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."
Pope’s principle for understanding man is the Great Chain of Being, which orders all creation according to God’s will. The disorders which man sees in the universe are actually parts of some larger perfection which man’s limited knowledge cannot perceive. Man’s prideful speculations, not the external universe, are the cause of his misery.
Within man himself, there is also an order based on the workings of self-love (the faculty of desire) and reason (the faculty of judgment). Right living depends upon the two working in harmony, since neither is good or evil in itself. Rather, good or evil arises out of their proper or improper use.
Human society also partakes of this universal order. The imitation of nature and rational self-love enable man to create a successful social order, but his favoring of a particular government or religion, instead of reliance on general principles, creates dissension and tyranny. Man’s end--happiness--is attained when he submits to Providence and dispenses with pride.
Part of the essay’s greatness is Pope’s unity of structure and theme. The poem’s orderly exposition of ideas, its concentration on universals rather than specifics, and its heroic couplet verses, reflect the ideas of balance, subordination, and harmony better than even the finest prose.
Cutting-Gray, Joanne, and James E. Swearingen. “System, the Divided Mind, and the Essay on Man.”...
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