traced to a specific writer, though the concept is probably much older. We will examine the meaning of the phrase the lesser of two evils, where it came from and some examples of its use in sentences.

The expression the lesser of two evils is used when one is confronted with two choices or alternatives, both of them bad. The lesser of two evils means to choose the alternative that is less bad. The term the lesser of two evils may describe a dilemma, which is a difficult problem in which both solutions are deeply flawed. Neither alternative will completely satisfy the chooser, or either alternative will harm the chooser in some fashion. The idiom between a rock and a hard place is somewhat similar as it means being faced with a dilemma that only affords a choice between two unpleasant alternatives. Another idiom that is close in meaning is between the devil and the deep blue sea, which refers to a choice between two dangerous alternatives. The obscure idiom between Scylla and Charybdis is derived from the Greek story of Odysseus, who had to choose which monster to confront: Scylla or Charybdis. Odysseus chose to engage Scylla, which resulted in the loss of a few sailors rather than losing the entire ship. The phrase the lesser of two evils is derived from a concept put forth by Thomas à Kempis in the early 1400s in his work Imitation of Christ: “Of two evils, the lesser is always to be chosen. Therefore, in order that you may escape the everlasting punishments to come, try to bear present evils patiently for the sake of God.” The concept addresses the ambiguity of many situations, where there is no inherently good or moral choice. Thomas á Kempis lived around the turn of the fifteenth century, and was a member of the Modern Devotion, a spiritual movement that was popular at the time. The Imitation of Christ is one of the most widely-read Christian texts, to this day. Originally, the term the lesser of two evils referred only to moral choices. Today, the term may also apply to more mundane situations, such as choosing whether to eat a taco that is high in fat content, or a candy bar that is high in sugar content. Neither choice is good for you, and that is a situation in which one must choose the lesser of two evils.


Such a candidate could once again convince many swing voters that President Trump is the lesser of two evils. (The Gaffney Ledger)

“The single-object provision that was stuck in our state constitution was put there precisely to preclude and prevent situations we are now facing, when we have to struggle and weigh some kind of greater good or picking the lesser of two evils,” he said. (The Charleston Gazette-Mail)

How did we get to the point where Buhari, the lesser of two evils in 2015, hasn’t managed to get upgraded to the angel Nigerians know? (The Sahara Reporters)

But some Republicans who oppose Medicaid expansion see the bill as the lesser of two evils. (The Salt Lake City Tribune)

“Putting it up is the ‘lesser of two evils’ and we’re prepared to do that than cut jobs and services.” (The Greenock Telegraph)