An Essay on Criticism

by Alexander Pope

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How do I explain the epigrams in “An Essay on Criticism”?

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An epigram is "a witty, ingenious, and pointed saying that is tersely expressed." The key aspect of an epigram is its "terse expression"—an epigram packs a great deal of meaning into a single phrase. Popular culture is full of epigrams, and you are probably familiar with many already. Consider the following examples:

"It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness."
—Eleanor Roosevelt

"Never interrupt an enemy making a mistake."
—Napoleon Bonaparte

"The truth is rarely pure and never simple."
—Oscar Wilde

I chose these examples to give you a sense of how powerful epigrams are at transmitting ideas. Each example contains layers of meaning. In order to explain an epigram, you need to "unpack" those layers.

I'll unpack an epigram from Alexander Pope's famous "Essay on Criticism" here, to show you what I mean.

"A little learning is a dang'rous thing."

The first layer of meaning here is the literal meaning of the words: "a little learning" (in the sense of "a little bit of education") is dangerous. To understand what Pope means, I ask myself:

  • Why is education dangerous?
  • To whom is education dangerous?
  • Is any education dangerous, or does it depend on the amount of education a person has? That is, is "a little learning" more or less dangerous than a lot of learning? Why?

Pope explains in the following lines that having a small amount of education can be dangerous because it "intoxicate[s] the brain," giving the student a false sense of expertise. When a student first begins to learn a new subject, they gain a lot of knowledge very quickly. This can lead them to believe that they know everything about the subject when, in fact, they have barely scratched its surface. This assumed expertise can lead the student into trouble—they may make incorrect statements or bad decisions based on the small amount of knowledge they have gained about the subject. Even worse, they may influence other people to make bad decisions based on this small amount of knowledge.

Pope likens education to climbing a mountain: attaining the summit of a mountain is a great feeling and may make the climber feel triumphant. However, if the climber looks around, they'll see that this is just one mountain in a whole range of other mountains. Attaining one summit is not the same as attaining all of them, and in fact it may not even be possible to climb every single mountain in a range, even over the course of a lifetime. The student with "a little learning" climbs one mountain and believes they have conquered the mountain range. Only a student who studies a subject over a long period of time will come to understand just how much they still have to learn about it—how many mountains are left for them to climb.

The power of the epigram "A little learning is a dang'rous thing" is that Pope does not really need to explain it for me to understand it. All of the ideas that he elaborates on in the following lines are contained within that phrase. See if you can identify some other epigrams within the essay, and describe the ideas that underlie them—if you can do that, you've explained the epigrams.

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