Famous for its expressive breadth and insightful wisdom, “An Essay on Man” (1733-1734) has been extremely popular during last three centuries. Its author, Alexander Pope, was a representative of the Neoclassical movement of the Enlightenment era. This time of Reason emphasized the vital role of Science in the contemporary society. Pope synthesized the ideas of his intellectual peers and created a poem which faced a lot of criticism as well as admiration. With the innovative use of poetic forms, it is unique and highly important. It was written under the influence of the philosophy of positivism. This essay was conceived to find the rational explanation of the divine plan, called “theodicy.”
Some critics compare “An Essay on Man” to Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” Both authors tried to vindicate the ways of God to man but came up with different points of view. Milton believed that a man could overcome the universal rules through honesty and faith. In his turn, Pope insisted that we should accept the order and our place in the God’s system. What is more, “Paradise Lost” is mostly religious, while Pope’s work is fragmentary philosophical, ethical and political poem.
Many celebrated philosophers spoke about this work with great enthusiasm and delight. Voltaire liked Pope’s oeuvre most of all. He was at pains to introduce his first French translation of the book entitled “Discourse en vers sur l’homme” in 1738. Two writers were good friends during Voltaire’s stay in England for more than 24 months. He admired Pope’s oeuvre and even put him superior to Horace.
Structurally, the work is divided into four epistles – formal didactic letters written for someone. Pope dedicated his poem to Lord Bolingbroke. Being a political figure of that time, Lord had many philosophical conversations with Pope. After publishing the epistles under the title “Being the First Book of Ethic Epistles,” Alexander Pope revealed his authorship. Originally, “An Essay on Man” had been designed as an introduction to his greatest work on society and its morality. However, later he changed his plans.
The first epistle answers the questions: “What is the place of a man in the cosmos?”, “What is his nature?”, “How is everything structured?”, etc. The next one concerns itself with a problem of person’s individuality, his desires, feelings and mental capacities. Epistle III is about man vs. society, and the notion of happiness is the main topic of the forth part.
Throughout the whole poem, Pope tried to contemplate on the nature of a human being and persuade the reader to recognize the existence of a Supreme Power.
He states that our abilities to understand the divine system are limited as our intellect is. The lack of knowledge is not the reason to doubt God’s omnipotence. He not only created all that exists but also can control the forces of nature; he can do the supernatural things, something that does not obey physical laws. He can do anything. We should bear in mind that although God has unlimited power, this does not mean that He manifests this power everywhere. That’s why we possess free will, but it also entails the choice between good and evil in our everyday life. We are responsible for what we do.
People can see this opposition of good and evil even in nature. Yes, God created flowers, seas, soft grass, fruits and lovely animals. But, on the other hand, earthquakes, floods, snakes, and plaques are also the part of our existence on this planet. We do not like such negative things, but who are we to claim that they are unnecessary? Instead, we can take care of sick people, feed the hungry and give a shelter for the homeless.
We learn that there is a hierarchy in the universe. The general scheme is as follows: God (the top) – angels\ demons – humanity – animals – plants – earth with minerals and other inanimate objects (the bottom). This Great Chain of Being is perfect and unchangeable. Every creature has its own place and can’t be higher in position. The morality here is that a human should accept his medium place and never try to become godlike striving for more knowledge and perfection.
A lot of attention is dedicated to the greatest sin of pride. We tend to think that we are in the center of the world and that everything was created only for our own use. We are ready to complain against the Providence when something bad happens to us, we put pride over reason, and these are our main mistakes.
The author dwells upon the problem of identity and self-love. God wants us to love ourselves, not in everything, but in the best. The love for oneself is built on the same reliable and strong foundation as our love for the nearest and dearest. We must try to love ourselves – exactly what helps us strive for better. Pope teaches not to intervene in God’s affairs, but to study ourselves.
In the universe, everything is bound together in the sole system of society where an individual is connected to the society as a part of the whole. A person lives in society; he is compelled to participate in any collective activity. A civilized person is physically unable to be excluded from it because he depends on it.
Since the very creation, a human has been in harmony with the earth and its elements. It was a spiritual connection we cannot feel now. The number of people grew, and they united under common traditions, religion, and territory. That’s how the political society developed. In the poem, Pope attempts to write about true government and its duties. He suggests the origin of monarchy, patriarchy, and tyranny.
There is a description of man’s endeavor to revive true government and religion on the first principle. They both have many forms, but the main goal of the former is to regulate the society. The latter is to govern the soul.
The last part of “An Essay on Man” reveals the theme of happiness and virtue. Pope defines happiness as an ultimate end of human existence. If a person lives in accordance with the rules of God, he is happy, and he understands his function within the divine system. What is more, the author is looking for the answer to the question which touches many of us: “Why do good and virtuous people die while sinful and despicable people continue living well?”
All in all, Alexander Pope succeeded in describing the perfect world created and harmonized by God. He defined our place in the Great Chain of Being and suggested to accept our position between angels and animals. The doubtless merit of the author is that when reading the poem, we can familiarize ourselves with the synthesized philosophical worldview of the eighteenth century greatest minds.
- An essay on man, Alexander Pope – Tom Jones
The subtitle of the first epistle is “Of the Nature and State of Man, with Respect to the Universe,” and this section deals with man’s place in the cosmos. Pope argues that to justify God’s ways to man must necessarily be to justify His ways in relation to all other things. God rules over the whole universe and has no special favorites, not man nor any other creature. By nature, the universe is an order of “strong connexions, nice dependencies, / Gradations just” (30-1). This order is, more specifically, a hierarchy of the “Vast chain of being” in which all of God’s creations have a place (237). Man’s place in the chain is below the angels but above birds and beasts. Any deviation from this order would result in cosmic destruction. Because the universe is so highly ordered, chance, as man understands it, does not exist. Chance is rather “direction, which thou canst not see” (290). Those things that man sees as disparate or unrelated are all “but parts of one stupendous whole, / Whose body nature is, and God the soul” (267-8). Thus every element of the universe has complete perfection according to God’s purpose. Pope concludes the first epistle with the statement “Whatever is, is right,” meaning that all is for the best and that everything happens according to God’s plan, even though man may not be able to comprehend it (294).
Here is a section-by-section explanation of the first epistle:
Introduction (1-16): The introduction begins with an address to Henry St. John, Lord Bolingbroke, a friend of the poet from whose fragmentary philosophical writings Pope likely drew inspiration for An Essay on Man. Pope urges his friend to “leave all meaner things” and rather embark with Pope on his quest to “vindicate the ways of God to man (1, 16).
Section I (17-34): Section I argues that man can only understand the universe with regard to human systems and constructions because he is ignorant of the greater relationships between God’s creations.
Section II (35-76): Section II states that man is imperfect but perfectly suited to his place within the hierarchy of creation according to the general order of things.
Section III (77-112): Section III demonstrates that man's happiness depends on both his ignorance of future events and on his hope for the future.
Section IV (113-30): Section IV claims that man’s sin of pride—the attempt to gain more knowledge and pretend to greater perfection—is the root of man’s error and misery. By putting himself in the place of God, judging perfection and justice, man acts impiously.
Section V (131-72): Section V depicts the absurdity of man’s belief that he is the sole cause of the creation as well as his ridiculous expectation of perfection in the moral world that does not exist in the natural world.
Section VI (173-206): Section VI decries the unreasonableness of man’s complaints against Providence; God is good, giving and taking equally. If man had the omniscience of God, he would be miserable: “The bliss of man [...] / Is, not to act of think beyond mankind” (189-90).
Section VII (207-32): Section VII shows that throughout the visible world, a universal order and gradation can be observed. This is particularly apparent in the hierarchy of earthly creatures and their subordination to man. Pope refers specifically to the gradations of sense, instinct, thought, reflection, and reason. Reason is superior to all.
Section VIII (233-58): Section VIII indicates that if God’s rules of order and subordination are broken, the whole of creation must be destroyed.
Section IX (259-80): Section IX illustrates the madness of the desire to subvert God’s order.
Section X (281-94): Section X calls on man to submit to God’s power. Absolute submission to God will ensure that man remains “Safe in the hand of one disposing Pow’r” (287). After all, “Whatever is, is right” (294).
Pope’s first epistle seems to endorse a sort of fatalism, in which all things are fated. Everything happens for the best, and man should not presume to question God’s greater design, which he necessarily cannot understand because he is a part of it. He further does not possess the intellectual capability to comprehend God’s order outside of his own experience. These arguments certainly support a fatalistic world view. According to Pope’s thesis, everything that exists plays a role in the divine plan. God thus has a specific intention for every element of His creation, which suggests that all things are fated. Pope, however, was always greatly distressed by charges of fatalism. As a proponent of the doctrine of free will, Pope’s personal opinions seem at odds with his philosophical conclusions in the first epistle. Reconciling Pope’s own views with his fatalistic description of the universe represents an impossible task.
The first epistle of An Essay on Man is its most ambitious. Pope states that his task is to describe man’s place in the “universal system” and to “vindicate the ways of God to man” (16). In the poem’s prefatory address, Pope more specifically describes his intention to consider “man in the abstract, his Nature and his State, since, to prove any moral duty, to enforce any moral precept, or to examine the perfection of imperfection of any creature whatsoever, it is necessary first to know what condition and relation it is placed in, and what is the proper end and purpose of its being.” Pope’s stated purpose of the poem further problematizes any critical reading of the first epistle. According to Pope’s own conclusions, man’s limited intellect can comprehend only a small portion of God’s order and likewise can have knowledge of only half-truths. It therefore seems the height of hubris to presume to justify God’s ways to man. His own philosophical conclusions make this impossible. As a mere component part of God’s design and a member of the hierarchical middle state, Pope exists within God’s design and therefore cannot perceive the greater logic of God’s order. To do so would bring only misery: “The bliss of man [...] / Is, not to act of think beyond mankind” (189-90).
Though Pope’s philosophical ambitions result in a rather incoherent epistle, the poem demonstrates a masterful use of the heroic couplet. Some of the most quoted lines from Pope’s works actually appear in this poem. For example, the quotation “Hope springs eternal in the human breast: / Man never is, but always to be blest” appears in the problematic first epistle (95-6). Pope’s skill with verse thus far outweighs his philosophical aspirations, and it is fortunate that he chose to write in verse rather than prose. Indeed, eighteenth-century critics saw An Essay on Man as a primarily poetic work despite its philosophical themes.