Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man” Summary and Analysis
Critical analysis of “An Essay on Man”
“An Essay on Man,” being well-structured and carefully thought out, has its own history. Alexander Pope’s oeuvre refers to the Enlightenment era, the age of Reason and Science. Philosophers of that time rejected the ideas of the Middle Ages and Renaissance by establishing their own points of view. This is the way our essay was written. The author synthesized the key ideas and thoughts of the eighteenth-century greatest minds. He did an enormous work and was highly praised and criticized as well.
Voltaire admired Pope and his writings and put Horace inferior to “An Essay on Man.” This is due to Voltaire that the first French translation of this work appeared under the title “Discours en vers sur l’homme” (1738). Candide’s author considered it to be the most elevated didactic poem that has ever been written in any language.
What makes this work to be unique and popular in our times and before? Let’s look at its structure and analyze the content.
Ten sections written in heroic couplet are united under four epistles dedicated to Lord Bolingbroke. Each of them concerns different topics: the sense of existence, God’s Providence, good vs. evil, the duties of governments, etc. By and large, this is a fragmentary philosophical, political, ethical, but not religious poem.
In the introduction, we learn that the reason Pope wrote this work was to “vindicate the ways of God to Man.” Another important statement is that a man is fated to be born, to do something not very useful for the universe and die. Having no way out, we follow this scheme.
Sections 1-2 are about author’s contemplations on the nature of a human being and recognition of the existence of a Supreme Power. He claims that everything in this universe is perfectly structured being meticulously hierarchically harmonized. It functions constantly and uninterruptedly and will do it eternally in accordance with natural laws. A human is somewhere below the angels but above the animals and plants. Different creatures have their own type of communication, which is unfamiliar to humanity. We can only try to understand the universal world order of things by means of our own language and feelings. But being imperfect, we nevertheless are suitable for this ideal system.
Section 3 describes another important issue – that the happiest is a person who is completely ignorant of his or her future. The author says that it is impossible for us to read our Book of Fate, while, on the other hand, it is crucial to have dreams and hope for future.
Section 4. Pope asserts that the greatest sin of any human being is pride which pushes us to put ourselves in place of Creator, to hunt for more knowledge and perfection. But we can’t be in over our heads; it causes just misery and error.
Section 5. Together with being prideful, we tend to consider that everything was created for our use and that we are in the center of everything. Since the most ancient times, a man was interested in his place in this world. His understanding of the world changed, and the boundaries of the subjective world expanded. The things that cause some kind of harm to us are immediately called “evil.” As it is evil in nature, we can also be good or evil. Someone helps others, is friendly and always ready to help. At the same time, others can only harm, destroy and kill. God created illnesses, floods, volcanos and venomous insects, but it is not our business to know what for. We are forbidden to blame Him for such things.
Section 6 tells that people always complain against the Heaven Providence. But this is an attainment of eternal life given by God, which specifies the path of a soul to heaven and its settlement in the heavenly courts. The wish to have what is not designed for us can only make us unhappy and frustrated. Doubt is our enemy, although being an indispensable part of our conscience. We always find something that we can question, and often think: “Something is wrong here …” Indeed, who we are to doubt His plans?
Section 7 is about the Great Chain of Being. Throughout the world, the hierarchy and subordination are everywhere. At the bottom of the chain is earth and minerals followed by various plants and animals. Among them, the wild ones are on the top. Then go the subgroup of domestic animals are and after them – birds, fish, and insects. A human is above all of them, but inferior to angels. God is superior to everything and everyone mentioned above. The same situation is in the gradation of flair – instinct – thought – reflection – reason.
Section 8. The Great chain of things is perfect, and each organism is vital for its existence. If any of spices dies out, it leads to fatal consequences on the whole system. If the established order of subordination is changed, the destruction is inevitable since everything has its most suitable place.
Section 9 refers to the absurdity of people’s intention to violate the Universal rules because this order determines the existence of man. We are deliberately limited in our capabilities. Pope highlights that man’s body is natural and a soul is divine. Our pride allows us to think that it is easy to go beyond these frameworks and adjust Supreme Order to us. However, this is impossible, since a person does not exist by itself, but only as part of a larger whole, which is outside the reach of any living being. It leads to the conclusion that we cannot go against the law of God. It determines our being, and these are not us who set the law.
Section 10 summarizes the main idea of “An Essay on Man” that the Divine Order is perfect and the world is correct. It encourages submitting to God. What is true submission? It is not obedience to inevitability, not fatalism and not a reason for laziness; this is not about cowards who humbly allow others to mock them. In order to obey, it is not necessary to turn off the brain and refuse rational thinking. Why should God be against the mind that He Himself has put into us?
Submission does not entail suppression; instead of humiliating the person, obedience, on the contrary, makes him or her genuine. Only the Almighty Creator knows whom we have to be because He has conceived and created every one of us.
To make a long story short, Pope demonstrates that despite being imperfect, incomprehensible and partly evil, the Universe is an incomparably complicated and complex system created by God. We think in this way only because our abilities of perception of the highest plan are limited and our intellect is far from God’s omniscience and omnipotence. Pope defines that our task is to accept our medium position of the Great Chain of Being.
Pope, Alexander, and Tom Jones. An Essay on Man. Princeton University Press, 2016.
Pope, Alexander, et al. The Enduring Legacy: Alexander Pope Tercentenary Essays. Cambridge University Press, 1988.
Study.com, Study.com, study.com/academy/lesson/alexander-popes-an-essay-on-man-summary-analysis-quiz.html.
Written by: grademiners.co
Tags: Essay on Man
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The Essay on Man is a philosophical poem, written, characteristically, in heroic couplets, and published between 1732 and 1734. Pope intended it as the centerpiece of a proposed system of ethics to be put forth in poetic form: it is in fact a fragment of a larger work which Pope planned but did not live to complete. It is an attempt to justify, as Milton had attempted to vindicate, the ways of God to Man, and a warning that man himself is not, as, in his pride, he seems to believe, the center of all things. Though not explicitly Christian, the Essay makes the implicit assumption that man is fallen and unregenerate, and that he must seek his own salvation.
The "Essay" consists of four epistles, addressed to Lord Bolingbroke, and derived, to some extent, from some of Bolingbroke's own fragmentary philosophical writings, as well as from ideas expressed by the deistic third Earl of Shaftsbury. Pope sets out to demonstrate that no matter how imperfect, complex, inscrutable, and disturbingly full of evil the Universe may appear to be, it does function in a rational fashion, according to natural laws; and is, in fact, considered as a whole, a perfect work of God. It appears imperfect to us only because our perceptions are limited by our feeble moral and intellectual capacity. His conclusion is that we must learn to accept our position in the Great Chain of Being — a "middle state," below that of the angels but above that of the beasts — in which we can, at least potentially, lead happy and virtuous lives.
Epistle I concerns itself with the nature of man and with his place in the universe; Epistle II, with man as an individual; Epistle III, with man in relation to human society, to the political and social hierarchies; and Epistle IV, with man's pursuit of happiness in this world. An Essay on Man was a controversial work in Pope's day, praised by some and criticized by others, primarily because it appeared to contemporary critics that its emphasis, in spite of its themes, was primarily poetic and not, strictly speaking, philosophical in any really coherent sense: Dr. Johnson, never one to mince words, and possessed, in any case, of views upon the subject which differed materially from those which Pope had set forth, noted dryly (in what is surely one of the most back-handed literary compliments of all time) that "Never were penury of knowledge and vulgarity of sentiment so happily disguised." It is a subtler work, however, than perhaps Johnson realized: G. Wilson Knight has made the perceptive comment that the poem is not a "static scheme" but a "living organism," (like Twickenham) and that it must be understood as such.
Considered as a whole, the Essay on Man is an affirmative poem of faith: life seems chaotic and patternless to man when he is in the midst of it, but is in fact a coherent portion of a divinely ordered plan. In Pope's world God exists, and he is benificent: his universe is an ordered place. The limited intellect of man can perceive only a tiny portion of this order, and can experience only partial truths, and hence must rely on hope, which leads to faith. Man must be cognizant of his rather insignificant position in the grand scheme of things: those things which he covets most — riches, power, fame — prove to be worthless in the greater context of which he is only dimly aware. In his place, it is man's duty to strive to be good, even if he is doomed, because of his inherent frailty, to fail in his attempt. Do you find Pope's argument convincing? In what ways can we relate the Essay on Man to works like Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Johnson's "The Vanity of Human Wishes" (text), Tennyson's In Memoriam and Eliot's The Wasteland?
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