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Yes, this is the original quote from Albert Einstein.

I tend to put it this way:

The world is dangerous not because of those who do harm but because of those who look at it without doing anything.

which seems to have a more balanced structure. However, I do observe the original quote conforms to common English usage (i.e. commonly used in newspapers, books, etc.).

I feel inclined to follow the language convention rather than make it subject to my own judgement.

Any suggestions?

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  • Perhaps we have no trouble parsing the original sentence correctly because "The world is not dangerous" is semantically bizarre, even though it is syntactically mundane. Nov 27, 2011 at 2:21
  • 1
    My intuitive perception of English language tells me the Einstein's original word order is less English than the one suggested by you. Not less correct, but less English. I'm not a native speaker, so I wonder if my intuition is right. P. S. And don't forget Einstein is not native English speaker either, maybe in German language that order of words makes more sense? Nov 27, 2011 at 20:57
  • There's absolutely nothing wrong with the original.
    – Hot Licks
    Jul 11, 2018 at 2:39

6 Answers 6

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There are those who believe that not and only should always be placed as close as possible to the words which they modify. I am not of their number. It is only necessary to do so (see?) where there is a real risk of ambiguity. That is not the case with the Einstein quotation. The German original is slightly different, but there, too, the word for not immediately precedes the equivalent of dangerous.

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  • I actually agree with both Barrie and Bjorn in that clarity should be a priority. Personally I didn't notice the shift in the word not until Bjorn pointed it out, so obviously there was no loss of clarity in either direction for me.
    – Rant
    Nov 26, 2011 at 20:53
  • @BarrieEngland: Would you please post the German version if possible? Thanks.
    – Kris
    Nov 27, 2011 at 11:00
  • @Kris: ‘Die Welt wird nicht bedroht von den Menschen, die böse sind, sondern von denen, die das Böse zulassen.’ Where the English uses a copular verb and a subject predicate in the first part of the sentence, the German uses a passive construction. A direct translation is ‘The world is not threatened by people who are evil, but by those who permit the evil.’ I am not sure whether in the German sentence 'nicht' is possible only between 'wird' and 'bedroht', or whether 'Die Welt wird bedroht nicht von den Menschen . . .' is also possible. Perhaps a native German speaker could tell us. Nov 27, 2011 at 11:15
  • Thank you BarrieEngland. I agree with you that Die Welt wird bedroht nicht von ... sounds odd, though I have seen similar structure in other simpler sentences in German.
    – Kris
    Nov 27, 2011 at 11:20
8

There is a slight difference between reading it and hearing it. The first words "The world is not dangerous because of" can be initially parsed as: "the world is not dangerous" (premise) "because of" reasons why the world is not dangerous. We then have to recast the sentence as the premise being that the world is dangerous and the reason is not that...

As a comparison I invite you to consider how we parse the sentence "The old man the boats".

To be frank, it's a bit of a quibble, but it was a large part of my psych degree. http://jos.oxfordjournals.org/content/4/2/204.extract

4

I can honestly say that I didn't even notice you had changed the position of "not" until I closely inspected both sentences. So I'd say this is not an issue to worry about since it the sentence is perfectly comprehensible in both forms.

2

There is a shift in emphasis in your version toward a view that the world is going to be dangerous, regardless of what we do. Einstein's view seems to be that we can make the world less dangerous (by doing something about it).

Strictly speaking, the two forms are identical in meaning, and what I mean is that there is just a slight change in perspective, not a semantic difference.

For comparison, here is a purely hypothetical pair of statements, none of which have been made to my son:

  • Dad: If you clean up your room, you can go to Josh's house.
  • Mom: You can go to Josh's house, if you clean up your room.
1

This quote is indeed based on something Albert Einstein has written. Albert Einstein wrote it first in German, then it was published in French, and later it got translated into English. Afterwards it apparently got changed into a short quote and started a life of its own.

Albert Einstein wrote it on March 30, 1953, in honor of the cellist, composer and conductor Pablo Casals (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pablo_Casals).

Albert Einstein wrote: "It is certainly unnecessary to await my voice in acclaiming Pablo Casals as a very great artist, since all who are qualified to speak are unanimous on this subject. What I particularly admire in him is the firm stand he has taken, not only against the oppressors of his countrymen, but also against those opportunists who are always ready to compromise with the Devil. He perceives very clearly that the world is in greater peril from those who tolerate or encourage evil than from those who actually commit it."

The original text in German: "Die Wertschätzung Pablo Casals (') als grossen Künstler braucht fürwahr nicht auf mich zu warten, denn hierin herrscht Einstimmigkeit unter den Auguren. Was ich aber an ihm besonders bewundere, ist seine charaktervolle Haltung nicht nur gegen die Unterdrücker seines Volkes, sondern auch gegen alle diejenigen Opportunisten, die immer bereit sind, mit dem Teufel zu paktieren. Er hat klar erkannt, dass die Welt mehr bedroht ist durch die, welche das Uebel dulden oder ihm Vorschub leisten, als durch die Uebeltäter selbst. Princeton N.J. / 30. März 1953 (übersetzt von Andre Mangeot)

I found this explanation on a German site (with English translation too): https://falschzitate.blogspot.com/2018/04/die-welt-wird-nicht-bedroht-von-den.html

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Anyone would agree, technically your version is the correct. But Einstein (or any one for that matter), wanted to reduce the harshness that is being implied to the "world" in this sentence.

So, the stress is on the "IS", meaning: The World IS actually dangerous. The person who quoted Einstein has clearly missed the comma leading to the confusion for analysts such as me and you. People who only feel the quote will have no problems in comprehension.

The world IS, Not dangerous because of the people who do harm but because of those who look at it without doing anything.

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