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The meaning and origin of the expression: The road to hell is paved with good intentions

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The road to hell is paved with good intentions

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Meaning

The intention to engage in good acts often fails. It points up the principle that there is no merit in good intentions unless they are acted on.

Origin

The origin of almost all proverbs is shrouded by the mists of time. Nevertheless, there is no shortage of claimants to the authorship of 'The road to hell is paved with good intentions'.

The expression is often attributed to the Cistercian abbot Saint Bernard of Clairvaux (1090 – 1153). This attribution was made by St Francis de Sales in Correspondence: Lettres d'Amitié Spirituelle (written in 1640 and printed in 1980). The de Sales version was 'l'enfer est plein de bonnes volontés ou désirs', which translates as ‘hell is full of good intentions and wishes’. The five hundred year gap and the fact that the text isn't found in the works of St Bernard suggests that we can discount Francis's account.

The road to hell is paved with good intentionsAnd... just when you've waited five hundred years for one St. Bernard myth, along comes a second. St. Bernard rescue dogs don't carry casks of brandy around their necks to give drinks to people who are stranded in snowdrifts. That idea comes from a painting by the popular Victorian painter Sir Edwin Landseer. His 1820 painting Alpine Mastiffs Reanimating a Distressed Traveller shows such a scene and the image entered the public consciousness. However, Landseer made it up, it never happened.

Back to the proverb. Early English versions don't refer to the road to hell or suggest that such a road was paved, but simply state that hell was filled with good intentions. In more recent times there is always a mention of paving. This adaptation may have been influenced by Ecclesiasticus 21:10:

The way of sinners is made plain with stones, but at the end thereof is the pit of hell.

The person who made the 'paved' version popular appears to have been James Boswell in The Life of Samuel Johnson LL.D.,1791, who is second favourite after Saint Bernard as the suggested author of this proverb:

No saint, however, in the course of his religious warfare, was more sensible of the unhappy failure of pious resolves, than Johnson. He said one day, talking to an acquaintance on this subject, "Sir Hell is paved with good intentions."

Johnson didn't coin the phrase however. In 1670, the English theologian John Ray published A Collection of English Proverbs, in which he used the version that Johnson later quoted.

The 'road' element was added even later. The first time that the complete proverb 'The road to hell is paved with good intentions' appears in print is in Henry G. Bohn's A Hand-book of Proverbs, 1855. Neither Bohn nor Ray claimed to have coined the phrase, they were collectors, not originators.

As to who did coin the phrase. I intended to discover that and to let you know but, regrettably, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

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