Exploring Philosophy, Meaning

Proverbs: The Road to Hell…

Proverbs are sayings which have been repeated for many years, often centuries, and they tend to lend some advice. When a phrase or saying hangs around for so long, it’s worth taking a second to see what wisdom it holds.

‘The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions’ is often accredited to French abbot, Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153).

He said “L’enfer est plein de bonnes volontés ou désirs” -hell is full of good wishes or desires. However, there are accounts of people uttering similar sentiments even before him. Apparently the first time the phrase was printed in its entirety as we now know it, was in Henry G. Bohn’s ‘A Hand-book of Proverbs’, 1855. He however, was just a collector, and never claimed to have coined the phrase.

Like most proverbs, we can extract multiple meanings from it.

One of the most common ones is that good intentions must be followed by good action. Unless acted upon, good intentions are just meaningless utterances or thoughts. People may think and wish for nice things, but if they fail to do anything about it, it makes no difference in reality. It can also mean that good intentions do not always lead to good outcomes. Our ‘good intentions’ can be misguided, misplaced, ill-considered and unwise. Good intentions cannot always be relied upon to result in good action or a good outcome.

What makes our intentions good anyway?

Is it our own interpretation of them? We’re likely to think that our own intentions are good; we find it much more difficult to believe that of others. We’re naturally quite suspicious of other people’s intentions yet we rarely cast the same sceptical eye over our own. What if our intentions were not just innocently misguided, but instead were malevolent? Bad intentions are often disguised as good; we don’t usually care to admit that we are being driven by some malicious desire. In just stating that our intentions are good, does it make them so? With regards this particular proverb, a lot of people cite various totalitarian governments and dictatorships, who all claimed to be acting on behalf of a greater good, with devastating results.

To avoid the ‘road to hell’, it seems we must take a closer look at our ‘intentions’.

Are we reasoned and wise in our beliefs? Will they result in positive action and a positive outcome? Are we disguising a resentful, disgruntled urge as something else? Are we using it as a safeguard to relinquish us of responsibility for anything that comes after our ‘good intentions’? A person’s intentions must count for something, but there is much more involved in the end result. We mustn’t be afraid to cast a more critical and cautious eye over what drives us. In doing so, we might be able to better control the direction of our path, avoiding the age old decent to the underground.

Gustav Doré,1868, The Divine Comedy, Inferno, Canto XIII
Gustav Doré, 1868, The Divine Comedy, Inferno, Canto XIII
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