An Essay on Man is a poem published by Alexander Pope in 1733–1734. It is an effort to rationalize or rather "vindicate the ways of God to man" (l.16), a variation of John Milton's claim in the opening lines of Paradise Lost, that he will "justify the ways of God to men" (1.26). It is concerned with the natural order God has decreed for man. Because man cannot know God's purposes, he cannot complain about his position in the Great Chain of Being (ll.33-34) and must accept that "Whatever IS, is RIGHT" (l.292), a theme that was satirized by Voltaire in Candide (1759). More than any other work, it popularized optimistic philosophy throughout England and the rest of Europe.
Pope's Essay on Man and Moral Epistles were designed to be the parts of a system of ethics which he wanted to express in poetry. Moral Epistles has been known under various other names including Ethic Epistles and Moral Essays.
On its publication, An Essay on Man received great admiration throughout Europe. Voltaire called it "the most beautiful, the most useful, the most sublime didactic poem ever written in any language". In 1756 Rousseau wrote to Voltaire admiring the poem and saying that it "softens my ills and brings me patience". Kant was fond of the poem and would recite long passages from it to his students.
Later however, Voltaire renounced his admiration for Pope's and Leibniz's optimism and even wrote a novel, Candide, as a satire on their philosophy of ethics. Rousseau also critiqued the work, questioning "Pope's uncritical assumption that there must be an unbroken chain of being all the way from inanimate matter up to God."
The essay, written in heroic couplets, comprises four epistles. Pope began work on it in 1729, and had finished the first three by 1731. They appeared in early 1733, with the fourth epistle published the following year. The poem was originally published anonymously; Pope did not admit authorship until 1735.
Pope reveals in his introductory statement, "The Design," that An Essay on Man was originally conceived as part of a longer philosophical poem, with four separate books. What we have today would comprise the first book. The second was to be a set of epistles on human reason, arts and sciences, human talent, as well as the use of learning, science, and wit "together with a satire against the misapplications of them." The third book would discuss politics, and the fourth book "private ethics" or "practical morality." Often quoted is the following passage, the first verse paragraph of the second book, which neatly summarizes some of the religious and humanistic tenets of the poem:
Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of Mankind is Man.
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A Being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic's pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas'ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much;
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus'd;
Still by himself, abus'd or disabus'd;
Created half to rise and half to fall;
Great Lord of all things, yet a prey to all,
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl'd;
The glory, jest and riddle of the world.
Go, wondrous creature! mount where science guides,
Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides;
Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
Correct old time, and regulate the sun;
Go, soar with Plato to th’ empyreal sphere,
To the first good, first perfect, and first fair;
Or tread the mazy round his followers trod,
And quitting sense call imitating God;
As Eastern priests in giddy circles run,
And turn their heads to imitate the sun.
Go, teach Eternal Wisdom how to rule—
Then drop into thyself, and be a fool!
Pope says that man has learnt about Nature and God's creation by using science; science has given man power but man intoxicated by this power thinks that he is "imitating God". Pope uses the word "fool" to show how little he (man) knows in spite of the progress made by science.
- ^Pope, Alexander (1733). An Essay on Man; In Epistles to a Friend (Epistle II) (1 ed.). London: Printed for J. Wilford. Retrieved 21 May 2015. via Google books
- ^Pope, Alexander (1733). An Essay on Man; In Epistles to a Friend (Epistle III) (1 ed.). London: Printed for J. Wilford. Retrieved 21 May 2015. via Google books
- ^Pope, Alexander (1734). An Essay on Man; In Epistles to a Friend (Epistle IV) (1 ed.). London: Printed for J. Wilford. Retrieved 21 May 2015. via Google books
- ^Candide, or Optimism. Review of the Burton Raffel translation by the Yale UP.
- ^Voltaire, Lettres Philosophiques, amended 1756 edition, cited in the Appendix (p.147) of Philosophical Letters (Letters Concerning the English Nation), Courier Dover Publications 2003, ISBN 0486426734, accessed on Google Books 2014-02-12
- ^Harry M Solomon: The rape of the text: reading and misreading Pope's Essay on man on Google Books
- ^Leo Damrosch (2005). Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius. HOughton Mifflin Company.
- ^In the first edition, this line reads "The only Science of Mankind is Man."
Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man” Summary and Analysis
Critical analysis of “An Essay on Man”
“An Essay on Man,” being well-structured and carefully thought out, has its own history. Alexander Pope’s oeuvre refers to the Enlightenment era, the age of Reason and Science. Philosophers of that time rejected the ideas of the Middle Ages and Renaissance by establishing their own points of view. This is the way our essay was written. The author synthesized the key ideas and thoughts of the eighteenth-century greatest minds. He did an enormous work and was highly praised and criticized as well.
Voltaire admired Pope and his writings and put Horace inferior to “An Essay on Man.” This is due to Voltaire that the first French translation of this work appeared under the title “Discours en vers sur l’homme” (1738). Candide’s author considered it to be the most elevated didactic poem that has ever been written in any language.
What makes this work to be unique and popular in our times and before? Let’s look at its structure and analyze the content.
Ten sections written in heroic couplet are united under four epistles dedicated to Lord Bolingbroke. Each of them concerns different topics: the sense of existence, God’s Providence, good vs. evil, the duties of governments, etc. By and large, this is a fragmentary philosophical, political, ethical, but not religious poem.
In the introduction, we learn that the reason Pope wrote this work was to “vindicate the ways of God to Man.” Another important statement is that a man is fated to be born, to do something not very useful for the universe and die. Having no way out, we follow this scheme.
Sections 1-2 are about author’s contemplations on the nature of a human being and recognition of the existence of a Supreme Power. He claims that everything in this universe is perfectly structured being meticulously hierarchically harmonized. It functions constantly and uninterruptedly and will do it eternally in accordance with natural laws. A human is somewhere below the angels but above the animals and plants. Different creatures have their own type of communication, which is unfamiliar to humanity. We can only try to understand the universal world order of things by means of our own language and feelings. But being imperfect, we nevertheless are suitable for this ideal system.
Section 3 describes another important issue – that the happiest is a person who is completely ignorant of his or her future. The author says that it is impossible for us to read our Book of Fate, while, on the other hand, it is crucial to have dreams and hope for future.
Section 4. Pope asserts that the greatest sin of any human being is pride which pushes us to put ourselves in place of Creator, to hunt for more knowledge and perfection. But we can’t be in over our heads; it causes just misery and error.
Section 5. Together with being prideful, we tend to consider that everything was created for our use and that we are in the center of everything. Since the most ancient times, a man was interested in his place in this world. His understanding of the world changed, and the boundaries of the subjective world expanded. The things that cause some kind of harm to us are immediately called “evil.” As it is evil in nature, we can also be good or evil. Someone helps others, is friendly and always ready to help. At the same time, others can only harm, destroy and kill. God created illnesses, floods, volcanos and venomous insects, but it is not our business to know what for. We are forbidden to blame Him for such things.
Section 6 tells that people always complain against the Heaven Providence. But this is an attainment of eternal life given by God, which specifies the path of a soul to heaven and its settlement in the heavenly courts. The wish to have what is not designed for us can only make us unhappy and frustrated. Doubt is our enemy, although being an indispensable part of our conscience. We always find something that we can question, and often think: “Something is wrong here …” Indeed, who we are to doubt His plans?
Section 7 is about the Great Chain of Being. Throughout the world, the hierarchy and subordination are everywhere. At the bottom of the chain is earth and minerals followed by various plants and animals. Among them, the wild ones are on the top. Then go the subgroup of domestic animals are and after them – birds, fish, and insects. A human is above all of them, but inferior to angels. God is superior to everything and everyone mentioned above. The same situation is in the gradation of flair – instinct – thought – reflection – reason.
Section 8. The Great chain of things is perfect, and each organism is vital for its existence. If any of spices dies out, it leads to fatal consequences on the whole system. If the established order of subordination is changed, the destruction is inevitable since everything has its most suitable place.
Section 9 refers to the absurdity of people’s intention to violate the Universal rules because this order determines the existence of man. We are deliberately limited in our capabilities. Pope highlights that man’s body is natural and a soul is divine. Our pride allows us to think that it is easy to go beyond these frameworks and adjust Supreme Order to us. However, this is impossible, since a person does not exist by itself, but only as part of a larger whole, which is outside the reach of any living being. It leads to the conclusion that we cannot go against the law of God. It determines our being, and these are not us who set the law.
Section 10 summarizes the main idea of “An Essay on Man” that the Divine Order is perfect and the world is correct. It encourages submitting to God. What is true submission? It is not obedience to inevitability, not fatalism and not a reason for laziness; this is not about cowards who humbly allow others to mock them. In order to obey, it is not necessary to turn off the brain and refuse rational thinking. Why should God be against the mind that He Himself has put into us?
Submission does not entail suppression; instead of humiliating the person, obedience, on the contrary, makes him or her genuine. Only the Almighty Creator knows whom we have to be because He has conceived and created every one of us.
To make a long story short, Pope demonstrates that despite being imperfect, incomprehensible and partly evil, the Universe is an incomparably complicated and complex system created by God. We think in this way only because our abilities of perception of the highest plan are limited and our intellect is far from God’s omniscience and omnipotence. Pope defines that our task is to accept our medium position of the Great Chain of Being.
Pope, Alexander, and Tom Jones. An Essay on Man. Princeton University Press, 2016.
Pope, Alexander, et al. The Enduring Legacy: Alexander Pope Tercentenary Essays. Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Study.com, Study.com, study.com/academy/lesson/alexander-popes-an-essay-on-man-summary-analysis-quiz.html.
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