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An Essay on Man

By: Alexander Pope

An Essay on Man is a poem published by Alexander Pope in 1733–1734. It was dedicated to Henry St John, 1st Viscount Bolingbroke, (pronounced 'Bull-en-brook') hence the opening line: "Awake, St John...". It is an effort to rationalize or rather "vindicate the ways of God to man" (l.16), a variation of John Milton's claim in the opening lines of Paradise Lost, that he will "justify the ways of God to men" (1.26). It is concerned with the natural order God has decreed for man. Because man cannot know God's purposes, he cannot complain about his position in the Great Chain of Being (ll.33-34) and must accept that "Whatever IS, is RIGHT" (l.292), a theme that was satirized by Voltaire in Candide (1759). More than any other work, it popularized optimistic philosophy throughout England and the rest of Europe.

Pope's Essay on Man and Moral Epistles was designed to be the parts of a system of ethics that he wanted to express in poetry. Moral Epistles has been known under various other names including Ethic Epistles and Moral Essays.  


In its publication, An Essay on Man received great admiration throughout Europe. Voltaire called it "the most beautiful, the most useful, the most sublime didactic poem ever written in any language". In 1756 Rousseau wrote to Voltaire admiring the poem and saying that it "softens my ills and brings me patience". Kant was fond of the poem and would recite long passages from it to his students.  


Later, however, Voltaire renounced his admiration for Pope's and Leibniz's optimism and even wrote a novel, Candide, as a satire on their philosophy of ethics. Rousseau also critiqued the work, questioning "Pope's uncritical assumption that there must be an unbroken chain of being from inanimate matter up to God."  


The essay, written in heroic couplets, comprises four epistles. Pope began work on it in 1729 and had finished the first three by 1731. They appeared in early 1733, with the fourth epistle published the following year. The poem was originally published anonymously; Pope did not admit authorship until 1735.  


Pope reveals in his introductory statement, "The Design", that An Essay on Man was originally conceived as part of a longer philosophical poem that would have been expanded on through four separate books. According to his friend and editor, William Warburton, Pope intended to structure the work as follows:  


The four epistles which had already been published would have comprised the first book. The second book was to contain another set of epistles, which in contrast to the first book would focus on subjects such as human reason, the practical and impractical aspects of varied arts and sciences, human talent, the use of learning, the science of the world, and wit, together with "a satire against the misapplication" of those same disciplines. The third book would discuss politics and religion, while the fourth book was concerned with "private ethics" or "practical morality." The following passage, taken from the first two paragraphs of the opening verse of the second epistle, is often quoted by those familiar with Pope's work, as it neatly summarizes some of the religious and humanistic tenets of the poem:  


Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;  
The proper study of Mankind is Man.  
Plac'd on this isthmus of a middle state,  
A being darkly wise and rudely great:  
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,  
With too much weakness for the Stoic's pride,  
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest,  
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;  
In doubt his Mind or Body to prefer,  
Born but to die, and reasoning but to err;  
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,  
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:  
The chaos of Thought and Passion, all confused;  
Still by himself, abus'd, or disabused;  
Created half to rise, and a half to fall;  
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;  
Sole judge of Truth, in endless Error, hurl'd:  
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!  
    Go, wondrous creature! mount where Science guides,  
Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides;  
Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,  
Correct old Time, and regulate the Sun;  
Go, soar with Plato to th' empyreal sphere,  
To the first good, first perfect, and first fair;  
Or tread the mazy round his followers trod,  
And quitting sense call imitating God;  
As Eastern priests in giddy circles run,  
And turn their heads to imitate the Sun.  
Go, teach Eternal Wisdom how to rule—  
Then drop into thyself, and be a fool!  


— Epistle II, lines 1-30  


In the above example, Pope's thesis is that man has learnt about nature and God's creation through science; consequently, science has given manpower, but having become intoxicated by this power, man has begun to think that he is "imitating God". In response, Pope declares the species of man to be a "fool", absent of knowledge and plagued by "ignorance" despite all the progress achieved through science. Pope argues that humanity should make a study of itself, and not debase the spiritual essence of the world with earthly science, since the two are opposed to one another: a man should "presume not God to scan". 

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Alexander Pope was a poet and satirist of the Augustan period and one of its greatest artistic exponents. Considered the foremost English poet of the early 18th century and a master of...

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