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Ideas Presented by Jean-Jacques Rousseau in ‘Confessions’ and Alexander Pope’s ‘Essay on Man’ Essay

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Updated: Sep 19th, 2021

Introduction

Both Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Alexander Pope were great thinkers of the Enlightenment era. Rousseau’s writings have made an indelible impression on modern culture and modern politics. In the book, ‘Confessions’ Rousseau unfolds his life story beginning with a description of his family and the impact of his mother’s death at his birth. Both Rousseau and Pope in their respective works, ‘Confessions’ and “Essay on Man’ explore the nature of man. But while Rousseau does it by unfolding his life story as a comparative model, Pope does it in verse form and an analytical tone. The Essay on Man is a philosophical poem, written in heroic couplets.

The Beginning

Rousseau says: “I propose to set before my fellow-mortals a man in all the truth of nature; and this man shall be myself”. Pope begins by including the reader in his analytic thinking on the nature of man and life: “Awake, my St. John! leave all meaner things / …./ Let us (since life can little more supply / Than just to look about us, and to die)/ Expatriate free o’er all this scene of man; /A mighty maze! but not without a plan;” (1-3). While Rousseau declares that the main intent of his book is self-exploration, Pope begins with the declaration that man is in the world according to a plan. The ideas of Rousseau embedded in the book ‘Confessions’ are profound and holds analyses of his feelings in his early days. He talks about embarrassing experiences of his life, and his entry into the world of adult sexuality. He also reveals his relationships with women. By reflecting deeply on his own life experiences and allowing those reflections to expand upon the world in general Rousseau makes his book, “Confessions” one of the most remarkable explorations of the self. In fact, despite its romantic autobiographical nature, Rousseau adds a note that the book is meant to provide a standard of comparison for people to understand themselves.

Alexander Pope in his “Essay on Man” analyses through reflection, the nature of nature, the nature of man, and God. Pope begins the Essay on Man wondering about the worthlessness of life. But he also says, that the complex existence of man has a meaning, and a man with his ability to reason, has the power to understand the nature of the world and also understand that all things are somehow interlinked and connected…

“He, who thro’ vast immensity can pierce,
See worlds on worlds compose one universe,
Observe how system into system runs,
What other planets circle other suns,

Look’d thro’? or can a part contain the whole?
Is the great chain that draws all to agree, –
And, drawn, supports – upheld by God or thee?” (Epistle I)

On Nature

In Book I Rousseau claims that he is a unique person created by Nature. While Rousseau holds that man is created by Nature, Pope says that man is a part of nature. Thus, both Alexander Pope and Rousseau agree that man and nature are linked. Pope goes on to say that nature is interconnected and has a certain unity in its structure. Man, according to Pope is part of a larger system, nature. Despite his dependence on nature, Pope rues the fact that man is destructive in his attitude towards nature” “Destroy all creatures for thy sport or gust”. According to Pope man is ruled by his inner reasoning and passion. Pope asserts that man is ruled from within, by his reason and by his passion. He describes man’s passions as “the elements of life”. Rousseau was a man who allowed his passions to dominate his life choices.

Pope also underlines the goodness of nature and how everything in nature is adequately equipped to survive.

“The spider’s tough how exquisitely fine!
Feels at each thread, and lives along the line:
In the nice bee, what sense so subtly true
From poisonous herbs extracts the healing dew?” (Epistle II)

In the third Epistle, Pope talks about how man is a part of nature and how in nature, everything is interdependent. “Like bubbles on the sea a matter borne, / They rise, they break, and to that sea return. / Nothing is foreign; parts relate to the whole:” In his third Epistle, Pope refers to instinct as “the unerring guide” and reason as one that can often fail us: “ But honest instinct comes to a volunteer, / Sure never to overshoot, but just to hit” (Epistle III). He explains the power of instinct by asking “Who make the spider parallels design… without rule or line?” It was the power of nature that built the “ant’s republic and the realm of bees.” Pope observes “anarchy without confusion.”Pope also stresses the oneness of Nature and feels that nature extends through all forms of life and the universe. Pope concludes that man is but a part of nature.

On Balance of Mind

Pope believed that art had the ability to give a person a balance of mind. Rousseau illustrates this with his life example. In Book I he reveals that the songs of a girl helped people overcome sadness. “The serenity and cheerfulness which were conspicuous in this lovely girl banished melancholy, and made all around her happy”. He repeatedly refers to the power of music to calm his soul.

On Science

Rousseau in Book VI holds that whenever a “person has any real taste for the sciences, the first thing he perceives in the pursuit of them is that connection by which they mutually attract, assist, and enlighten each other and that it is impossible to attain one without the assistance of the rest”. Thus, he implies that all branches of science are interlinked. This thought is similar to the thought of Pope that holds everything in nature is interlinked and dependent on one another. Rousseau felt that meditation held the key to knowledge, whereas Pope was content to live with some mysteries of nature that cannot be understood. Pope says that man doesn’t need to be able to decipher all of life’s mysteries. “As of thy mother earth, why oaks are made /Taller or stronger than the weeds they shade”. Whatever frailties man has, Pope attributes them strongly to God” “Then say not Man’s imperfect, Heav’n in fault, – Say rather Man’s as perfect as he ought:” Pope celebrates the life of man and calls him eternally blessed with hope. “Hope springs eternal in the human breast”. Thus Pope’s ideas are generally optimistic.

On Morality

Morality was very important to Rousseau. He felt that a person should always do what is right and ‘should ever carefully avoid putting our interest in competition with our duty, or promise ourselves felicity from the misfortunes of others. Rousseau held that good government requires moral foundations. Pope comments on government and says that while the government is necessary, its form is of less importance, what is important, is a good administration: “For forms of government let fools contest; / Whate’er is best administered is best:” However, Rousseau continuously paid more importance to sincerity over truth, and feeling over reason (Glendon, page 1). It can be seen in the way he is often betrayed by the women he loves and his friends. Morality, in Rousseau’s view, was rooted in neither reason nor revelation, but in the natural feeling of compassion (Glendon, page 1). Indeed, he is in an important sense the father of the politics of compassion. In the context of morality, Pope felt that everything happened according to the law of nature. There was nothing that could be called right or wrong. People, by the law of nature, could make free choices.

Self-Awareness

Pope emphasizes that there must be self-awareness. Man must make “a proper study of mankind”; man is to know himself. However, Pope also predicts that self-analysis will lead man to realize that he is ruled by his passions and counseled by his thoughts. Man’s feelings can be his weakness and undo great things done through his mental faculty of reasoning. “But when his great work is but begun, / What Reason weaves, by Passion is undone”. Pope says there are two principles in human nature: self-love that motivates and the reason that restrains. With experience, a man soon learns that he cannot allow his passions to rule him. “Attention, habit and experience gains; / Each strengthens Reason, and Self-love restrains”. To have a good balance of mind, Pope says that all feelings of love, hope, joy, hate, fear grief, etc should be sublimated through art and kept in check. Pope is blatant when he declares that every person is driven by self-love but depends on others: “each on the other to depend, a master, or a servant, or a friend, Bids each on other for assistance call.” Each person has the freedom to make choices in life and no one can blame him for that. Rousseau also talks about his dependency on others – his mentors, his women, and his friends.

On Happiness

In the last Epistle, Pope opines that happiness depends on the individual. Only nature can provide man with true happiness and only by having a balanced way of living, man can find happiness. To Pope, pleasure does not last, it “sicken, and all glories sink.” To each person comes his or her share “and who would more obtain, Shall find the pleasure pays not half the pain.” To be rich, to be wise: these are both laudable goals and a person looking about will always be able to find others who have riches and wisdom in varying degrees, but it cannot be concluded to any degree that they are happy (Brower, 236). Happiness comes when one has “health, peace, and competence.” Rousseau finds happiness in the company of women and when he is involved in music. But such happy moments do not last. Thus as Pope says, pleasure comes along with pain. Their ideas are similar in this regard. Pope’s doctrine for achieving happiness in this world, is contained within the two lines: “That Virtue only makes our Bliss below; / And all our Knowledge is, Ourselves to know”. The virtue referred to in this context is ‘self-exploration (Brower, 236).

Of Fame

Of fame, Pope says,” It will get you nothing but a crowd “of stupid starers and loud huzzas.” Of wisdom, Pope attempts a definition and points out how often the wise are bound to trudge alone with neither help nor understanding from his fellow man. He concludes that everything is right according to nature and reason and passion should aim in helping man love society as much as he loves himself. These views are well evinced in the narration of Rousseau. After his success, Rousseau says he loses many friends. After becoming a man, Rousseau is transformed into a person who wants to be virtuous and live by his principles. This makes him lonely. As the narrative moves on, in the eighth book, to the revelation of Vincennes, the era of the Discourses, and Rousseau’s first celebrity, it is evident that the predominant theme is now that of ‘contradiction’ or moral warfare, expressed in his alternating desires to flee from this society or to dominate and reform it. He seeks to recover his moral freedom by overcoming the boundaries of opinion formed through passion and selfish interest (Broome, 156). This idea is similar to Pope’s.

Passion according to Pope can be overcome with reason. Rousseau also agrees with this notion. For Rousseau, the self is naturally good and naturally free, living in a state of unmediated unity that is also a state of love (Scruton, page 5). Evil happens when there is a conflict within the self. This conflict in turn comes when an individual lives according to rules made by other people. We overcome our alienation, Rousseau believed, not through passion but rational choice.

The Essay on Man is an affirmative poem of faith. Though the man seems to be in the midst of a chaotic life, there is a pattern. According to Pope, there is a God who looks after the world and ensures order in the universe. Man can never seek to understand the order devised by God and hence he must rely on hope, trust, and faith. Man must strive to be good, even if he is doomed, because of his inherent frailty, to fail in his attempt. Rousseau’s work is somewhat negative in that it reveals Rousseau’s capricious, undisciplined childhood and a life that was swayed by sensuous instincts. He was not able to conceive of the moral life as a thoughtful adjustment of the individual to the universe. He rather regarded man as a plaything in the hands of a kindly but capricious God and regarded himself as a helpless victim of an inexorable necessity or fate (Davidson, 213).

References

Glendon, M. A. (1999). . First Things: A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life.

Rousseau, J. J. (1953). The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Penguin Classics.

Broome, J. H. (1963). Rousseau: A Study of His Thought. Edward Arnold Publishers. London.

Davidson, T. (1970). Rousseau and Education According to Nature. Scholarly Press. St. Clair Shores.

Brower, A. R. (1968). Alexander Pope: The Poetry of Allusion. Oxford University Press. London.

Pope A. Essay on Man.

Scruton, R. (1998). Rousseau and the origins of liberalism. New Criterion. Volume 17, Issue 2.

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