An Essay on Man, by Alexander Pope
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by Alexander Pope, 1733–34
An Essay on Man is a series of four verse epistles by Alexander Pope (1688–1744)
addressed to the politician and man of letters Henry St. John, Lord Bolingbroke (1678– 1751). It was intended to form Book I of a comprehensive series of essays, to be called Ethic Epistles, which was also to include Pope’s Epistles to Several Persons on the characters of men and of women and on the use of riches. This plan was never finally settled or put into effect, but the Essay on Man stands as his most ambitious attempt at setting out his philosophical beliefs, or his “general Map of Man.”
Pope began the Essay in 1729. By 1731 he had completed Epistles I-III and had begun Epistle IV. He may then have set the work aside for a period, before publishing Epistles I-III in 1733 and Epistle IV in 1734. Pope had made enemies in the vigorous and often scurrilous literary politics of his time; hence in order to gain the Essay an unprejudiced reception, its first publication was anonymous. It was reprinted with minor revisions in the nine authorized editions of Pope’s works published in his lifetime as well as appearing in pirated editions.
Each of the four Epistles is in effect a separate essay, discussing man’s place in the universe (I), psychology (II), society (III), and the sources of happiness (IV). These discussions touch on major controversies or developments in 18th-century thought.
Epistle I employs the arguments of natural religion, the attempt to show that the existence of God and other orthodox religious doctrines could be inferred by reason. In confining himself to these arguments, Pope excludes biblical revelation. This need not mean that he rejected the authority of the Bible, though this conclusion has been drawn by some readers from the time the Essay was first published. It may mean rather that Pope wrote for an audience not responsive to traditional religious discourse and that he wished to demonstrate to this audience the compatibility between reason and at least some aspects of Christian orthodoxy. Epistle II expounds the doctrine that each person is governed by a particular “ruling passion,” which reason cannot overcome but may guide. Throughout the poem Pope gives surprising prominence and importance to the passions and to instinct, arguing in Epistle III that human reason is less reliable than animal instinct. In its frequent allusions to the discoveries of Isaac Newton, the Essay reveals skepticism about the usefulness of the new empirical science. Against this science Pope asserts the humanist idea that “The proper study of Mankind is Man,” and that this study is even more demanding than the physical sciences. The prevailing theme of the Essay is a characteristic 18th-century optimism that all aspects of creation, including apparent evils, work together to produce an inclusive good, which may however be beyond the grasp of human understanding.
The Essay also incorporates traditional teachings of classical and Christian philosophers and moralists. It envisages Creation as a “great chain of being,” a hierarchical gradation in which each species has its allotted place. Its history of human society begins with the mythic “golden age,” a state of nature in which all creatures lived in peace. The discussion of happiness in Epistle IV teaches that true happiness consists not in accidents of fortune, like wealth or social rank, nor in military or political achievements, nor even in wisdom, but in virtue. This is a teaching familiar in Roman moralists and poets such as Seneca and Horace. The Essay takes on its most sternly
Christian coloration when it attacks human pride and emphasizes the limits of human knowledge and capacities.
This emphasis relates the poem to the questioning and tentative character of the essay as practiced by Montaigne. Pope’s mistrust of systematic science also leads him to adopt the aim of Bacon’s essays, to treat not abstruse but everyday subjects, which “come home to men’s business and bosoms.” One model for Pope’s style are the epistles of Horace, with their good-humored urbanity. Nevertheless there is a tension between, on the one hand, Pope’s protestations of modesty and his insistence on human ignorance, and, on the other, the ambitious scope of his poem and his air of unruffled confidence in
his own knowledge and understanding.
The Essay exhibits Pope’s characteristic uses of his verse form, the rhyming couplet. It abounds in parallelism and antithesis and in epigrams and aphorisms. Occasionally the demands of argumentation produce excessively elliptical language, but in general the poem has an easy, conversational quality. This is created by Pope’s use of question and answer and of direct address to an imagined interlocutor. Sometimes the interlocutor’s understanding or opinion is presented only to be disproved or ridiculed; sometimes the interlocutor is imagined to be the poem’s addressee Bolingbroke and is treated respectfully. Vigor and a sense of debate are injected by the poem’s rhetorical questions, its exclamations of wonder or outrage, and its occasional ecstatic visions. An effect of comprehensiveness and variety, appropriate to the poem’s large subject, is produced by its lists and catalogues. These may detail the wonders of the universe or the varieties of human nature produced under the direction of wisdom, or they may detail the follies of humanity in doubting or resisting that wisdom. Pope draws on historical examples, such as Alexander the Great or Oliver Cromwell, though the Essay on Man generally lacks the vivid narrative episodes and character sketches that mark his Epistles to Several Persons.
Pope’s own summary of his style is “happily to steer/From grave to gay, from lively to severe;/Correct with spirit, eloquent with ease,/Intent to reason, or polite to please.”
The Essay was widely admired in the 18th century. Besides its English editions, about 100 translations were published. It is frequently quoted by the philosopher Immanuel Kant and was imitated by Voltaire (Discours en vers sur l’homme [1736; Discourse in verse on man]). However, since the 19th century the didacticism, rationalism, and optimism of the Essay have caused it to fall from critical favor.
An Essay on Man, 4 vols., 1733–34; edited by Maynard Mack, 1950
Brower, Reuben A., Alexander Pope: The Poetry of Allusion, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959
Brown, Laura, Alexander Pope, Oxford and New York: Blackwell, 1985
Ferguson, Rebecca, The Unbalanced Mind: Pope and the Rule of Passion, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, and Brighton: Harvester, 1986
Nuttall, A.D., Pope’s “Essay on Man”, London and Boston: Allen and Unwin, 1984
Sutherland, John, “Wit, Reason, Vision and ‘An Essay on Man’,” Modern Language Quarterly 30 (1969):356–69
White, Douglas, Pope and the Context of Controversy: The Manipulation of Ideas in “An Essay on Man”, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970
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