Little Knowledge is a Dangerous Thing - Essay



Alexander Pope wrote a long poem which he called Dunciad. He had no patience with the half learned and the ill-learned. He branded them all dunces and poetasters and made them the theme of his Dunciad. Like Iliad, it was not an epic but a satire wherein he said

A little learning is a dangerous thing

Drink deep or taste not the Pierian Spring.

The problem with such people, said Pope, was not that they did not know much; but that they thought they knew everything. Therefore he advised them to master their subjects thoroughly or abjure them once for all.

To think that one knows everything is like living in a fool's paradise. It is a comforting thought as far as it goes, if one can stop with it. But curiously enough one thought leads to another and that sets things moving. Satisfaction leads to arrogance and that opens the Pandora's Box. Arrogance knows no fear, no second thoughts. Discrimination vanishes and with a foolish sense of confidence the arrogant will venture to do anything. Surely, fools tread where angels fear.

We know man falls by pride; and therefore the moment he becomes swollen headed, his fall begins. But he will not fall alone. He will cause a disaster; and many an innocent man will go down with him. Like a drowning man he drags with him anyone he can lay hands upon.

When you think that you are Mr. Know - all, you will probably begin to act like a No - all. Many an innocent man will believe what you say. If they simply wonder like the rustics who stared at the village pedagogue and wondered how a small head could carry so much, no mischief is done. But if they also believe what you say, they are at once on the wrong side of the fence. Some of the religious fanatics are guilty of such a sin. They do not know what actually a religion is for. They cannot realize that it is for man's good - to bring comfort in moments of sorrow and distress, to guide him in times of illusion and indecision and to lead him out from darkness and ignorance. They harangue about the superiority of their god, decry the people of other faiths call them infidels and declare holy wars in the name of God and religion. The ignorant masses who believe them take to arms and cut the throats of innocent people.

The religion which is expected to bring comfort and sunshine in the lives of people will spread distress and darkness. People who cannot understand that the essence of religion is understanding, tolerance, compassion and ser­vice will think that they are pundits and prophets. Pope rightly advises such false prophets 'to drink deep' or else 'taste not the Pierian Spring'. People who believe in racial superiority are no better. They talk of blue blood, azure eyes, blonde hair and fair skin and look down upon others. They too suffer from the limitations of little knowledge. They do not realize that we all belong to one race - the race of man, whether the colour of the skin is white or yellow, brown or black and that these variations are the ways of nature to add beauty and variety to its creation. Every artist knows that he needs to vary his colours, combine and recombine them, to produce the needed effect and make his creations look more and more beautiful. But these half learned people who do not know this much, practice racial discrimination and spell disaster.

The lawyer, the quack, the engineer and the teacher who are not perfect in their line, are also a threat to society though not in the same degree as the religious or the racial fanatics are. Many an innocent man will go to the gallows while the real culprit will be left scotch free when an ill versed lawyer comes to judgment. When a quack holds the surgeon's scissors in his hands, the patient will get rid of his life instead of his disease. When the engineer who does not know where to apply his screw driver will only cause a disaster if not spoil the entire machinery when he presses the button; and the teacher who is incapable of delivering the goods will produce disgruntled young men instead of healthy citizens of tomorrow.

Therefore the real problem is not with the learning but with the person who thinks too much of his learning. No wonder, trains derail, houses collapse, tanks breach, bridges crack and aero planes crash. Often we call them accidents and brush aside. Therefore one must put oneself to a little bit of introspection before laying hands on the steering rod. The great Shakespeare said that the Wiseman knows himself to be a fool though it could have been more appropriate if he had said that the fool thinks that he is wise. A really wise man knows perfectly that what he has learnt is but an insignificant fraction; he would be always eager to know more and more. Like Newton he would call himself a mere child gathering pebbles on the shore of vast oceans of knowledge.

We often hear that something is better than nothing. It is true in the case of the common man; instead of remaining completely ignorant, it is better if he can be in know of things, even if it is to a little extent. It certainly is not in the case of teachers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc. who are expected to remain forever curious and inquisitive like a student thirst­ing to know more and more.

As Newton has said knowledge is extensive, like the seas of sand along the oceans of the world; it is not possible for any human being to master even one of the branches of learning in his life time and no branch is independent of others; like circles with in circles they move around and in one subject of mathematics alone there are more than a hundred and forty branches; to attain perfection at least in a few of them is beyond the dream of even a genius. That is why Lord Krishna said in his gospel Bhagavad-Gita I am the knowledge and I am the knower.

That does not mean we should be content with the little we know; it only means that we should not foolishly crave for knowledge for the sake of knowledge. We must seek and add to our knowledge as long as we need it in order to conduct our activities wisely and properly. If it cannot make us wise, it is no use seeking it further. We shall then become the Proverbial Paramanandayyas who are doomed to fail in spite of their fund of knowledge.

Nor should we become swollen headed as we learn more. Knowledge should teach us to remain humble and even headed. If we fail to realize this, we are again sure to fall.