World O’ Words: A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

Ultracrepidarianism: On offering one’s opinion ‘beyond the sole’

A little learning is a dangerous thing;

drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring:

there shallow draughts intoxicate the brain,

and drinking largely sobers us again.

Alexander Pope

(1688-1744)

The great poet wrote this in 1704. It has since become slightly reinterpreted as “A little knowledge is a dangerous thing,” and become one of the most widely misunderstood phrases in the English language (next too, arguably, “God doesn’t play dice with the universe”).

A quick reading of the line alone would incline the reader to interpret the line as knowledge, or education, amongst the masses, or common people, would be perceived as a threat by tyrannical powers that be. Like an absolute monarchy, or dictatorship. Or that d—d mainstream media, who would only purvey fake news if it wasn’t for the empowerment of the trolletariat, who are getting the real truth from Facebook posts.

Oh, there I gave away where this column is going, eh?

What Alexander Pope really meant was that only a small amount of knowledge can make someone think they are more expert than they really are, which can lead to mistakes being made. Whereas a fuller education, or more extensive, sober research, can lead to a more realistic, well-rounded view, whereby a greater grasp of the truth is possible, however objective we think the truth can be.

To quote a source from the same period — “… a little knowledge is apt to puff them up, and make men giddy, but a greater share of it will set them right, and bring them to low and humble thoughts of themselves.” (The Mystery of Phanaticism” 1698).

Which leads us to our Word of the Week: Ultracrepidarian.

An ultracrepidarian is one who expresses opinions or advice beyond one’s sphere of knowledge. This sounds familiar to me, especially in these days of mask-rage, for example, a new phenomenon where people opposed to the mandated wearing of masks display hostility to those who are wearing them or those who asking you to wear them.

An ultracrepidarian is not necessarily the same as a conspiracy theorist — one who, for example, believes that the coronavirus and Covid-19 are no worse than the common cold, and that the shut-down of society to prevent the spread of the coronavirus is simply a ploy to take away our “freedoms,” and that this plot is being installed by the left-wing governments of the world and propagated by their puppets, the mainstream media. But an ultracrepidarian and a conspiracy theorist are certainly related — if they’re not brother and sister they’re certainly cousins.

The word ultracrepidarian comes from antiquity. A shoemaker came upon the famous painter Apelles finishing a painting in the marketplace, and criticized the way he had rendered the foot of his subject. The exact words Apelles said to the cobbler in his rejoinder are not known, except for the phrase “beyond the sole (“ultra crepidam” Latin) meaning the cobbler was making the criticism outside his sphere of knowledge. This from Pliny the Elder: “ne supra crepidam sutor judicare” — “let the cobbler not judge above the sandal.”

Now, it is absolutely fine, well and good for a cobbler to comment on a painter’s work, just as it is fair play for the painter to respond. Cobblers may well be perfectly qualified to judge a painting. (Who knows — perhaps the conspiracy theorists will be proved right, when we are all enslaved by the World Health Organization. Time will tell.)

However, an ultracrepidarian, by definition, has disdain for the advice of experts in a particular field, and judges according to the little knowledge one has.

I confess to a streak of ultracrepidarianism in myself. Give me a little knowledge and I’ll go tell everyone I know. I also enjoy rolling conspiracy theories over in my mind, being a fan of science fiction. And I will no doubt continued to be offered the strong opinions and advice of both cobblers and painters. Ultracrepidarianism is here to stay.

* Sources: phrases.org.uk; merriam-webster.com; dictionary.com

Barry Coulter is editor of the Cranbrook Townsman.

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