A Little Knowledge Is a Dangerous Thing Essay

Outline

  • Pope’s saying and irony
  • Modern age of superficiality pitfalls made by journalist and writer
  • Aldous Huxley’s account of an exhibition of arts and crafts
  • Diversity, cause of superficial knowledge the role of certain theories, dogmas in diverting man from the pursuit of knowledge
  • Shortcomings our little learning
  • The humility of Newton
  • Man’s hopelessness before the vastness of the knowledge
  • Knowledge’s purpose to shun the ignorance
  • The unending gratification of the desire of knowledge

“A Little learning, wrote Alexander Pope, it is a dangerous thing.” We are much amused when we remember that Pope himself undertook to translate Homer without (for all practical purposes) knowing much Greek! Who would have known the pitfalls of a little knowledge better than he? So when he goes on to say in the next line ‘Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring, the thought has for us a certain ironical appositeness.

We live in the age of superficiality. Everyone wants to show that he is learned, yet everyone is shallow. The methods of showing that one is learned are interesting. One of them is to ignore all that others know. Another is to ignore the common place and concentrates on something odd and out-of-the-way. If somebody begins to discuss Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights say that you prefer ‘The Tenant of Wildfell Hall’. In this way you will easily acquire a reputation for profound learning.

This pretense of profound learning is the pitfall into which the journalist in particular always falls. He must write airily of the odd and remote in order to conceal his ignorance of the near and the classical. He has no leisure. His profession makes him acquainted with a mass of miscellaneous and haphazard knowledge, which he is compelled to reproduce in his articles with an air of knowing everything. The journalist is tempted to be readable and so he always tries to be original and unusual.

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Is the Pierian Spring suited for everyone? Can everyone drink deep of it? The philosopher or the man of science may do so with safety, but of others the Pierian Spring makes only prigs.

Aldous Huxley, in an essay in “Along the Road,” gives an amusing account of an exhibition of arts and crafts, which he saw at Munich. In that exhibition, every applied art was represented through furniture, jewelry, ceramics, textiles. “The Germans,” says Aldous Huxley, “know more about the artistic styles of the past than any other people in the world and their own art today is about as hopelessly dreary as any national art could well be. Its badness is, in mathematical terms, a function of its learnedness.” This could be seen from such exhibits as these – A Mexican pot, decorated with Moorish arabesques; a Black Forest peasant’s table standing on. Egyptian legs. Learning may be good for poets, politicians, philosophers, and businessmen – for the artist it is bad.

Good art demands intense concentration. And excessive knowledge tends to make the type of concentration that art demands difficult. For the superficial knowledge of our own times other things are responsible also. Men now-a-days have become so mercenary that they are not willing to undertake any serious work that “does not pay”. Intellect is valued only as a key to material prosperity. “He wastes his money on books. What good are they to him? “He is a carpenter, not a school master.” Men do not realize that the brain is not a tool for exploiting our fellow-men but

To follow knowledge like a sinking star
Beyond the utmost bounds of human thought.

“The French have a beautiful phrase in their language – ‘la joie de vivre.” Parallel to this we can invent another phrase – “La joie de savoir.” The joy of knowledge is all unknown to money – makers.

There are certain theories and dogmas, which have diverted men and women from the pursuit of knowledge, and made them content with their ignorance and stupidity. Religious teachers have made most of these dogmas. They have taught that man has a body and a soul, but they have forgotten that man has a mind also. The Cynics of Greece despised education and intellectual pursuits and declared that Virtue was the only good. St. Basil is reported to have remarked very frankly: “It is a matter of no interest to us whether the earth is a sphere, or a cylinder, or a disc.”

With this exaltation of stupidity and ignorance it is no wonder that we suffer from all the shortcomings of a little learning. Dogma in our country has gone to such lengths that we are always ready to shelve common sense in favor of some authority. Take such a glaring social evil of our country as early marriage. People marry because certain so-called religious books have recommended this practice. They are to quote chapter and verse to support their ideas. I call this one of the instances of a little learning. Let them go behind the book into the mind of the author who made it. With such questions of scholarship as – when was this book written? Who wrote it? Our people have no concern. If they drank deeper of the Pierian spring, they would be compelled to throw away early marriage, casts, untouchability, and a good deal of their outworn and harmful theology.

The Greeks could not think of a higher word of respect than “philosopher” lover of knowledge. Newton, who knew so much, though humbly that he was like a little child picking up pebbles on the shore, while the vast ocean of knowledge lay unexplored before him. My colleagues always try to give me the impression that while Newton collected pebbles of knowledge painfully, it has been their pastime to collect boulders of it.

Knowledge is long and life is short, and even the best of us must be content to have only a little of it. If we could live for hundreds of year, instead of a few decades, we could not have enough time to acquire all the knowledge that there is. All the ills of humanity arise from ignorance and egoism. With knowledge we can at least overcome ignorance. Let us remember the beautiful exhortation of the Persian poet, Saadi; “Like a taper one should burn in the pursuit of knowledge. This is thy duty, even if thou has to travel over the whole earth.”

A quotation from A.E. Housman in which he praises the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake is worth pondering over:

“Other desires perish in their gratification, but the desire of knowledge never the eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing. Other desires become the occasion of pain through death of the material to gratify them, but not the desire of knowledge; the sum of things to be known is inexhaustible, and however long we read we shall never come to the end of our storybook. So long as the mind of man is what it is, it will continue to exult in advancing on the unknown throughout the infinite field of the universe, and the tree of knowledge will remain forever, as it was in the beginning, a tree to be desired to make one wise.”.

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