An Essay on Man - Alexander Pope - ebook

Pope’s life as a writer falls into three periods, answering fairly enough to the three reigns in which he worked. Under Queen Anne he was an original poet, but made little money by his verses; under George I. he was chiefly a translator, and made much money by satisfying the French-classical taste with versions of the “Iliad” and “Odyssey.” Under George I. he also edited Shakespeare, but with little profit to himself; for Shakespeare was but a Philistine in the eyes of the French-classical critics. But as the eighteenth century grew slowly to its work, signs of a deepening interest in the real issues of life distracted men’s attention from the culture of the snuff-box and the fan. As Pope’s genius ripened, the best part of the world in which he worked was pressing forward, as a mariner who will no longer hug the coast but crowds all sail to cross the storms of a wide unknown sea. Pope’s poetry thus deepened with the course of time, and the third period of his life, which fell within the reign of George II., was that in which he produced the “Essay on Man,” the “Moral Essays,” and the “Satires.” These deal wholly with aspects of human life and the great questions they raise, according throughout with the doctrine of the poet, and of the reasoning world about him in his latter day, that “the proper study of mankind is Man.”

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Alexander Pope

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Pope’s life as a writer falls into three periods, answering fairly enough to the three reigns in which he worked.  Under Queen Anne he was an original poet, but made little money by his verses; under George I. he was chiefly a translator, and made much money by satisfying the French-classical taste with versions of the “Iliad” and “Odyssey.”  Under George I. he also edited Shakespeare, but with little profit to himself; for Shakespeare was but a Philistine in the eyes of the French-classical critics.  But as the eighteenth century grew slowly to its work, signs of a deepening interest in the real issues of life distracted men’s attention from the culture of the snuff-box and the fan.  As Pope’s genius ripened, the best part of the world in which he worked was pressing forward, as a mariner who will no longer hug the coast but crowds all sail to cross the storms of a wide unknown sea.  Pope’s poetry thus deepened with the course of time, and the third period of his life, which fell within the reign of George II., was that in which he produced the “Essay on Man,” the “Moral Essays,” and the “Satires.”  These deal wholly with aspects of human life and the great questions they raise, according throughout with the doctrine of the poet, and of the reasoning world about him in his latter day, that “the proper study of mankind is Man.”Wrongs in high places, and the private infamy of many who enforced the doctrines of the Church, had produced in earnest men a vigorous antagonism.  Tyranny and unreason of low-minded advocates had brought religion itself into question; and profligacy of courtiers, each worshipping the golden calf seen in his mirror, had spread another form of scepticism.  The intellectual scepticism, based upon an honest search for truth, could end only in making truth the surer by its questionings.  The other form of scepticism, which might be traced in England from the low-minded frivolities of the court of Charles the Second, was widely spread among the weak, whose minds flinched from all earnest thought.  They swelled the number of the army of bold questioners upon the ways of God to Man, but they were an idle rout of camp-followers, not combatants; they simply ate, and drank, and died.In 1697, Pierre Bayle published at Rotterdam, his “Historical and Critical Dictionary,” in which the lives of men were associated with a comment that suggested, from the ills of life, the absence of divine care in the shaping of the world.  Doubt was born of the corruption of society; Nature and Man were said to be against faith in the rule of a God, wise, just, and merciful.  In 1710, after Bayle’s death, Leibnitz, a German philosopher then resident in Paris, wrote in French a book, with a title formed from Greek words meaning Justice of God, Theodicee, in which he met Bayle’s argument by reasoning that what we cannot understand confuses us, because we see only the parts of a great whole.  Bayle, he said, is now in Heaven, and from his place by the throne of God, he sees the harmony of the great Universe, and doubts no more.  We see only a little part in which are many details that have purposes beyond our ken.  The argument of Leibnitz’s Theodicee was widely used; and although Pope said that he had never read the Theodicee, his “Essay on Man” has a like argument.  When any book has a wide influence upon opinion, its general ideas pass into the minds of many people who have never read it.  Many now talk about evolution and natural selection, who have never read a line of Darwin.In the reign of George the Second, questionings did spread that went to the roots of all religious faith, and many earnest minds were busying themselves with problems of the state of Man, and of the evidence of God in the life of man, and in the course of Nature.  Out of this came, nearly at the same time, two works wholly different in method and in tone—so different, that at first sight it may seem absurd to speak of them together.  They were Pope’s “Essay on Man,” and Butler’s “Analogy of Religion, Natural and Revealed, to the Constitution and Course of Nature.”Butler’s “Analogy” was published in 1736; of the “Essay on Man,” the first two Epistles appeared in 1732, the Third Epistle in 1733, the Fourth in 1734, and the closing Universal Hymn in 1738.  It may seem even more absurd to name Pope’s “Essay on Man” in the same breath with Milton’s “Paradise Lost;” but to the best of his knowledge and power, in his smaller way, according to his nature and the questions of his time, Pope was, like Milton, endeavouring “to justify the ways of God to Man.”  He even borrowed Milton’s line for his own poem, only weakening the verb, and said that he sought to “vindicate the ways of God to Man.”  In Milton’s day the questioning all centred in the doctrine of the “Fall of Man,” and questions of God’s Justice were associated with 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 existence of a God, by declaring that the state of Man and of the world about him met such faith with an absolute denial.  Pope’s argument, good or bad, had nothing to do with questions of theology.  Like Butler’s, it sought for grounds of faith in the conditions on which doubt was rested.  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.Pope’s argument was attacked with violence my M. de Crousaz, Professor of Philosophy and Mathematics in the University of Lausanne, and defended by Warburton, then chaplain to the Prince of Wales, in six letters published in 1739, and a seventh in 1740, for which Pope (who died in 1744) was deeply grateful.  His offence in the eyes of de Crousaz was that he had left out of account all doctrines of orthodox theology.  But if he had been orthodox of the orthodox, his argument obviously could have been directed only to the form of doubt it sought to overcome.  And when his closing hymn was condemned as the freethinker’s hymn, its censurers surely forgot that their arguments against it would equally apply to the Lord’s Prayer, of which it is, in some degree, a paraphrase.The first design of the Essay on Man arranged it into four books, each consisting of a distinct group of Epistles.  The First Book, in four Epistles, was to treat of man in the abstract, and of his relation to the Universe.  That is the whole work as we have it now.  The Second Book was to treat of Man Intellectual; the Third Book, of Man Social, including ties to Church and State; the Fourth Book, of Man Moral, was to illustrate abstract truth by sketches of character.  This part of the design is represented by the Moral Essays, of which four were written, to which was added, as a fifth, the Epistle to Addison which had been written much earlier, in 1715, and first published in 1720.  The four Moral essays are two pairs.  One pair is upon the Characters of Men and on the Characters of Women, which would have formed the opening of the subject of the Fourth Book of the Essay: the other pair shows character expressed through a right or a wrong use of Riches: in fact, Money and Morals.  The four Epistles were published separately.  The fourth (to the Earl of Burlington) was first published in 1731, its title then being “Of Taste;” the third (to Lord Bathurst) followed in 1732, the year of the publication of the first two Epistles on the “Essay on Man.”  In 1733, the year of publication of the Third Epistle of the “Essay on Man,” Pope published his Moral Essay of the “Characters of Men.”  In 1734 followed the Fourth Epistle of the “Essay on Man;” and in 1735 the “Characters of Women,” addressed to Martha Blount, the woman whom Pope loved, though he was withheld by a frail body from marriage.  Thus the two works were, in fact, produced together, parts of one design.Pope’s Satires, which still deal with characters of men, followed immediately, some appearing in a folio in January, 1735.  That part of the epistle to Arbuthnot forming the Prologue, which gives a character of Addison, as Atticus, had been sketched more than twelve years before, and earlier sketches of some smaller critics were introduced; but the beginning and the end, the parts in which Pope spoke of himself and of his father and mother, and his friend Dr. Arbuthnot, were written in 1733 and 1734.  Then follows an imitation of the first Epistle of the Second Book of the Satires of Horace, concerning which Pope told a friend, “When I had a fever one winter in town that confined me to my room for five or six days, Lord Bolingbroke, who came to see me, happened to take up a Horace that lay on the table, and, turning it over, dropped on the first satire in the Second Book, which begins, ‘Sunt, quibus in satira.’  He observed how well that would suit my case if I were to imitate it in English.  After he was gone, I read it over, translated it in a morning or two, and sent it to press in a week or a fortnight after” (February, 1733).  “And this was the occasion of my imitating some others of the Satires and Epistles.”  The two dialogues finally used as the Epilogue to the Satires were first published in the year 1738, with the name of the year, “Seventeen Hundred and Thirty-eight.”  Samuel Johnson’s “London,” his first bid for recognition, appeared in the same week, and excited in Pope not admiration only, but some active endeavour to be useful to its author.The reader of Pope, as of every author, is advised to begin by letting him say what he has to say, in his own manner to an open mind that seeks only to receive the impressions which the writer wishes to convey.  First let the mind and spirit of the writer come into free, full contact with the mind and spirit of the reader, whose attitude at the first reading should be simply receptive.  Such reading is the condition precedent to all true judgment of a writer’s work.  All criticism that is not so grounded spreads as fog over a poet’s page.  Read, reader, for yourself, without once pausing to remember what you have been told to think.H.M.


AN ESSAY ON MAN.TO H. ST. JOHN LORD BOLINGBROKE.THE DESIGN.Having proposed to write some pieces of 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; since, to prove any moral duty, to enforce any moral precept, or to examine the perfection or imperfection of any creature whatsoever, it is necessary first to know what condition and relation it is placed in, and what is the proper end and purpose of its being.The science of Human Nature is, like all other sciences, reduced to a few clear points: there are not many certain truths in this world.  It is therefore in the anatomy of the Mind as in that of the Body; more good will accrue to mankind by attending to the large, open, and perceptible parts, than by studying too much such finer nerves and vessels, the conformations and uses of which will for ever escape our observation.  The disputes are all upon these last, and, I will venture to say, they have less sharpened the wits than the hearts of men against each other, and have diminished the practice more than advanced the theory of Morality.  If I could flatter myself that this Essay has any merit, it is in steering betwixt the extremes of doctrines seemingly opposite, in passing over terms utterly unintelligible, and in forming a temperate yet not inconsistent, and a short yet not imperfect system of Ethics.This I might have done in prose, but I chose verse, and even rhyme, for two reasons.  The one will appear obvious; that principles, maxims, or precepts so written, both strike the reader more strongly at first, and are more easily retained by him afterwards: the other may seem odd, but is true, I found I could express them more shortly this way than in prose itself; and nothing is more certain, than that much of the force as well as grace of arguments or instructions depends on their conciseness.  I was unable to treat this part of my subject more in detail, without becoming dry and tedious; or more poetically, without sacrificing perspicuity to ornament, without wandering from the precision, or breaking the chain of reasoning: if any man can unite all these without diminution of any of them I freely confess he will compass a thing above my capacity.What is now published is only to be considered as a general Map of Man, marking out no more than the greater parts, their extent, their limits, and their connection, and leaving the particular to be more fully delineated in the charts which are to follow.  Consequently, these Epistles in their progress (if I have health and leisure to make any progress) will be less dry, and more susceptible of poetical ornament.  I am here only opening the fountains, and clearing the passage.  To deduce the rivers, to follow them in their course, and to observe their effects, may be a task more agreeable.  P.ARGUMENT OF EPISTLE I.Of the Nature and State of Man, with respect to the Universe.Of Man in the abstract.  I. That we can judge only with regard to our own system, being ignorant of the relations of systems and things, v.17, etc.  II. That Man is not to be deemed imperfect, but a being suited to his place and rank in the Creation, agreeable to the general Order of Things, and conformable to Ends and Relations to him unknown, v.35, etc.  III. That it is partly upon his ignorance of future events, and partly upon the hope of future state, that all his happiness in the present depends, v.77, etc.  IV. The pride of aiming at more knowledge, and pretending to more Perfection, the cause of Man’s error and misery.  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, v.109, etc.  V. The absurdity of conceiting himself the final cause of the Creation, or expecting that perfection in the moral world, which is not in the natural, v.131, etc.  VI. The unreasonableness of his complaints against Providence, while on the one hand he demands the Perfections of the Angels, and on the other the bodily qualifications of the Brutes; though to possess any of the sensitive faculties in a higher degree would render him miserable, v.173, etc.  VII. That throughout the whole visible world, an universal order and gradation in the sensual and mental faculties is observed, which cause is a subordination of creature to creature, and of all creatures to Man.  The gradations of sense, instinct, thought, reflection, reason; that Reason alone countervails all the other faculties, v.207.  VIII. How much further this order and subordination of living creatures may extend, above and below us; were any part of which broken, not that part only, but the whole connected creation, must be destroyed, v.233.  IX.  The extravagance, madness, and pride of such a desire, v.250.  X. The consequence of all, the absolute submission due to Providence, both as to our present and future state, v.281, etc., to the end.EPISTLE I.Awake, my St. John! leave all meaner thingsTo low ambition, and the pride of kings.Let us (since life can little more supplyThan 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 flowers 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, exploreOf 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.I.  Say first, of God above, or man belowWhat 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 unnumbered 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 every star,May tell why Heaven 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 soulLooked 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?II.  Presumptuous man! the reason wouldst thou find,Why formed so weak, so little, and so blind?First, if thou canst, the harder reason guess,Why formed no weaker, blinder, and no less;Ask of thy mother earth, why oaks are madeTaller 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 confestThat 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 reasoning 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 placed him wrong?   Respecting man, whatever wrong we call,May, must be right, as relative to all.In human works, though laboured 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 restrainsHis 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 comprehendHis actions’, passions’, being’s, use and end;Why doing, suffering, checked, impelled; and whyThis hour a slave, the next a deity.   Then say not man’s imperfect, Heaven in fault;Say rather man’s as perfect as he ought:His knowledge measured 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 to-day is as completely so,As who began a thousand years ago.III.  Heaven from all creatures hides the book of Fate,All but the page prescribed, 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 to-day,Had he thy reason, would he skip and play?Pleased to the last, he crops the flowery food,And licks the hand just raised to shed his blood.Oh, blindness to the future! kindly given,That each may fill the circle, marked by Heaven:Who sees with equal eye, as God of all,A hero perish, or a sparrow fall,Atoms or systems into ruin hurled,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 confined from home,Rests and expatiates in a life to come.   Lo, the poor Indian! whose untutored mindSees God in clouds, or hears Him in the wind;His soul, proud science never taught to strayFar as the solar walk, or milky way;Yet simple Nature to his hope has given,Behind the cloud-topped hill, an humbler heaven;Some safer world in depth of woods embraced,Some happier island in the watery 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.IV.  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 Heaven’s high care,Alone made perfect here, immortal there:Snatch from His hand the balance and the rod,Re-judge His justice, be the God of God.In pride, in reasoning 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 lawsOf order, sins against the Eternal Cause.V.  Ask for what end the heavenly bodies shine,Earth for whose use?  Pride answers, “’Tis for mine:For me kind Nature wakes her genial power,Suckles each herb, and spreads out every flower;Annual for me, the grape, the rose renewThe 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 footstool 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 sweepTowns to one grave, whole nations to the deep?“No, (’tis replied) the first Almighty CauseActs not by partial, but by general laws;The 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 requiresOf showers and sunshine, as of man’s desires;As much eternal springs and cloudless skies,As men for ever temperate, calm, and wise.If plagues or earthquakes break not Heaven’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 reasoning springs;Account for moral, as for natural things:Why charge we heaven 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 discomposed the mind.But all subsists by elemental strife;And passions are the elements of life.The general order, since the whole began,Is kept in nature, and is kept in man.VI.  What would this man?  Now upward will he soar,And little less than angel, would be more;Now looking downwards, just as grieved appearsTo want the strength of bulls, the fur of bearsMade for his use all creatures if he call,Say what their use, had he the powers of all?Nature to these, without profusion, kind,The proper organs, proper powers assigned;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 Heaven unkind to man, and man alone?Shall he alone, whom rational we call,Be pleased with nothing, if not blessed with all?   The bliss of man (could pride that blessing find)Is not to act or think beyond mankind;No powers 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 given,To inspect a mite, not comprehend the heaven?Or touch, if tremblingly alive all o’er,To smart and agonize at every pore?Or quick effluvia darting through the brain,Die of a rose in aromatic pain?If Nature thundered in his opening ears,And stunned him with the music of the spheres,How would he wish that Heaven had left him stillThe whispering zephyr, and the purling rill?Who finds not Providence all good and wise,Alike in what it gives, and what denies?VII.  Far as Creation’s ample range extends,The scale of sensual, mental powers 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 trueFrom poisonous herbs extracts the healing dew?How instinct varies in the grovelling swine,Compared, half-reasoning elephant, with thine!’Twixt that, and reason, what a nice barrier,For ever separate, yet for ever near!Remembrance and reflection how allayed;What thin partitions sense from thought divide:And middle natures, how they long to join,Yet never passed the insuperable line!Without this just gradation, could they beSubjected, these to those, or all to thee?The powers of all subdued by thee alone,Is not thy reason all these powers in one?VIII.  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 powersWere we to press, inferior might on ours:Or in the full creation leave a void,