Transcript of "An Essay on Man"-Alexander Pope
An Essay on Man
"An Essay on Man"
The poem is an attempt to "vindicate the ways of God to Man," a variation on Milton's attempt in Paradise Lost to "justify the ways of God to Man" (1.26).
The natural laws consider the Universe as a whole a perfect work of God. To humans it appears to be evil and imperfect in many ways; however, Pope points out that this is due to our limited mindset and limited intellectual capacity.
A God of infinite wisdom exists
Part of the essay’s greatness is Pope’s unity of structure and theme.
Ana Strbac, MA English language teacher
Pope gets the message across that humans must accept their position in the
"Great Chain of Being"
which is at a middle stage between the angels and the beasts of the world. If we are able to accomplish this then we potentially could lead happy and virtuous lives.
He created a world that is best of all possible ones.
The plenum, or all-embracing whole of the universe, is real and hierarchical
Authentic good is that of the whole, not of isolated parts.
Self-love and social love both motivate humans' conduct.
Virtue is attainable
The poem’s orderly exposition of ideas, its concentration on universals rather than specifics, and its heroic couplet verses, reflect the ideas of balance, subordination, and harmony better than even the finest prose.
Written in the form of epistles: term that is historically used to describe formal letters directed to a specific person.
Human beings must accept that their existence is the result of a perfect creator who created everything as perfectly as it can possibly be.
The second epistle describes the relationship that man has with his own desires, mental faculties, and spiritual aspirations.
The impiety of putting himself in the place of God, and judging of the fitness or unfitness, perfection or imperfection, justice or injustice of his dispensations.
1. One who realizes his proper place in God’s creation will be happier; it is “In pride, in reasoning pride” alone that humans lose their way to God (l. 123).
2. "In Pride, in reasoning Pride, our error lies;". (123) How so, according to Pope?
3. Man should not reach for something he is not meant to be.
4. "And who but wishes to invert the laws
Of ORDER, sins against the Eternal Cause." (129-130)
Pope again reinforces the idea that humans cannot fully understand God, but he also claims that self-love and reason can help man understand himself.
The first epistle looks at man's relation to the universe in order to present the concept of harmony that is referred to throughout the rest of the poem.
The third epistle deals with how the individual interacts with society.
Pope argues that, in addition to the insight that it can offer regarding a person's relationship with himself, the cosmos offers insight into how individuals can find harmony with society and the natural world.
The fourth epistle is concerned with happiness and our ability to apply our love for ourselves to the world around us.
Happiness, Pope argues, can be achieved by all people through the process of living a virtuous and balanced life.
If a person understands that he or she cannot understand God, then he or she will not attempt judge other people.
1. God has created a unique place for each of his creations. We must begin by admitting we can only perceive a “part . . ., and not a whole,”
2. Man is not capable of knowing his relation to the rest of the universe.
3. Man is part of a system where there are weeker things below him and stronger above him.
4. "Respecting Man, whatever wrong we call,
May, must be right, as relative to all." (51-52)
5. Read verses 61-68. How is the human condition comparable to that of an ox and a horse?
6. Read verses 69-76. What's Pope's reply to those who say that man is not perfect?
1. Even less “civilized” humans (the “poor Indian” of line 99) accept that Nature is the best way to understand God.
2. "Heaven from all creatures hides the book of Fate,"
3. Pope suggests that it's better that we don't know our fate. Our "blindness to the future" is a kind gift. Explain the example with the lamb. (81-84)
4. Would man be happy to know his own fate?
5. Heaven treats mankind equally with other being in the
6. What role does Hope have for man? (90-98)
That we can judge only with regard to our own system, being ignorant of the relation of systems and things.
1. Pope poses the essential question: is Man, who can only see his immediate world, actually capable of understanding God’s plan for the whole universe?
2. Man is limited in what he knows, and so can judge only from what he knows.
3. Man's reason is powerful, but limited, and the limit is imposed by God.
4. What does the Great Chain of Being refer to?
5. "... can a part contain the whole?"
The poem is not solely Christian, however; it makes an assumption that man has fallen and must seek his own salvation.
The Essay on Man is a philosophical poem, written in heroic couplets and published between 1732 and 1734.
The great chain of being is a strict, religious hierarchical structure-concept derived from Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus of all matter and life, believed to have been decreed by God. The chain starts from God and progresses downward to angels, demons (fallen/renegade angels), stars, moon, kings, princes, nobles, commoners, wild animals, domesticated animals, trees, other plants, precious stones, precious metals, and other minerals
According to Pope LIFE is really divinely ordered - God exists and is what he centres the Universe around . The limited intelligence of man can only take in tiny portions of this order and can experience only partial truths, man must rely on hope which leads to faith. It is man's duty to strive to be good regardless of other situations: this is the message Pope is trying to get across to the reader- AFFIRMATION OF FAITH.
Diana holds the dying Pope, and John Milton, Edmund Spenser, and Geoffrey Chaucer prepare to welcome him to heaven.
The absurdity of expecting perfection in the moral world which is not in the natural.
1. Men are prone to believe that the universe was created for their exclusive use. We are tempted to call things that cause us grief or fear “evil,” but only exposes our limited point of view. It’s none of our business why God creates terrible things like earthquakes or floods — we must trust that they’re part of a larger plan.
2. Verses 131-140 speak to man's conceit. In what ways is man conceited, according to Pope?
3. Does Nature err when bad things happen to man? (141-144)
1. In fact, all human unhappiness stems from wanting to be or have something humans are not meant to be or have. Happiness lies in wanting only “what his nature and his state can bear” (l. 192).
2. Man wants to be both an angel and a brute, and if it was up to him he would want to power over all creatures, but Nature has assigned to all creatures, including man, their proper place.
3. Why does man feel that nature has been unkind to him? Is it because nature hasn't made him the master of all?
4. Man should consider it a bliss that he cannot comprehend beyond mankind.
One proof of God’s existence is that there are objects in our world too large, or small, or high, or low for humans to perceive. Therefore, some other force must have created the universe for the use of a variety of creatures.
1. Pope describes the “vast chain of being” (l. 237), which is similar to (though not exactly the same as) the Renaissance scala naturae. Each link of the chain is necessary for the strength of the whole — no one is more necessary than any other.
2. "From Nature's chain whatever link you strike,
Tenth or ten thousandth, breaks the chain alike." (245-246)
3. In verses 250-256 Pope suggests what might happen if the balance in nature is broken.
4. "All this dread ORDER break - for who? for thee?
Vile worm! - oh Madness! Pride! Impiety!" (258-259)
The extravagance, madness, and pride of such a desire.
1. Pope completes his metaphor: “All are but parts of one stupendous whole/ Whose body Nature is, and God the soul” (ll. 265-6).
2. Verses 359-269 list the absurdity of man's wish to be given a bigger role by nature.
3. Man is not an individual, but a part of a whole "Whose body Nature is, and God the soul;".
The Consequence of all, the absolute submission due to Providence
1. He concludes with an exhortation to the reader to take comfort in the knowledge that the universe is the result of a benevolent and orderly design (even though we might not see it), and that “Whatever IS, is RIGHT.”
2. In this section Pope asserts how man should be in light of his nature and his place in the universe.
3. Read and comment on the verses that start with
4. "One truth is clear, WHATEVER IS, IS RIGHT." The world as it exists is correct.
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