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The road to hell is paved with good intentions

  • The road to hell is paved with good intentions is an English proverb with a murky origin. A proverb is a short, common saying or phrase that gives advice or shares a universal truth. Often, a proverb is so familiar that a speaker will only quote half of it, relying on the listener to supply the ending of the proverb himself. We will examine the meaning of the proverb the road to hell is paved with good intentions, some probable inspirations for the phrase, and some examples of its use in sentences.


     

    The road to hell is paved with good intentions means that it is not enough to simply mean to do well, one must take action to do well. A good intention is meaningless unless it is followed by a good action. Many people have a conscience that tells them what the right thing to do is in a given situation, but they give in to laziness or selfishness and do not follow through. Another interpretation of the proverb means that trying to do something good often has unintended consequences which make things worse. For instance, kudzu is a beautiful vine from Asia that was introduced into the southeastern United States in the 1880s as a shade plant, erosion deterrent, and as cattle fodder. Kudzu is now an invasive species that is rampant in the southern United States, choking out native species. The expression the road to hell is paved with good intentions was first published in its current form in Henry G. Bohn’s A Hand-book of Proverbs in 1855. An earlier iteration was published in 1670 in A Collection of English Proverbs collected by John Ray: Hell is paved with good intentions. This is the version that Samuel Johnson was quoted as saying in James Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson LL.D published in 1791. Johnson is credited with creating the proverb, but as we have already seen, it predates him. A still earlier influence is a quote supposedly uttered by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux who lived at the turn of the eleventh century: L’enfer est plein de bonnes volontés ou désirs, which translates from the French as “hell is full of good intentions and wishes”. However, this quote was reported by St Francis de Sales in his Correspondence: Lettres d’Amitié Spirituelle written in 1640, 500 years before St. Bernard’s death.

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    Examples

    Detractors claim the road to hell is paved with good intentions, supporters point out that same pavement leads to better performing individuals. (Forbes Magazine)

    The problem is that it’s a bad argument, one not thought out in the slightest bit, and a fine example of “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” (The Wednesday Journal)

    “The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and the mayor and his cronies are trying to force these ordinances on law-abiding citizens,” Bernstine said. (The Pittsburgh Current)

    The ban straws movement had good intentions, but you know what they say about the road to hell. (The Observer)


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