Who breaks a butterfly upon a wheel?

Mick Jagger

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 1735. 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 Catherine wheel.

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 in 1967 about the ‘Redlands’ court case, which had resulted in prison sentences for Rolling Stones members Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. 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.’


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