Alexander Popes Essay On Man
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.
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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