A little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring.

(Alexander Pope, Essay on Criticsm, 1711)

I’m not the greatest fan of Pope. And of course critics have decidedly shown him his place in the general scheme of things literary. But his well-worn aphorism  about a little learning does seem frighteningly relevant today, when learning is instantaneous thanks to the Internet.

Everyone seems to know a little of everything; and if they don’t, they can find out very quickly. Take pop psychology. Suddenly everyone seems to know exactly what personality problems everybody else suffers from.  It’s a great comfort to see how enlightened (and verbose) even the kitchen-sink seems to be. 


Are we seeing disorders rather than humanity in everyone? Or are we just too lazy to find out exactly what the words that roll so easily off the tongue really mean? 

Here’s what I think is a case in point.

 A neighbour lost the bag she keeps outside her door for the milkman to deposit milk packets in. And she’s quite sure that the culprit is the woman who works as domestic help in several neighbouring apartments.

Now, the episode itself, my neighbour’s suspicions and the woman’s guilt do not interest me.  What does is the word my neighbour used to describe the poor woman: Kleptomaniac.  Because, apparently, the woman was accused of stealing earlier too, although nothing was ever proved.

I wonder if my neighbour knows what the word means. It’s not too difficult to find out, thanks again to the Internet.

A kleptomaniac is someone who has a persistent, neurotic impulse to steal, especially without economic motive. (Merriam Webster )  Or someone with an irresistible tendency to theft; persons who are not tempted to it by necessitous circumstances; supposed by some to be a form of insanity. (OED)

And to take precision and accuracy to dizzying heights, the DSM IV Code (the most impressive Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders published by the American Psychological Association, which you can access here or here) defines kleptomania as 

the failure to resist impulses to steal things that are not needed for either personal use or for their monetary value.

(Emphasis mine.)

In all three definitions the act is defined as not being prompted by economic motives or actual need. Now, you don’t need Nobel-prize winning intelligence to deduce that the poor woman must have stolen out of sheer need. Not because she was insane.

I’m sure it must be a disorder in itself to be labelling poverty and wretchedness kleptomania. And no, I don’t know the name of the disorder! 

I wonder how much more of another person’s humanity we’d be able to see if we were not so eager to label.

Wikipedia notes, in its entry on the Pope aphorism (in my title) that this line is often misquoted as “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” thus reinforcing the aptness of this very admonition, as the misquote betrays a certain want of learning.

Considering that Wikipedia itself is knowledge/learning of a dubious nature,  this is irony of the Chinese boxes variety! 


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