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To err is human, to forgive divine

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All people commit sins and make mistakes. God forgives them, and people are acting in a godlike (divine) way when they forgive. This saying is from “An Essay on Criticism,” by Alexander Pope.

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The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy, Third Edition Copyright © 2005 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.

MORE ABOUT TO ERR IS HUMAN, TO FORGIVE DIVINE

What does To err is human, to forgive divine mean?

To err is human, to forgive divine is an aphorism meaning that making mistakes is part of human nature. Yet, for humans to forgive each other for those errors … that’s more like something a god would do.

Where does To err is human, to forgive divine come from?

This is a quote from a poem, An Essay On Criticism, by Alexander Pope. Alexander Pope was born in 1688 and died in 1744. As a Catholic in England where Catholicism was marginalized, he couldn’t attend public schools or universities, meaning he was largely self-educated. He was also plagued with health problems from a young age. Still, he began his poetic career early. He was just twelve years old when he wrote his first work, Ode To Solitude. Some of his best known works include An Essay On Criticism (1711), The Rape of the Lock (1712), his translations of the classical poems the Illiad (1713-1719) and the Odyssey, the Dunciad, and An Essay on Man (1734).

His biting satire earned him many enemies, but that same wit also left us with many extremely quotable lines still used today. To damn with faint praise, for example, comes from his Epistle to Dr. Arbuthnot. And To err is human, to forgive divine is from an early work, An Essay On Criticism, first published in 1711, but probably written in 1709.

Despite its title, An Essay On Criticism is a poem. It’s about the characteristics and actions of an effective literary critic. Though it may be specific in its subject matter, there are many sections that apply to life in general.

We get To err is human, to forgive divine from a stanza in Part II concerning style versus substance and the tendency for both critics and poets to get taken in by appearances.

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.

The language is a little archaic, so let’s break down what it means. In this part of the poem, Pope is talking about the tendency for poets and readers of poetry to get distracted from the important parts by flashy, exciting tricks.

Poets make up even more fancy tricks in order to receive praise, and critics fall for it. But while that’s not good poetry or good criticism, in the end, it’s normal for people to make these kinds of mistakes, and we should remember that and be merciful.

(Note that the spelling of human as humane was common at the time; it doesn’t mean that Pope was meaning to use our modern word humane.)

To err means to make a mistake (an err-or!). Which is why someone would need to be forgiven. The concept of divine forgiveness is rooted in Christian theology, the tradition in which Alexander Pope was writing. The idea in Christianity is that God is the only being with the ability to truly forgive and absolve sins. So humans make mistakes and even commit sins, and God forgives them for it. Therefore, when we forgive each other, we are all following God’s example.

This message is neatly packaged in a rhetorical device called antithesis, which makes it highly memorable and quotable. Antithesis is when two opposite ideas are contrasted in the same sentence, usually with a parallel structure: human, divine.

You can see that the lessons in this poem don’t only apply to poetry and criticism, they’re useful for everyday life, too. Its relatability is also why this is still a popular saying today.

How is To err is human, to forgive divine used in real life?

You’ll most often see this quote used to discuss the virtues, rather than the difficulties, of forgiveness.

To err is human, to forgive divine often praises those who forgive others under difficult circumstances, or it urges forgiveness from people holding onto their anger.

This quote also reminds us that we all make mistakes; no one is perfect. Which is why it is often used in a context when many people are angry about a mistake, and the speaker feels that the anger is disproportionate or lingering. In these instances, it’s not uncommon for people to only quote the first part of the quote, to err is human.

The quote is also popular with newspapers, politicians, literary figures, and so on. Even though Pope used very formal and poetic language, the applicability of the quote means it is relatable to everyday life.

How to use To err is human, to forgive divine in a sentence

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