This passage is confusing: Not the leastof its virtues is that it destroys base people as certainly as it fortifies and dignifies noble people.
Preface to Major Barbara by George Bernard Shaw
"not least" in this case is an example of a figure of speech called "litotes".
Litotes is a form of speech in which you make a point by using the negative of the OPPOSITE form.
- "no small feat" emphasizes that it is, on the contrary quite a LARGE feat.
- "not insignificant factor" suggests it is quite significant, and ought to be taken very seriously
- "not the best example" implies it is quite a BAD example
- "not the kindest thing to do" is used to criticize someone for doing something very un-kind
This type of expression may be used to be (or seem) modest OR to EMPHASIZE the point ("no small feat" is usually STRONGER than "a great feat"). It may also be used to express IRONY, when what you're talking about is not the way you would expect it to be. It may, in fact, be quite a SURPRISE.
So, in the example you give from Shaw, he is suggesting that what he is about to mention is not simply "not the least" but is among if not THE GREATEST of its virtues.
Your specific example is a bit like the common expression "last but not least. . . " People MAY use this expression to make clear that, even though they are listing something (or someone) last, that does not mean the thing/person is the least important. In fact, it may mean (and in its original use probably did) that the thing/person named is among the MOST important, and may even be THE most important. (Compare, "saving the best for last.")
One reason for this expresssion is probably the fact that it is not unusual [another litotes, meaning "it is quite usual/common"] for us to list the most important thing LAST. But since we may ALSO START with the most important, people may want to make it clear that is not what they are doing.
More on "litotes"
Try substituting" because".. It means it's the "lesser"l iterally, but you have to be old and well read to get it.
To me, it means "it has many virtues." This one being better than the least of all the virtues. Or higher than the least virtue.
"Not the least", could refer to anyone who doesn't stand out. "The last, but not the least." Would refer to someone still in the running, for something. Basically, "not the least" means mediocre. Somewhere in the middle. When people compete, there's always the upper echelon, the mid-range and the losers. "Not the least" applies to mid-range. They might be the least in further competitions.
'Not the smallest' could usually replace 'not the least' and give the same meaning.
I think it also carries a meaning of one among many. Not the worst, yet not the smallest either.
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