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breaks a sweat

Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?

"Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?" is a quotation – sometimes misquoted with "on" in place of "upon" – from Alexander Pope's "Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot" of January 1735. The line has entered common use and has become associated with more recent figures.

It can be taken as referring to putting massive effort into achieving something minor or unimportant, and alludes to "breaking on the wheel", a form of torture in which victims had their long bones broken by an iron bar while tied to a cartwheel.

Pope's satire

The line "Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?" forms line 308 of the "Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot" in which Alexander Pope responded to his physician's word of caution about making satirical attacks on powerful people by sending him a selection of such attacks. It appears in a section on the courtier John Hervey, 2nd Baron Hervey, who was close to Queen Caroline and was one of Pope's bitterest enemies. The section opens as follows:

Let Sporus tremble –"What? that thing of silk,
Sporus, that mere white curd of ass's milk?
Satire or sense, alas! can Sporus feel?
Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?"
Yet let me flap this bug with gilded wings,
This painted child of dirt that stinks and stings;
Whose buzz the witty and the fair annoys,
Yet wit ne'er tastes, and beauty ne'r enjoys,
Sporus, a homosexual favored by Emperor Nero, was, according to Suetonius, castrated by the emperor, and subsequently married. Pope here refers to accusations made in Pulteney's Proper reply to a late scurrilous libel of 1731 which led to Hervey challenging Pulteney to a duel. Hervey's decade long clandestine affair with Stephen Fox would eventually contribute to his downfall. As first published the verse referred to Paris, but was changed to Sporus when republished a few months later.

What? that thing of silk uses a metaphor of a silkworm spinning that Pope had already used in The Dunciad to refer to bad poets. The then common tonic ass's milk was part of a diet adopted by Hervey. This painted child comments on make-up such as rouge used by the handsome Hervey.

Modern use

William Rees-Mogg, as editor of The Times newspaper, used the "on a wheel" version of the quotation as the heading (set in capital letters) for an editorial on 1 July 1967 about the "Redlands" court case, which had resulted in prison sentences for Rolling Stones members Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. The editorial, highly critical of the court's decision, is thought to have contributed to the success of Jagger's and Richards' appeal against the sentences. It concluded "If we are going to make any case a symbol of the conflict between the sound traditional values of Britain and the new hedonism, then we must be sure that the sound traditional values include those of tolerance and equity. It should be the particular quality of British justice to ensure that Mr. Jagger is treated exactly the same as anyone else, no better and no worse. There must remain a suspicion in this case that Mr. Jagger received a more severe sentence than would have been thought proper for any purely anonymous young man.

The philosopher Mary Midgley used a variation on the phrase in an article in the journal Philosophy written to counter a review praising The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, where she cuttingly said that she had "not attended to Dawkins, thinking it unnecessary to break a butterfly upon a wheel. Dawkins replied that this statement would be "hard to match, in reputable journals, for its patronising condescension toward a fellow academic. The name Butterflies And Wheels was then adopted by a website set up to oppose pseudoscience, epistemic relativism and those disciplines or schools of thought whose truth claims, this website maintains, are prompted by the political, ideological and moral commitments of their adherents.

Variations of the phrase also appear in pop music. The Mission recorded a track titled "Butterfly on a Wheel" for their album Carved in Sand, and the line "Who would break a butterfly on a wheel?" appears in the Cult track "Soul Asylum" (from the album Sonic Temple).

A film titled Butterfly on a Wheel was released in 2007. In the U.S.A. the title of the movie was changed to Shattered.

Noel Gallagher of Oasis referred to this quote when he wrote Falling Down for their 2008 album "Dig Out Your Soul", saying, "Catch the wheel that breaks the butterfly/I cried the rain that fills the ocean wide."

References

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