August 2, 2012

“To err is human; to forgive, divine.” (Though Mae West and others put it somewhat differently.)


“To err is human; to forgive, divine.”
Alexander Pope (1688-1744)
       English poet 
       The famous saying created by line 525 of his poem An Essay on Criticism, Part II (1711)
       An Essay on Criticism was Pope’s first major work. Although the title calls it an “essay” it’s actually written as a poem, in the rhyming heroic couplet format.
       “To err is human; to forgive, divine” is one of three well-known quotes from the poem. The others are
“a little learning is a dangerous thing” and “fools rush in where angels fear to tread.”
       Pope didn’t coin the phrase “to err is human.” That’s the traditional English translation of the ancient Latin proverb
“Errare humanum est.” However, by adding “to forgive, divine” he created a famous quotation that is still commonly used, adapted and spoofed today.
       The usual meaning ascribed to Pope’s version is that every human can make a mistake, so we should forgive those that do, just as God is said to show his divine mercy in forgiving sinners. The line comes at the end of
the stanza reprinted below, which discusses (in an amazingly obtuse and flow’ry way) how writers sometimes overly praise or harshly criticize other writers:  
If Wit so much from Ign’rance undergo,
          Ah let not Learning too commence its Foe!
          Of old, those met Rewards who cou’d excel,
          And such were Prais’d who but endeavour’d well:
          Tho’ Triumphs were to Gen’rals only due,
          Crowns were reserv’d to grace the Soldiers too.
          Now, they who reached Parnassus’ lofty Crown,
          Employ their Pains to spurn some others down;
          And while Self-Love each jealous Writer rules,
          Contending Wits becomes the Sport of Fools:
          But still the Worst with most Regret commend,
          For each Ill Author is as bad a Friend.
          To what base Ends, and by what abject Ways,
          Are Mortals urg’d thro' Sacred Lust of praise!
          Ah ne’er so dire a Thirst of Glory boast,
          Nor in the Critick let the Man be lost!
          Good-Nature and Good-Sense must ever join;
          To err is Humane; to Forgive, Divine

       By the way, the use of the word humane above is not a typo. When An Essay on Criticism was published in 1711, that was the common spelling used for the word human.


“To err is human, but it feels divine.”
Mae West (1893-1980)
       American stage and movie star, playwright and pioneering Celebrity Sex Goddess
       This quip is
widely attributed to West. No specific source is given. However, it does sound like one of her sassy zingers and it’s mentioned in biographies about her (such as Mae West: It Ain't No Sin), so she may have actually said it.


“The tendency to err is human but to err on the safe side is just being intelligent.” 
Commander Walter L. Taylor (1876-1952)
       Quoting a naval saying
in an article published in Vol. 65 of the Proceedings of the United States Naval Institute (1939)
       Taylor said this was a variation of the mariners’
“General Prudential Rule.”


“To err is human. To blame it on someone else is politics.”
Hubert Humphrey (1911-1978)
       American Democratic politician; U.S. Vice President 1965-1969 under Pres. Lyndon B. Johnson 
       This quote is
widely attributed to Humphrey, sometimes beginning with the words “We believe that…” Documentation of when he said it is elusive. So, although it’s certainly true, it may not be a true quotation.


“To err is human, but to be paid for it is divine.”
H. James Harrington
       American author, engineer, entrepreneur and “consultant in performance improvement”
       In his book of advice for corporate managers,
Total Improvement Management (1995)

See more uses and abuses of “To err is human…” in this previous post…

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