Alexander Pope Essay On Man Aphorisms
An Essay on Man, by Alexander Pope
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An Essay on Man
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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Awake, my St. John! leave all meaner things
To low ambition, and the pride of kings.
Let us (since life can little more supply
Than just to look about us and to die)
Expatiate free o'er all this scene of man;
A mighty maze! but not without a plan;
A wild, where weeds and flow'rs promiscuous shoot;
Or garden, tempting with forbidden fruit.
Together let us beat this ample field,
Try what the open, what the covert yield;
The latent tracts, the giddy heights explore
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;
Laugh where we must, be candid where we can;
But vindicate the ways of God to man.
Say first, of God above, or man below,
What can we reason, but from what we know?
Of man what see we, but his station here,
From which to reason, or to which refer?
Through worlds unnumber'd though the God be known,
'Tis ours to trace him only in our own.
He, who through vast immensity can pierce,
See worlds on worlds compose one universe,
Observe how system into system runs,
What other planets circle other suns,
What varied being peoples ev'ry star,
May tell why Heav'n has made us as we are.
But of this frame the bearings, and the ties,
The strong connections, nice dependencies,
Gradations just, has thy pervading soul
Look'd through? or can a part contain the whole?
Is the great chain, that draws all to agree,
And drawn supports, upheld by God, or thee?
Presumptuous man! the reason wouldst thou find,
Why form'd so weak, so little, and so blind?
First, if thou canst, the harder reason guess,
Why form'd no weaker, blinder, and no less!
Ask of thy mother earth, why oaks are made
Taller or stronger than the weeds they shade?
Or ask of yonder argent fields above,
Why Jove's satellites are less than Jove?
Of systems possible, if 'tis confest
That Wisdom infinite must form the best,
Where all must full or not coherent be,
And all that rises, rise in due degree;
Then, in the scale of reas'ning life, 'tis plain
There must be somewhere, such a rank as man:
And all the question (wrangle e'er so long)
Is only this, if God has plac'd him wrong?
Respecting man, whatever wrong we call,
May, must be right, as relative to all.
In human works, though labour'd on with pain,
A thousand movements scarce one purpose gain;
In God's, one single can its end produce;
Yet serves to second too some other use.
So man, who here seems principal alone,
Perhaps acts second to some sphere unknown,
Touches some wheel, or verges to some goal;
'Tis but a part we see, and not a whole.
When the proud steed shall know why man restrains
His fiery course, or drives him o'er the plains:
When the dull ox, why now he breaks the clod,
Is now a victim, and now Egypt's God:
Then shall man's pride and dulness comprehend
His actions', passions', being's, use and end;
Why doing, suff'ring, check'd, impell'd; and why
This hour a slave, the next a deity.
Then say not man's imperfect, Heav'n in fault;
Say rather, man's as perfect as he ought:
His knowledge measur'd to his state and place,
His time a moment, and a point his space.
If to be perfect in a certain sphere,
What matter, soon or late, or here or there?
The blest today is as completely so,
As who began a thousand years ago.
Heav'n from all creatures hides the book of fate,
All but the page prescrib'd, their present state:
From brutes what men, from men what spirits know:
Or who could suffer being here below?
The lamb thy riot dooms to bleed today,
Had he thy reason, would he skip and play?
Pleas'd to the last, he crops the flow'ry food,
And licks the hand just rais'd to shed his blood.
Oh blindness to the future! kindly giv'n,
That each may fill the circle mark'd by Heav'n:
Who sees with equal eye, as God of all,
A hero perish, or a sparrow fall,
Atoms or systems into ruin hurl'd,
And now a bubble burst, and now a world.
Hope humbly then; with trembling pinions 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.
Hope springs eternal in the human breast:
Man never is, but always to be blest:
The soul, uneasy and confin'd from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come.
Lo! the poor Indian, whose untutor'd mind
Sees God in clouds, or hears him in the wind;
His soul, proud science never taught to stray
Far as the solar walk, or milky way;
Yet simple nature to his hope has giv'n,
Behind the cloud-topt hill, an humbler heav'n;
Some safer world in depth of woods embrac'd,
Some happier island in the wat'ry waste,
Where slaves once more their native land behold,
No fiends torment, no Christians thirst for gold.
To be, contents his natural desire,
He asks no angel's wing, no seraph's fire;
But thinks, admitted to that equal sky,
His faithful dog shall bear him company.
Go, wiser thou! and, in thy scale of sense
Weigh thy opinion against Providence;
Call imperfection what thou fanciest such,
Say, here he gives too little, there too much:
Destroy all creatures for thy sport or gust,
Yet cry, if man's unhappy, God's unjust;
If man alone engross not Heav'n's high care,
Alone made perfect here, immortal there:
Snatch from his hand the balance and the rod,
Rejudge his justice, be the God of God.
In pride, in reas'ning pride, our error lies;
All quit their sphere, and rush into the skies.
Pride still is aiming at the blest abodes,
Men would be angels, angels would be gods.
Aspiring to be gods, if angels fell,
Aspiring to be angels, men rebel:
And who but wishes to invert the laws
Of order, sins against th' Eternal Cause.
Ask for what end the heav'nly bodies shine,
Earth for whose use? Pride answers, " 'Tis for mine:
For me kind Nature wakes her genial pow'r,
Suckles each herb, and spreads out ev'ry flow'r;
Annual for me, the grape, the rose renew,
The juice nectareous, and the balmy dew;
For me, the mine a thousand treasures brings;
For me, health gushes from a thousand springs;
Seas roll to waft me, suns to light me rise;
My foot-stool earth, my canopy the skies."
But errs not Nature from this gracious end,
From burning suns when livid deaths descend,
When earthquakes swallow, or when tempests sweep
Towns to one grave, whole nations to the deep?
"No, ('tis replied) the first Almighty Cause
Acts not by partial, but by gen'ral laws;
Th' exceptions few; some change since all began:
And what created perfect?"—Why then man?
If the great end be human happiness,
Then Nature deviates; and can man do less?
As much that end a constant course requires
Of show'rs and sunshine, as of man's desires;
As much eternal springs and cloudless skies,
As men for ever temp'rate, calm, and wise.
If plagues or earthquakes break not Heav'n's design,
Why then a Borgia, or a Catiline?
Who knows but he, whose hand the lightning forms,
Who heaves old ocean, and who wings the storms,
Pours fierce ambition in a Cæsar's mind,
Or turns young Ammon loose to scourge mankind?
From pride, from pride, our very reas'ning springs;
Account for moral, as for nat'ral things:
Why charge we Heav'n in those, in these acquit?
In both, to reason right is to submit.
Better for us, perhaps, it might appear,
Were there all harmony, all virtue here;
That never air or ocean felt the wind;
That never passion discompos'd the mind.
But ALL subsists by elemental strife;
And passions are the elements of life.
The gen'ral order, since the whole began,
Is kept in nature, and is kept in man.
What would this man? Now upward will he soar,
And little less than angel, would be more;
Now looking downwards, just as griev'd appears
To want the strength of bulls, the fur of bears.
Made for his use all creatures if he call,
Say what their use, had he the pow'rs of all?
Nature to these, without profusion, kind,
The proper organs, proper pow'rs assign'd;
Each seeming want compensated of course,
Here with degrees of swiftness, there of force;
All in exact proportion to the state;
Nothing to add, and nothing to abate.
Each beast, each insect, happy in its own:
Is Heav'n unkind to man, and man alone?
Shall he alone, whom rational we call,
Be pleas'd with nothing, if not bless'd with all?
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.
Why has not man a microscopic eye?
For this plain reason, man is not a fly.
Say what the use, were finer optics giv'n,
T' inspect a mite, not comprehend the heav'n?
Or touch, if tremblingly alive all o'er,
To smart and agonize at ev'ry pore?
Or quick effluvia darting through the brain,
Die of a rose in aromatic pain?
If nature thunder'd in his op'ning ears,
And stunn'd him with the music of the spheres,
How would he wish that Heav'n had left him still
The whisp'ring zephyr, and the purling rill?
Who finds not Providence all good and wise,
Alike in what it gives, and what denies?
Far as creation's ample range extends,
The scale of sensual, mental pow'rs ascends:
Mark how it mounts, to man's imperial race,
From the green myriads in the peopled grass:
What modes of sight betwixt each wide extreme,
The mole's dim curtain, and the lynx's beam:
Of smell, the headlong lioness between,
And hound sagacious on the tainted green:
Of hearing, from the life that fills the flood,
To that which warbles through the vernal wood:
The spider's touch, how exquisitely fine!
Feels at each thread, and lives along the line:
In the nice bee, what sense so subtly true
From pois'nous herbs extracts the healing dew:
How instinct varies in the grov'lling swine,
Compar'd, half-reas'ning elephant, with thine:
'Twixt that, and reason, what a nice barrier;
For ever sep'rate, yet for ever near!
Remembrance and reflection how allied;
What thin partitions sense from thought divide:
And middle natures, how they long to join,
Yet never pass th' insuperable line!
Without this just gradation, could they be
Subjected, these to those, or all to thee?
The pow'rs of all subdu'd by thee alone,
Is not thy reason all these pow'rs in one?
See, through this air, this ocean, and this earth,
All matter quick, and bursting into birth.
Above, how high, progressive life may go!
Around, how wide! how deep extend below!
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!—On superior pow'rs
Were we to press, inferior might on ours:
Or in the full creation leave a void,
Where, one step broken, the great scale's destroy'd:
From nature's chain whatever link you strike,
Tenth or ten thousandth, breaks the chain alike.
And, if each system in gradation roll
Alike essential to th' amazing whole,
The least confusion but in one, not all
That system only, but the whole must fall.
Let earth unbalanc'd from her orbit fly,
Planets and suns run lawless through the sky;
Let ruling angels from their spheres be hurl'd,
Being on being wreck'd, and world on world;
Heav'n's whole foundations to their centre nod,
And nature tremble to the throne of God.
All this dread order break—for whom? for thee?
Vile worm!—Oh madness, pride, impiety!
What if the foot ordain'd the dust to tread,
Or hand to toil, aspir'd to be the head?
What if the head, the eye, or ear repin'd
To serve mere engines to the ruling mind?
Just as absurd for any part to claim
To be another, in this gen'ral frame:
Just as absurd, to mourn the tasks or pains,
The great directing Mind of All ordains.
All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
Whose body Nature is, and God the soul;
That, chang'd through all, and yet in all the same,
Great in the earth, as in th' ethereal frame,
Warms in the sun, refreshes in the breeze,
Glows in the stars, and blossoms in the trees,
Lives through all life, extends through all extent,
Spreads undivided, operates unspent,
Breathes in our soul, informs our mortal part,
As full, as perfect, in a hair as heart;
As full, as perfect, in vile man that mourns,
As the rapt seraph that adores and burns;
To him no high, no low, no great, no small;
He fills, he bounds, connects, and equals all.
Cease then, nor order imperfection name:
Our proper bliss depends on what we blame.
Know thy own point: This kind, this due degree
Of blindness, weakness, Heav'n bestows on thee.
Submit.—In this, or any other sphere,
Secure to be as blest as thou canst bear:
Safe in the hand of one disposing pow'r,
Or in the natal, or the mortal hour.
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.