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“An Essay on Man”, Alexander Pope Critical Essay

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Updated: Jul 1st, 2020

In the preface to An Essay on Man, Alexander Pope says, “If I could flatter myself that this Essay has any merit, it is in steering betwixt the extremes of doctrines seemingly opposite.” The “doctrines” that Pope talks of are the seeming contradiction in human mind that, there exist, “not many certain truths in this world” . In other words, Pope writes of the contradictions that lie in man’s imperfect perception of the God’s creation.

God created the world, but man’s speculations and pride that makes him blind to the perfection with which God has created it. Therefore, the contradictory “doctrines” that Pope refers to are those of Christianity and deism.

In his Essay, Pope intended to express a philosophy about the seamless creation that God has made, but Man, blinded in his pride of uncertainty, fails to perceive its full appeal: “the disputes are all upon these last, and I will venture to say, they have less sharpened the wits than the hearts of men against each other, and have diminished the practice more than advanced the theory of Morality.”

Clearly, the “dispute” lies in the heart of Man that, crippled with its own vanity, fails to see the ethereal beauty of God’s creation and looks at it with questioning mind: “The pride of aiming at more knowledge, and pretending to more Perfection, the cause of Man’s error and misery.” Pope in his Essay talks of this disconnect and of his belief that the discontent of humanity is not caused by flaws in God’s design, but by Man’s pride.

This essay discusses the philosophy that Pope brings forth in his Essay that Man, in his pride and disbelief, is blinded and fails to realize the beauty and sublimity in the perfect world that God has created, rather it is Man who creates the dissonance and distortion to this seamless creation.

An Essay on Man was written by Alexander Pope in 1733-34 and was published anonymously. The poem presents Pope’s most “extensive disquisition on philosophical, cosmic, and social themes” and sparked one of the greatest debates on “beneficence of Nature, and the role of individual society” .

The Essay presents a contradictory situation through which Pope steers the readers between the new age of mathematical and scientific certainty and that of the older traditional ecclesiastic faith.

Through the poem, Pope uses old ideas as a frame to bind, the modern thought of given instantaneous world in order to reconcile a notional map of Nature . Therefore, Essay transgresses from being “mere” poetry into the realm of staid consideration. Pope says that the Essay is “a general map of Man, marking out no more that the greater parts, their extent, their limits, and their connexion.”

The expressed contradiction between man and Nature shows the intellectual weakness of man. The poem describes human Nature beyond the “lexicon and genres of traditional theological discussion” . Pope presents the metaphors in the very beginning of the poem showing how the landscape architecture creates everything in a new setting that gives the clue regarding the poem’s externalization of Man from man:

A mighty maze! but not without a plan;

A Wild, where weeds and flow’rs promiscuous shoot,

Or Garden, tempting with forbidden fruit.

Man, in his foolishness, searches for the mysteries of life that is safely kept in the intricate and flawless creation of the landscape architect. For all its intricacies, the creator has created the maze to perfection. The description of the garden scene in the poem opens the contradiction that Pope talks of in the introduction to the Essay.

Man creates a perfect, intricate maze and Pope compares it to the wild Nature created by God that apparently seems spontaneous and unplanned. He, thus, shows the pride in man through the description of the hunter who shows confidence at his complete knowledge of the quarry:

Together let us beat this ample field,

Try what the open, what the covert yield;

The latent tracts (3), the giddy heights explore

Of all who blindly creep, or sightless soar;

Eye Nature’s walks, shoot Folly as it flies,

And catch the Manners living as they rise;

Here man is pitted against the profoundness of God’s creation. Man is presented as the creator of disorder in the simple, unexploited, natural setting. Man, represented as problematic and divided, is not a harmonious dweller in the Nature God created.

Nature has found its repeated presence in the Essay. This makes one almost believe that Nature and God are intermingled to form a superpower. The poem makes no mention of Christ, soul, or death, as Nancy Lawlor points out that “God seems to be an impersonal deity whose existence permeates all natural phenomenon.”

Nevertheless, reading the poem shows repeated reference of Nature indicates that the concept is not a mere personification. Lawlor believes that the word indicates “finite universe – as a whole or as some single aspect of material creation” (309).

Pope represents Nature as the body, matter, and form that encompasses the universe: “All are but parts of one stupendous whole / Whose body, Nature is, and God the soul” God as the soul of the universe becomes the most important factor in the universe:

Warm in the sun, refreshes in the breeze

Glows in the stars, and blossoms in the trees,

Lives thro’ all life, extends thro’ all extent,

Spreads undivided, operates unspent.

These lines written in present tense metaphorically show the living Nature (in the sun) that participates in the godly action. A few lines later Pope concedes, “All Nature is but Art” (28, 289) where deism is seemingly negated with use of the word but. However, the last two lines of the epistle “Whatever is, is right” (29, 294) strongly shows deist sentiment in the poem.

There is a contradiction in the deist believe expressed by Pope in the Essay. Whenever there is, a mention of the word Heaven or God there arises a conflict with Nature. When he calls God, he implies the almighty, superpower, which has planned it all.

Nevertheless, when he says Heaven he brings in a personal touch to God who becomes a close companion and observer of all. Pope in the Essay says that Nature, though Man believes that Nature is unplanned, keeps account of all its creations:

Heav’n from all creatures hides the book of Fate,

All but the page prescrib’d, their present state;

From brutes what men, from men what spirits know:

Or who could suffer Being here below? (7, 77-80)

In this delineation of Nature, God, heaven, Pope actually tries to demonstrate the God keeps humans below and limits of human knowledge to reduce his suffering. God made the universe and makes it follow the principles He made.

This dualism of conceptualization of God and Nature is furthers in Epistle III where Pope discusses the historic moral development of man starting from the time be started living as the lord with simple cohabitation with Nature.

History of man, as traced by Pope, demonstrated the transgress of Man from childlike companion of Nature to a savage destroyer of it: “The Fury-passions from that blood began, / And turn’d on Man a fierce savage, Man” (69, 167-8).

After this couplet, Pope shows a new facet of Nature wherein he professes that Nature is the innocent face of Man before it was contaminated with the art to reason. Pope therefore, confuses the readers, as it becomes difficult to ascertain if reason is a foe or a friend to Man in his history of social and moral evolution.

Pope exemplifies the philosophy of “vast chain of Being” extending the idea from celestial creatures down to the basest of animals. The Essay shows that Superior creatures have a way of looking down upon the Inferior creatures, as Man looks down upon animals, which, amusingly are closest to the rational Nature. In Epistle II Pope speaks of this idea of the chain of Being:

Superior beings, when of late they saw

A mortal man unfold all Nature’s view,

Admired such wisdom in an earthly shape,

And showed a Newton as we show an ape.

This clearly shows man’s vanity that makes him think himself to be superior to all other creatures. In his pride and perception of superiority, man becomes an object of mirth . The ape comparison is intensified in the following paragraphs and the irony of Man’s foolish pride and arrogance is intensified to create his inflated self-image:

Could he, whose rules the rapid Comet bind,

Describe or fix one movement of his Mind?

Who saw its fires here rise, and there descend,

Explain his own beginning, or his end?

Alas what wonder! Man’s superior part

Uncheck’d may rise, and climb from art to art:

But when his own great work is but begun,

What Reason weaves, by Passion is undone. (36, 35-42)

The meaning of this discourse is clearly the irony in man’s vanity that pushes him to investigate things that are beyond his understanding, and failing miserably in his attempt to control things that are beyond his understanding and capability.

But in this process, Man’s pride is not diminished, rather is inflated further in vain self-exaltation. Pope uses the example of Newton to show the innate interest in all Man to expand his rationality into Nature.

Pope, while demonstrating Man’s foolish attempt to investigate and control Nature, shows that the subordination of the mechanical order of the human world and the superiority of the rational Nature that goes beyond human understanding. Pope furthers the irony in the pride of Man in showing that the pride that man so dearly cherishes is given to him by none other than Nature.

Following this, Pope reaches to the climax of his philosophy where he says that it is Heaven (or Nature) that supplies all that is necessary for the creation of the world, including goodness and virtue. On the other hand, Man, ironically considers himself as the lord of all creation, fails to fathom that he too is created by Nature. Pope therefore says:

But Heav’n’s great view in One, and that the Whole:

That counter-works each folly and caprice;

That disappoints th’effect of ev’ry vice:

That happy frailties to all ranks apply’d,

Shame to the virgin, to the matron pride,

Fear to the statesman, rashness to the chief,

To kings presumption, and to crowds belief,

That Virtue’s ends from Vanity can rise,

Which seeks no int’rest, no reward but praise;

And build on wants, and on defects of mind,

The joy, the peace, the glory of Mankind.

Here Pope reinforces the beliefs that Man is blinded in his pride, and fails to see that it is Heaven that is the master of all creation. The vanity that Man store is created by Nature. Therefore, Man is a pitiable creature who prides his knowledge of all and investigates into Nature’s vastness, but in vain. He fails miserably to fathom the true meaning of all the haphazardness in God’s creation.

Pope shows that Nature created the world with utmost perfection and ceased to intervene in its diurnal motion. Man blinded with pride thinks that he can unravel the mystery lying at the abyss of the world, but fails to realize that this intelligence, this pride, this vanity that he so self-obsessively cherishes is a creation of that nature he tries to trivialize.

Therefore, Pope in the Essay praises the beauty of the system that Nature rationalizes its creation.

The main idea that is expressed in the second epistle of the Essay is Man’s love of self and reason. The love of self of man is dynamic and is directed through human passion and conduct along with reason. In this duality of passion and reason, passion has an upper hand.

It is Nature, Pope believes, that has the power to turn down passion and change an action from vice to virtue: “Thus Nature gives us (let it check our pride) / The virtue nearest to our vice ally’d” (47, 95-96).

In his An Essay on Man, Pope had reached an ideal philosophy that he had started budding in his much earlier work An Essay on Criticism: “…a Grace beyond the Reach of Art, / Which, without passing thro’ the Judgment, gains / The Heart …” . Pope’s idea of grace revolves around Nature or the supernatural that had designed the creation of world.

This creation and the creator is beyond the understanding of Man’s knowledge that is exemplified with “Reach of Art” and which requires no investigation or judgment. Pope’s idea of the chain of being, that all living creatures are interconnected by a cosmic chain is expressed further in epistle III where he says:

Nothing is foreign: Parts relate to whole;

One all-extending, all preserving Soul

Connects each being, greatest with the least;

Made Beast in aid of Man, and Man of Beast;

All serv’d, all serving! nothing stands alone;

The chain holds on, and where it ends, unknown. (60, 21-26)

The Essay is a satire on the follies of man, but within its witticism and mirth, Pope skillfully presents a metaphysical philosophy that is difficult to neglect. Man, with his intelligence, knowledge, desire, or lust for the unknown has tried to solve the mystery of the world’s creation. Man has tried to control and recreate nature according to his own will.

However, Pope contends that Man fails to see that the one who planned it to remain unplanned, Nature, created the world. In this poem, Nature and God assume the same place, and Pope’s deism is apparent.

In the poem’s symbolic imagery, Pope has infused the philosophy of Nature’s superiority over man’s vain pride in knowledge. The poem, concisely, brings forth the universal truth “WHATEVER IS, IS RIGHT” (97, 165) and all readers of Pope’s An Essay on Man would concur, “all our knowledge is, OURSELVES to know.” (115, 398)

Work Cited

Atkins, G. Douglas. “Pope and Deism: A New Analysis.” Huntington Library Quarterly, 35(3) (1972): 257-278. Web. [Retreived from JSTOR]

Cutting-Gray, Joanne and James E. Swearingen. “System, the Divided Mind, and the Essay on Man.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, 32(3) (1992): 479-494. Web. [Retreived from EBSCOHost]

Lawlor, Nancy K. “Pope’s Essay On Man Oblique Light For A False Mirror.” Modern Language Quarterly, 28(3) (1967 ): 305-316. Web. [Retreived from EBSCOHost]

Pope, Alexander. An Essay on Criticism. London: W. Lewis, 1711. Print.

—. An Essay on Man. London: A. Millar, and J. and R. Tonson, 1763. Print.

Rogers, Pat. “Introduction.” Rogers, Pat. The Cambridge Companion to Alexander Pope. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007. 1-13. Print.

White, Douglas H. and Thomas P. Tierney. “”An Essay on Man” and the Tradition of Satires on Mankind.” Modern Philogy, 85(1) (1987): 27-41. Web. [Retreived from JSTOR]

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