The Meaning and Origin of ‘A Little Learning is a Dangerous Thing’

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle explores the origins of a famous quotation – and its less famous source

‘A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.’ This line is often quoted, but it’s actually, technically, a misquotation. What’s more, the meaning of this aperçu is worth analysing more closely, because it is open to misinterpretation as well as misquotation. Let’s take a look at the origins of ‘a little knowledge is a dangerous thing’ – or, more accurately, ‘a little learning is a dangerous thing’.

The source and origin for this quotation is Alexander Pope (1688-1744), one of the leading neoclassical or Augustan poets of the first half of the eighteenth century. Pope was a fascinating figure: as a young boy he was expelled from Twyford School for writing a satire about one of his teachers, and he continued to lose friends and create enemies through not being afraid to speak out and criticise those with whom he disagreed. (For a time, while fearing attacks from especially vicious rivals, Pope rarely left his house without a brace of pistols and his dog, a Great Dane named Bounce.)

Sadly, outside of academia, few people read Pope now because he is perceived as dry and emotionless (and therefore dull), and even in the late nineteenth century, his fellow master of the one-liner, Oscar Wilde, was quipping, ‘There are two ways of disliking poetry. One way is to dislike it, and the other is to read Pope.’

Pope’s poem ‘An Essay on Criticism’ gave us not only ‘A little learning is a dangerous thing’ but also ‘To err is human; to forgive, divine’ and ‘For fools rush in where angels fear to tread.’ Given how proverbial all three of this statements have now become, that’s a pretty impressive hit rate for a single poem – and, what’s more, one written when its author was still only 23!

A little learning is a dang’rous thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:
There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.
Fir’d at first sight with what the Muse imparts,
In fearless youth we tempt the heights of arts,
While from the bounded level of our mind,
Short views we take, nor see the lengths behind,
But more advanc’d, behold with strange surprise
New, distant scenes of endless science rise!

As the title of Pope’s poem, ‘An Essay on Criticism’, makes clear, Pope is specifically advising critics – especially literary critics – when he opines, ‘A little learning is a dang’rous thing’ (the elision in ‘dang’rous’, to indicate that the word should be pronounced as two syllables rather than three to keep with the iambic pentameter metre, is not often preserved when people quote Pope in their writing).

The Pierian Spring in Macedonia was sacred to the Muses, so in order to ‘taste the Pierian spring’ the critic (and poet?) needs to ‘drink deep’, i.e., read widely. A little learning is a dangerous thing because it can lead the critic to think they know it all when they, in fact, know very little. A little learning is more dangerous than complete ignorance, because it gives you the illusion of knowledge when you, in fact, have only cursory knowledge of the subject:

There shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again.

In other words, drinking only shallowly from the spring will make you drunk with your own knowledge, but drinking deeply or ‘largely’ brings you back to reality so you have a fairer and more accurate assessment of what you do and don’t know. So it is with learning: the more we learn, as the old adage has it, the less we know.

Pope, as a classicist, would have been familiar with the Delphic Oracle of Ancient Greece, who, asked to name who the wisest person in Athens was, proclaimed that it was Socrates, ‘for he alone is aware that he knows nothing’.

Pope, then, isn’t claiming that learning in itself is dangerous: but a little (as contrasted with a great deal) is. Anyone who’s found themselves collared by the pub bore or in an argument on social media over some historical, scientific, or even literary topic will probably be able to attest to that.

Pope’s ‘An Essay on Criticism’ is, as I say, a didactic and discursive poem recommending good things for a critic to do. Much of his advice, though, can be extrapolated beyond the realm of literary critics and reviewers of poetry. Good taste and knowing one’s own limitations, for instance, are universal rules to live by, and poets as well as critics would do well to heed them.

So in many ways, ‘A little learning is a dangerous thing’ (or ‘dang’rous thing’) is a line that nearly encapsulates Pope’s argument in ‘An Essay on Criticism’. More mischief is arguably caused by those who think they know it all than those who know they know nothing.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a long poem about the events of 2020.

2 thoughts on “The Meaning and Origin of ‘A Little Learning is a Dangerous Thing’”

  1. Thank you very much for this very interesting post. I hadn’t given much thought to the phrase “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing” as being a quote from a poem that had passed into common speech as a proverb until I spotted it in The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations.
    I enjoyed how you expanded or little bit of knowledge with very interesting facts about the author and his life.
    The information in this snippet is much more engaging than what I read in The Oxford Book of Quotations – which merely gives you the name of the author and sometimes a bit more of the text from which the quote was taken.


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