A study of Pope’s Contradictory Philosophy in his First Epistle of An Essay on Man By Wang Huang

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A Study of Pope’s Contradictory Philosophy

in his First Epistle of An Essay on Man

By Wang Huang

A Thesis Submitted

to the School of English and International Studies

Beijing Foreign Studies University

in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements

for the Degree of Bachelor of Arts

Supervised by

Professor Clifford R. Ames

28 May 2006

A Study of Pope’s Contradictory Philosophy

in his First Epistle of An Essay on Man

Thesis Statement:

In the first epistle of An Essay on Man, Pope tries to convince his reader to admit to man’s inferiority and imperfection, and to submit to the almighty power of God. His theory seems self-justified and optimistic on the surface, but it actually contradicts the need for social innovation and human improvement.


I. The General Introduction to Pope and his Essay

A. His controversial reputation and a brief history of the Essay

  1. The main Features of the Essay: universal theme, heroic couplets and vast images

II. Analysis of Epistle I

A. Stanza I:

1. The audience and the abstract notion of “Man”

2. A comparison with Renaissance’s theme and Milton’s Paradise Lost

3. The Newtonian system reflected in the Essay

B. Pope’s attempt to persuade man to abandon his impiety to God in following stanzas

1. The adoption of the Great Chain of Being and its vital importance to the whole theme

2. The fault of man’s Reasoning Pride

3. Man’s blindness to Future and to Hope

C. Pope’s philosophy vs. human improvement and social development

1. The cause of man’s error and misery

2. The “Misery” necessary to social innovation and human improvement

D. Pope’s universal theme vs. Wordsworth’s originality

. The Conclusion: An objective judgment on Pope as a poet





关键词:存在巨链 理性的傲慢 不虔诚 不完美

By imposing the Great Chain of Being on his reader, in the first Epistle of An Essay on Man, Pope makes every effort to “vindicate the ways of God to Man”. His self-justified theory seems optimistic about man’s fate, but it actually contradicts any program for social innovation and human improvement. However, the lack of philosophical depth in the poem should not depreciate the value of the masterpiece in the English Enlightenment.

Though the Essay is addressed to Henry St. John, Lord Bolingbroke, Pope actually refers to man as an abstract concept, and the work is put into an artistic whole. Though Pope adopts the Medieval and Renaissance idea of the Great Chain of Being, there are important differences between the Essay and Milton’s Paradise Lost in their respective ways of justifying God’s almighty power. From the basic laws of nature—Newtonian theory—to the general order of human society—the Great Chain of Being—Pope regards man’s reasoning pride as “Madness, Pride, Impiety,” which will destroy the universal harmony. Pope always puts man in a passive position in which he is completely blind to his future, and it is useless for him to cherish any hope. The only way for man to obtain happiness is to admit to his inferiority and imperfection, and become an obedient lamb in the hands of God.

In Pope’s argument, God is sovereign and merciful, and He does all things for the general benefit of the universe. God cannot be expected to alter the order of the whole for the good of the part, except on the rarest of occasions. What man knows as ill is good in its relation to a larger plan enclosing him that he cannot comprehend: partial evil is part of the universal good. Man’s error or misery caused by dissatisfaction with his own conditions Pope believes is due to the limit of his omnipotence. Pope’s philosophy seems reasonable and optimistic on the surface, but in fact, it counteracts any progress in social development and human improvement. Therefore, the contradiction of its logic is quite obvious in the Essay.

The Essay is not an original work, but rather a sample of some common philosophical ideas in the English Neoclassical Period. But the imperfection of the Essay should not be the sole judgment on the work as a masterpiece of the English Enlightenment.
Key Words: Great Chain of Being Reasoning Pride Impiety Imperfection

A Study of Pope’s Contradictory Philosophy

in his First Epistle of An Essay on Man

As an English critic and satirist, Alexander Pope is arguably one of the most celebrated poets of the English Enlightenment. His later works are largely indebted to a range of literary and philosophical sources, ancient and contemporary. In An Essay on Man, the density of reference and allusion reveals an outlook that did not prefer “originality”, but rather a synthesizing of time-honored wisdom: “What oft was Thought, but ne’er so well Express’d.” Pope is now reconsidered as one of the consummate craftsmen of the English language, but for a period of time, especially during the Romantic period, he and his An Essay on Man were condemned for its rigid structure and its shallow meanings collected the table of his philosophical friends. Both Pope and the Essay cannot be fully appreciated or understood without some awareness of his plan and the history of the Essay.

An Essay on Man was originally designed by Pope as the introduction to a much larger work, a work in which Pope intended to include his four Moral Essays, as well as some materials subsequently incorporated into other poems. However, this extensive program was not so well-formed in Pope’s mind during the years when he was actually composing the poem. The conditions favorable to its conception were probably established with the return of Lord Bolingbroke from his exile in France in 1723. Moreover, it is evident from the poet’s correspondence that he was beginning to toy with ethical speculations and with allowing the former statesman to assign himself the role of the poet’s guide, philosopher and friend. The first explicit reference to this collaboration occurs in a combined letter from Pope to Swift in November 1729, a letter in which Pope explained that the work referred to was “a system of ethics in the Horatian way”. He also wrote to Swift in June 1730 that he was “just writing, or rather planning a book, to make mankind look upon this life with comfort and pleasure, and put morality in good humor”(Erskine-Hill 22). In order to make sure that the Essay would receive a fair reading, in 1733 and 1734, through a rival bookseller, Pope issued the four epistles of the Essay anonymously. The result was a great success.

Pope wrote The Design as a Preface to the Essay, and it served as an outline of the project in which he intended to “describe a system of ethics concisely and in modest terms, avoiding the doctrinal extreme and vagueness in so many works on the subject.” It is worth mentioning that Pope had earlier considered the possibility of writing his essay as a prose work, which is the most common literary form for the genre of the essay. He chose verse over prose because, in his own words, he believed his reader would understand and retain the “principles, maxims and precepts”; the latter, he believed, would “strike the reader more strongly at first, and ...[would be] more easily retained by him afterwards”. As a master of style, Pope’s verse is notable for its rhythmic variety, despite the apparently rigid metrical unit called the heroic couplet. As a result, Pope deserves the reputation of being “the only important writer of his generation who was solely a man of letters”. To deal with such a huge topic as the proposed Essay was by no means an easy task, because Pope had to make a balance between language and content, including precision of meaning, the harmony of language, and the union of maximum conciseness with maximum complexity. In general, Pope’s An Essay on Man is a poem that deals with abstractions about the whole human race, but these abstractions are put to work in an artistic whole. Each Epistle is preceded by an argument outlining its content. From the title of each Epistle, we can anticipate the poet’s general thinking on the structure of the Essay—from metaphysics to psychology and morals, to society and politics, and then to the happiness of the individual—a structure that corresponds to, and helps to further the development from acceptance to discrimination and commitment.

In the opening lines of An Essay on Man, Pope dedicates the work to his patron and collaborator Bolingbroke; the poem ends with twenty-five lines that praise Bolingbroke as the “master of the poet and song” (Epistle IV:374). Pope’s friend was the ideal audience he kept in mind as he composed his Essay—the intelligent, modern reader he must convince—but the song had more than one master and there are more things in it than were dreamed of in Bolingbroke’s philosophy. The argument of the First Epistle summarizes the major theme of the whole epistle: Of the Nature and State of Man, With Respect to the Universe. Here, the concept of “Man” is neither addressed to his noble friend Bolingbroke, nor any other individual person. As Pope explained in the notes: “The Design/Having proposed to write some pieces on human life and manners, such as (to use my Lord Bacon’s expression) ‘come home to Men’s Business and Bosoms,’ I thought it more satisfactory to begin with considering Man in the abstract, his nature and his state” (Mack 3). On the other hand, Pope referred to Nature as “a mighty maze, but not without a plan”. A labyrinth-like arrangement was frequently used in eighteenth-century gardening. When Pope depicted the scene of a garden in the Essay, he might have had in mind his own garden at his Twickenham estate, but the one that is “not without a plan” would be more like the Garden of Eden in the Bible, the garden “tempting with forbidden fruit” (Epistle I: 8). In fact, it may be accurate to say that, while Pope’s poem is on its surface level a work of the Augustan period, its underlying theme has much in common with the meaning that Renaissance poets constructed.

The beginning of the Essay might remind the reader of the scene of Eden in Milton’s Paradise Lost, or rather these cosmic utterances come from the same breath. Like Milton, Pope was endeavoring to justify the “ways” of the supreme God. He even borrowed Milton’s line for his own poem, only weakening the verb by saying that he sought to “vindicate the ways of God to Man”. In the Essay, Pope conceptualized Milton’s theme: the narrative that served Milton to vindicate God and account for the nature of man is replaced by the Great Chain of Being, the Garden of Eden by the garden of temptation in the world at large, and the hero Adam by the honest man (John 26). “Pope’s instructive translation of this theme into rationalistic terms made it available, possibly to himself and certainly to his age, as nothing else could have done; and it may not be going too afield to suggest that there is between his poem and Milton’s greater one a relation something like that which Werner Jaeger posits for Archilochus and Homer” (Mack lxiv). Pope was considered to have tried to give a poetic definition to the problems of man’s nature and God’s justice outside the sphere of religious allegory, heroic drama, and scriptural story, where they had for the most part been confined previously.

Milton was recognized by Pope as a great forebear, although the differences between these two poets are important. In Milton’s day the questions all centered around the doctrine of the “Fall of Man”, and the questions about God’s justice were associated with the debate on fate, fore-knowledge, and free will. In Pope’s day, the question was not theological, but went to the root of all faith in the existence of a God, by declaring that the state of Man and of the world about him met such faith with an absolute denial. In other words, Milton sought to set forth the story of the Fall in such way as to show that God was Love. Pope dealt with the question of God in Nature, and the world of Man. So in the Essay, he referred to the world as a garden which otherwise was not such a perfect Paradise as in Paradise Lost: it was “A Wild, where weeds and flow’rs promiscuous shoot / The latent tracks, the giddy heights explore.” Man’s condition in this garden was not that desirable: “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” (Epistle I: 7~14).

Pope’s Essay acquires influence not only from Renaissance thought but also from the European Enlightenment, such as Newtonian theory. In Stanza I, readers can find evidence that echoes this scientific thinking: “See worlds on worlds compose one universe, / Observe how system into system runs, / What other planets circle other suns, / What vary’d being peoples ev’ry star.” Pope also adopted such terms as “connections”, “dependencies”, “gradations” and even “the first Almighty Cause”, which were key terms in the new sciences with respect to the hierarchies, both of being and the stellar system. Actually, his logic here is that these astronomical theories prove that the universe has its hierarchy, and therefore man should not disagree with or doubt the Great Chain of Beong. There are “strong connection”, “nice dependencies”, and “just gradation” separating God, man and everything in nature.

From the basic law of nature to the general order of human society, Pope has adopted the Medieval idea of the Great Chain of Being to persuade “Presumptuous man” to abandon his reasoning pride. “Say first, of God above, or Man below, / What can we reason, but from what we know?” In Stanza VIII, Pope describes the linking hierarchy in detail: “Vast chain of being, which from God began, / Natures ethereal, human, angel, man, / Beast, bird, fish, insect! what no eye can see, / No glass can reach! from infinite to thee, / From thee to nothing!” (Stanza VIII: 237~241)

The basic idea of the Great Chain of Being was generally accepted in pre-Enlightenment Catholic theology. Though a strong Catholic believer, Pope did not intend to compose the Essay as a sermon. He had sympathies with the liberal theology which was stirring the great religious controversies of his time, and he wanted to be enlightened and to tell the truth as he conceived it, without wanting to be un-Christian or to start a fight. The Medieval or Renaissance expression of the general order, or the Great Chain of Being, became the middle-way for Pope to justify his own theory in the Essay. His intention was reflected in the Essay itself: it did not unequivocally embrace explicit Christian doctrines, but it did not unequivocally oppose them; and it kept a number of them present by implication just beneath the text (Mack xxvi).

By imposing the theory of Great Chain of Being on the poem, Pope furthered his logic that if one link was destroyed, no matter if it were the tenth or the ten thounsandth, the whole great hierarchical scale would be compromised, or in other words, the Great Chain would be broken. Our original world is in such a harmonious order, at least in Pope’s opinion, because “each system in gradation roll”. However, if “The least confusion but in one, not all / That system only, but the whole must fall”, and the result would be that “Earth unbalanc’d from her orbit fly, / Planets and Suns run lawless thro’ the sky”. All this dreadfully broken order of the cosmos would be due to Man’s “Madness, Pride, Impiety”. Pope’s philosophy here is quite similar to the principles of Renaissance thinking which stress an order that makes universal union possible. Without “degree”, there would be perpetual struggle in nature, each thing meeting each other thing, as Shakespeare’s Ulysses says, “in mere oppugnancy”. With “degree”, all kinds of creatures can cooperate, and approach their own “equality”. Like his predecessors in the Renaissance, Pope views the universal order as a spiritualized and spiritualizing One. “In His transcendence, God ordained and keeps it so; in His immanence, He flows through it; composing and conducting, He is the music too” (Mack lv). Pope’s vivid sense of this mystery, of the fact that there is both diversity and unity, is one of the striking features of his poem.

For those who tried to challenge the existence of God or of Christian Providence, those who complained about their unfair place in the cosmos, Pope considered their reason “so weak, so little’ and so blind”. Since man could not penetrate the sacred mysteries of his “mother earth” or the “argent field above”, he could only confess “That Wisdom infinite must form the best”. In man-made mechanisms, many moving parts must be combined to effect one end; in God’s mechanism, one part suffices for each end, and it also subserves another. Pope reminded “reasoning man”, who seems to himself “principal alone”, that he “perhaps acts second to some sphere unknown”. Here the diction of a social hierarchy merges into an astronomical diction, whether the term alludes to the relationships between primary and secondary laws in the Newtonian cosmology, or to those of the concentric spheres in the Ptolemaic. The function of Stanza II is evidently to summarize a set of propositions common to theological thinking, and thereby narrowing the argument to the single question of whether the available evidence warrants man’s criticism of God’s ways in giving man the power he has, and not other powers. As a result, man should not announce that “Man’s imperfect, Heav’n in fault;” instead, he should realize that “Man’s as perfect as he ought” to be.

In Pope’s argument, Man’s happiness to a certain degree depends on his ignorance. “Heav’n from all creatures hides the book of Fate, / All but the page prescrib’d, their present state” (Stanza III: 77~78). Pope tries to persuade his reader to realize that man is a being suited to his place and rank in the creation, and he should feel comfortable to ends and relations to his unknown linking in the cosmos. The gentle lamb is to man as man is to God. In his status as an inferior to God, man lacks the lamb’s trustfulness; in his status as a superior to the lamb, he lacks God’s impartial thoughtfulness. Pope clearly details the differences between the associations given to the lamb (skip and play, pleased to the last, lick the hand), those given to man (bleed, shed his blood, riot), and those given to God (kindly, equal eye, God of all). There are connections and degradations between lamb, man and God.

In the following lines, Pope describes “Hope” as a humble and passive blessing from God: “Hope humbly then; with trembling pinion soar; / Wait the great teacher Death, and God adore! / What future bliss, he gives not thee to know, / But gives that Hope to be thy blessing now” (Stanza III: 90~94). Here, Pope has represented man as capable of bearing the evils of life by aid of a visionary illusive fancy, which is Hope. Catholic theory holds the position that we do not know in what happiness hereafter will consist, and yet that we are supported by that hope of an unknown future. As faith is belief in the unproved, so hope is the expectation of the unknown. However, Emily Dickinson possesses a different concept of “Hope”. Toward the end of the 19th century, she published a poem with the title of “Hope” Is the Thing with Feathers. In this poem, “Hope”, an abstract word meaning to entertain a wish for something with confidence or trust, is described metaphorically as having the characteristics of a "bird," a tangible, living creature, symbolizing the free and self-reliant spirit. The fact that these two great poets lived in two different countries in two different centuries may serve as the reason for their opposite interpretation of “Hope”. According to Pope, man’s happiness is produced by his hope, and this hope is combined with his blindness to his future, so the conclusion is actually that man’s happiness relies on his ignorance of his own fate and his submission to God’s will. In Pope’s philosophy, Man should feel at ease in the hands of God like a tame lamb that licks the hands of its master. Pope is trying to convince reasoning man that he should not nourish hope by himself; the effort is in vain because he is faced with an unknown future, and the only thing that he can hope for is that God will bless him.

In Stanza IV and Stanza VI, Pope points out, the cause of man’s error and misery, and it is man’s pride in aiming at more knowledge, and pretending to perfection. It is the impiety of putting himself in the place of God, and of judging the fitness or unfitness, the perfection or imperfection, or the justice or injustice of dispensations. If in the beginning of the poem, Pope shows some respect for his well-educated audiences, here his tone tends to get more and more sarcastic. “Go, wiser thou! and in thy scale of sense / Weigh thy Opinion against Providence; / Call Imperfection what thou fancy’st such” (Stanza IV: 113~115). The three terms, “sense”, “Opinion”, “fancy”, stress the contrast between man’s mind and God’s: unlike God, man is dependent on “sense”, subject to “opinion”, and likely to be misled by “fancy”. The image of Man is no longer noble and respectable, but characterized by greed, conceit and self-esteem: he “Destroy[s] all creatures for ...[his] sport or gust”, and his reasoning pride is not content with the sphere of the sky, but still aims “at the blest abode”. Man’s desire to trespass upwards into the higher orders of Being reveals quite obvious by that his intention is to “Rejudge ...[God’s] justice, be the God of God”. Again, Pope uses Milton’s theme: “the deep fall / Of those too high aspiring who rebelled / With Satan” (Paradise Lost, VI: 898~900). Like Satan, man is rebellious; he is not grateful to God for his life but longs for a higher position in the Great Chain of Being: “Men would be Angels, Angels would be Gods. / Aspiring to be Gods, if Angels fell, / Aspiring to be Angels, Men rebel” (Stanza IV: 126~128).

Certainly, the nature or the world is by no means perfect. In Stanza V, Pope objectively points out that there are errors in fallen nature: “From burning suns when livid deaths descend, / When earthquakes swallow, or when tempests sweep / Towns to one grave, whole nations to the deep?” However, Pope defends God’s purpose by arguing that “the first Almighty Cause / Acts not by partial, but by gen’ral laws”. Here, Pope uses the traditional explanation for evil as a part of God’s created cosmos. For physical evil he relies on the accepted postulate that what man knows as ill is good in its relation to a larger plan that comprehends him but that he cannot comprehend: partial ill equals universal good. The evils that men experience are real enough, but they do not arise from any moral fault in God. Instead, they arise from the inherent limitations of man’s knowledge and power. God cannot be expected to advantage the smaller by disadvantaging the greater, except on the rarest of occasions. The rain and the tempest fall alike on the just and the unjust. The mention of natural disasters will no doubt remind many of us of the terrible tsunami in Indonesia which claimed tens of thousands of lives. But according to Pope’s philosophy, those who lost their relatives should accept the fact that God is always merciful and that their loss was part of the justice of God who does all things for the greater good of all mankind.

Actually, Pope’s contradiction of his own logic should be obvious to his reader. God, Pope claims, has established general laws which operate for the larger good of the whole, and this scheme sometimes brings about natural evils in particular instances. So, again in accord with the large scheme of things, God has given man passions which sometimes result in moral evils. The Good we enjoy, and the Evil we suffer, are both from the hands of God. The God who “heaves old Ocean, and wings the storms”, also pours fierce Ambition in a Caesar’s mind, / Or turns young Ammon loose to scourge mankind” (Stanza V: 158~160). If Pope’s original intention is to show that there is imperfection in man’s moral world, and therefore man should submit to the over-ruling Providence of God, Pope actually traps himself in a logical contradiction that, if man is one of the creations of God who has made everything as right as it can be, why should man attempt to rectify any of his errors? There is probably no answer to this dilemma in the Essay that will satisfy a logician. Such ambivalences also exist in a variety of religions. For example, in Stoic theodicy, nature means the divine unity and sums of things which man is to accept as right; but the “nature” to be accepted as right in stoic ethics is only man’s higher self (Mack xlvi).

Pope did not provide logicians with a satisfactory answer, but he continued to spare no efforts to persuade his reader that “to reason right is to submit”. In Stanza IV, Pope claims that it is not reasonable for man to complain against Providence, while in Stanza VI, he says that man “looking downwards”, demands the various bodily characteristics of the brutes, the deficiency of which renders him miserable. It is a certain axiom in the anatomy of creatures that in proportion as they are formed for strength their swiftness is diminished; or as they are formed for swiftness, their strength is decreased. Man’s perceived deficiencies are not the error of Nature or of Providence: “All in exact proportion to the state; / Nothing to add, and nothing to abate”. Instead, it is the stupidity of man to “want the strength of bulls, the fur of bears”, or to ask why man cannot fly as well as the birds, swim as well as the fishes, or run as fast as the horses. All other creatures are content with those bounds that nature has set for them, only man endeavors to exceed them. According to Pope, the misery of man is caused by man himself, not by a mistake on God’s part as someone suppose. Rather, “The bliss of Man (could Pride that blessing find) / Is not to act or think beyond mankind; / No pow’rs of body or of soul to share, / But what his nature and his state can bear” (Stanza VI: 189~192). Man’s lack of wings is not an evil oversight, because it is not natural for him to possess them; but it would be a hardship if he had no hands, a appendages which are natural to him. Every creature, it must be allowed, has its own abilities and its own limitations, and it is not rational for man to seek for abilities that are outside of his own natural place in creation. Pope’s argument sounds quite reasonable and scientific on the surface, but if we examine it closely, its flaws will not be difficult to discover.

In the Essay, Pope regards man’s “Misery” or his dissatisfaction with his own situation on the hierarchy of Being as the result of Evil. However, in human history, “Misery” has inspired many inventions or innovations in society. In ancient times, driven by the aspiration to fly like the birds, our ancestors tried hundreds of experiments to liberate them from the earth, from making wings to constructing gliders, and finally they successfully invented the airplane. Thus man realized his dream of flying. Similar examples can be drawn from the history of social development, and it is not a miracle that man now performs far beyond his natural abilities. Boats enable him to “swim”, cars let him outdistance the fastest horse, and the internet allows him to enter a boundless dimension of time and space. Man’s dissatisfaction with his natural limitations has enabled him to develop from a lower level of physical performance to a higher one. Human beings can aspire to self-improvement and self-fulfillment, and as a consequence we are able to live much better lives than our ancestors.

Pope’s philosophy cannot solve the problem of evil in the world. This indictment of his poem is also just, but it is not particularly interesting. It is uninteresting not so much because no other philosophy has been able to solve this problem, but because the purport of the classical theodicies which Pope follows is precisely that the problem is insoluble for man. There are times when we must suffer evil; there are times when we may speculate about it. But one cannot imagine a letter of consolation beginning with: “The reason for your misfortune is that...”. The nature of a theodicy is to dilate the mind outward toward some significance in which the individual grief is lost, and this is also one of the main features of the English Enlightenment. In the Essay, the objects that Pope mentions—weeds, oaks, spiders, bees, halcyons, lawns, floods, roses, rills—are held in place by their relation and meaning within a Divine and universal plan. On the other hand, in Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, the objects described—hedgerows, pastoral farms, wreaths of smoke, the sounding cataract, the tall rock, the mountains, and the deep and gloomy woods—are all held in place, and are justified in their relation and their meaning by the unique mind of the persona, the only experiencer. Wordsworth, like the Romantic poets in general, was engaged in exploring a new experience of the world, and there was nothing in English poetry quite like what Wordsworth here described until Wordsworth described it. Pope, like the Neo-classical poets in general, was ordering, shaping, and giving form to the familiar, and we cannot deny that Pope’s insight in its way is as fine as Wordsworth’s. In his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth defined poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” composed by a man “possessed of more than usual organic sensibility.” Pope described the “inward happiness” as “The soul’s calm sun-shine, and the heart-felt joy” (Epistle IV: 168). Here, “happiness” is dealt with not as Pope’s unique feeling, but as all men’s feeling of “inward happiness” collectively. This is happiness experienced not at the level of discovery, but at the level of recognition.

Indeed, Pope’s philosophical work entitled An Essay on Man is not entirely original, and it could be regarded as merely a paper of commonplaces in western thought. This is the substance of Johnson’s comment: “Surely a man of no very comprehensive search may venture to say that he has heard all this before”, and it is as usual eminently sound (Mack xliii). However, familiarity or lack of depth in a poem is not always a damaging criticism, since ideas become commonplace to the extent that they provide an insight into some aspect of the truth. There are truths the world has always known, such as the Great Chain of Being, and Pope’s task was simply to refine our understanding of them. An analysis of the first Epistle of the Essay reveals a theme that is rather contradictory and not very socially progressive or encouraging to mankind. Pope is a great poet, but not a great scientist or an experienced sociologist, and his An Essay on Man describes man’s position in the cosmos with regard to a Medieval and Renaissance scheme called the Great Chain of Being, a scheme that has been seriously challenged by modern science and sociology. As a modern reader, one should also take into consideration that the social, economic and religious conditions of Pope’s time were not universally accepted, and they are not consistent with his readers many hundreds of years later. Despite the criticism and the prejudice of the intervening centuries, Pope’s Essay on Man must nevertheless be regarded as a masterpiece of the English Enlightenment, not only because of its beautiful metric rhyme in heroic couplets, but also because of its serious and seemingly self-justified argument. According to the principle of partial evil and universal good, the imperfect judgments of Pope’s contemporaries only allowed them to see the partial imperfections of the great poet, but at the same time caused them to overlook the grandness of his cosmic work. The novice reader of Pope is advised to begin by letting him say what he has to say to an open mind, and in his own manner.

All nature is but Art, unknown to thee;

All Chance, Direction, which thou canst not see;

All Discord, Harmony, not understood;

All partial Evil, universal Good:

And, spite of Pride, in erring Reason's spite,

One truth is clear, Whatever IS, is RIGHT.


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Howard, Erskine-Hill, ed. Alexander Pope: Selected Letters. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
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