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
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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