Good intentions are, well, a good thing! Hell, on the other hand, isn’t so great. So what could the two possibly have to do with one another? Let’s explore the meaning of the phrase the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
What Does the Road to Hell Is Paved With Good Intentions Mean?
In general, this common idiom and proverb expresses the idea that good intentions don’t necessarily guarantee good results, and that good intentions matter little—if at all—if they don’t end in good outcomes. That said, there are a few ways to interpret this phrase.
One interpretation is that people often intend to do good but then fail to do anything at all. Their procrastination and inaction doesn’t produce a good result and, in fact, could actually lead to a bad outcome. In this scenario, good intentions without good actions are at best meaningless and at worst harmful.
Another way of understanding this phrase is that people can often hide behind good intentions; they can commit an action that results in a bad outcome under the guise of doing good. For example, someone does something for the benefit of a small number of folks that has a detrimental impact on a large group of people, i.e. a wealthy business owner makes a decision that increases his business and makes his shareholders happy, but that results in a pay cut for his workers. Often, a person feels morally certain they’re doing what’s right, and deems any “collateral damage” that occurs as acceptable in order to obtain what they see as the greater good. In other words, they may or may not have bad intentions yet get bad results.
In the same vein, the phrase is often used to express that, when acted upon, even the best of intentions can have negative unintended consequences. Take technology, for instance. Scientists and engineers have the best of intentions when it comes to innovations, and indeed, advancements in technology have certainly changed our lives for the better. But they aren’t without unfortunate unintended consequences. Smartphones mean we’re better connected than ever before, but that we also suffer from problems like text neck and texting thumb. What’s more, they’ve contributed to automobile injuries and deaths, as many people are distracted by texting and talking while driving. Another example commonly used when discussing this saying is the idea of becoming a soldier; the action is undertaken for the collective good of the country but can result in negative outcomes, from injury to post-traumatic stress disorder, for the individual.
Here are some example sentences using the proverb the road to hell is paved with good intentions:
- I wanted to protect my friend by sharing some gossip, but I only upset her and made things worse for all parties involved. Lesson learned that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
- When my mom asked why I hadn’t cleaned my room, I told her that I had planned to but just got busy. She shook her head and said, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
- The road to hell is paved with good intentions: I planted the most beautiful plants in my garden, but it turns out that they are invasive species, and they’ve taken over and killed everything else!
Note: You may also sometimes see or hear the phrase as the path to hell is paved with good intentions. An alternative form of the proverb is hell is full of good meanings, but heaven is full of good works.
The Origins of the Phrase
As is often the case with idioms and proverbs, we don’t know exactly when and where this expression originated. But language historians have turned up some evidence and information.
Early versions resembling the expression include the line in Ecclesiasticus stating, “The way of sinners is made plain with stones, but at the end thereof is the pit of hell,” and the line in Virgil’s Aeneid, a Latin epic poem, “Facilis descensus averno,” which translates to “the descent to hell is easy.”
The version hell is full of good meanings and wishes appeared in A Collection of English Proverbs gathered by John Ray, originally published around 1670. In the Life of Samuel Johnson, published for the first time in 1791, James Boswell writes:
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.”
Finally, the full proverb as we know and use it today was first published in Henry G. Bohn’s A Hand-book of Proverbs in 1855.
The saying is commonly attributed to Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, who supposedly wrote, “L’enfer est plein de bonnes volontés ou désirs,” which translates to hell is full of good wishes or desires or hell is full of good intentions and wishes. However, to date, historians have not actually come across this text in any of St. Bernard’s works.
There are similar sayings that express the different interpretations of the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
For example, the idiom actions speak louder than words means that what you do (your actions) is more significant and carries more weight than what you say (your words). Like one meaning of the road to hell is paved with good intentions, this expression conveys that your intentions can be meaningless if they’re not followed with action.
There’s also the saying no good deed goes unpunished, which hits at the idea that, often, one’s good intentions backfire and result in negative unintended consequences.
What Are Idioms and Proverbs?
By now, you know that the road to hell is paved with good intentions is both an idiom and a proverb. An idiom is an expression with an intended meaning that typically can’t fully be understood just by looking at the words that comprise it. Even if you’ve never heard the term idiom, you have most likely heard many idiomatic expressions. Here are just a few of the most common idioms used today:
You’re in hot water.
His boss gave him the ax.
It’s time to face the music.
You’ve hit the nail on the head.
If you took the first example literally, you’d think it was describing a person standing in a bathtub full of hot water, perhaps. But the expression is actually used to describe a person who’s in trouble. Likewise, rather than literally being handed a tool for chopping wood, if you get the ax from your boss, it means you’re getting fired. It’s time to face the music means that it’s time to come to terms with the consequences of your actions. And when someone has hit the nail on the head, they’ve gotten an answer exactly right or done something exactly as it should have been done.
Try and interpret the road to hell is paved with good intentions literally, and you’ll hit a dead end. After all, there isn’t an actual road to hell anywhere, nor can you pave a road with intentions—not possible! As an idiom, it has a figurative meaning.
A proverb is a short, common phrase or saying that imparts wisdom and advice or shares a universal truth. Synonyms of the term proverb include adage, aphorism, and maxim. Here are some additional examples of well-known proverbs:
Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Blood is thicker than water.
A picture is worth a thousand words.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
The common proverbial and idiomatic expression the road to hell is paved with good intentions can be interpreted in several different ways. In general, it conveys the idea that good intentions don’t always result in good outcomes. For example, one can intend to do good but never act on that intention. Or, a person can act in a way that they perceive as good but that ends up hurting someone else, often unintentionally.