The subtitle of the first epistle is “Of the Nature and State of Man, with Respect to the Universe,” and this section deals with man’s place in the cosmos. Pope argues that to justify God’s ways to man must necessarily be to justify His ways in relation to all other things. God rules over the whole universe and has no special favorites, not man nor any other creature. By nature, the universe is an order of “strong connexions, nice dependencies, / Gradations just” (30-1). This order is, more specifically, a hierarchy of the “Vast chain of being” in which all of God’s creations have a place (237). Man’s place in the chain is below the angels but above birds and beasts. Any deviation from this order would result in cosmic destruction. Because the universe is so highly ordered, chance, as man understands it, does not exist. Chance is rather “direction, which thou canst not see” (290). Those things that man sees as disparate or unrelated are all “but parts of one stupendous whole, / Whose body nature is, and God the soul” (267-8). Thus every element of the universe has complete perfection according to God’s purpose. Pope concludes the first epistle with the statement “Whatever is, is right,” meaning that all is for the best and that everything happens according to God’s plan, even though man may not be able to comprehend it (294).
Here is a section-by-section explanation of the first epistle:
Introduction (1-16): The introduction begins with an address to Henry St. John, Lord Bolingbroke, a friend of the poet from whose fragmentary philosophical writings Pope likely drew inspiration for An Essay on Man. Pope urges his friend to “leave all meaner things” and rather embark with Pope on his quest to “vindicate the ways of God to man (1, 16).
Section I (17-34): Section I argues that man can only understand the universe with regard to human systems and constructions because he is ignorant of the greater relationships between God’s creations.
Section II (35-76): Section II states that man is imperfect but perfectly suited to his place within the hierarchy of creation according to the general order of things.
Section III (77-112): Section III demonstrates that man's happiness depends on both his ignorance of future events and on his hope for the future.
Section IV (113-30): Section IV claims that man’s sin of pride—the attempt to gain more knowledge and pretend to greater perfection—is the root of man’s error and misery. By putting himself in the place of God, judging perfection and justice, man acts impiously.
Section V (131-72): Section V depicts the absurdity of man’s belief that he is the sole cause of the creation as well as his ridiculous expectation of perfection in the moral world that does not exist in the natural world.
Section VI (173-206): Section VI decries the unreasonableness of man’s complaints against Providence; God is good, giving and taking equally. If man had the omniscience of God, he would be miserable: “The bliss of man [...] / Is, not to act of think beyond mankind” (189-90).
Section VII (207-32): Section VII shows that throughout the visible world, a universal order and gradation can be observed. This is particularly apparent in the hierarchy of earthly creatures and their subordination to man. Pope refers specifically to the gradations of sense, instinct, thought, reflection, and reason. Reason is superior to all.
Section VIII (233-58): Section VIII indicates that if God’s rules of order and subordination are broken, the whole of creation must be destroyed.
Section IX (259-80): Section IX illustrates the madness of the desire to subvert God’s order.
Section X (281-94): Section X calls on man to submit to God’s power. Absolute submission to God will ensure that man remains “Safe in the hand of one disposing Pow’r” (287). After all, “Whatever is, is right” (294).
Pope’s first epistle seems to endorse a sort of fatalism, in which all things are fated. Everything happens for the best, and man should not presume to question God’s greater design, which he necessarily cannot understand because he is a part of it. He further does not possess the intellectual capability to comprehend God’s order outside of his own experience. These arguments certainly support a fatalistic world view. According to Pope’s thesis, everything that exists plays a role in the divine plan. God thus has a specific intention for every element of His creation, which suggests that all things are fated. Pope, however, was always greatly distressed by charges of fatalism. As a proponent of the doctrine of free will, Pope’s personal opinions seem at odds with his philosophical conclusions in the first epistle. Reconciling Pope’s own views with his fatalistic description of the universe represents an impossible task.
The first epistle of An Essay on Man is its most ambitious. Pope states that his task is to describe man’s place in the “universal system” and to “vindicate the ways of God to man” (16). In the poem’s prefatory address, Pope more specifically describes his intention to consider “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 of 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.” Pope’s stated purpose of the poem further problematizes any critical reading of the first epistle. According to Pope’s own conclusions, man’s limited intellect can comprehend only a small portion of God’s order and likewise can have knowledge of only half-truths. It therefore seems the height of hubris to presume to justify God’s ways to man. His own philosophical conclusions make this impossible. As a mere component part of God’s design and a member of the hierarchical middle state, Pope exists within God’s design and therefore cannot perceive the greater logic of God’s order. To do so would bring only misery: “The bliss of man [...] / Is, not to act of think beyond mankind” (189-90).
Though Pope’s philosophical ambitions result in a rather incoherent epistle, the poem demonstrates a masterful use of the heroic couplet. Some of the most quoted lines from Pope’s works actually appear in this poem. For example, the quotation “Hope springs eternal in the human breast: / Man never is, but always to be blest” appears in the problematic first epistle (95-6). Pope’s skill with verse thus far outweighs his philosophical aspirations, and it is fortunate that he chose to write in verse rather than prose. Indeed, eighteenth-century critics saw An Essay on Man as a primarily poetic work despite its philosophical themes.
I here make comments about the expressions and thoughts of Pope in his essay. I have quoted at length from his essay. Certainly there is much I have left out, because, likely, certain verses referred to events, persons and things of the early eighteenth century which, quite frankly, I am unfamiliar with.
Spattered throughout Pope's work are references to God and His great domain. Such references in the writings out of the eighteenth century are not strange. The livelihood of writers, by and large -- as was with the case of all artists back then -- depended almost entirely on the generosity of church and state, so it was necessary in those days that writers give due regard to religious authority. Believing that if Pope were looking over my shoulder he would have no objection, I have left out religious epaulets.
Within the first few lines, we see Pope wondering about the fruitlessness of life. We have no choice: we come to it, look out and then die. What we see as we look out on "the scene of man" is a "mighty maze!" But Pope does not think this complex of existence is "without a plan." Man might sort through the maze because he has a marvelous mental faculty, that of reason; man can determine the nature of the world in which he lives; he can see that all things have bearings, ties and strong connections and "nice dependencies."
Pope opens his second Epistle much the same as he opened his first. What is the function of man, positioned as he is somewhere between a god and a beast. Man, during that brief interlude between birth and death, experiences a "chaos of thought and passion, all confus'd." He finds on earth the "Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all." Man's function, Pope concludes, is to make "a proper study of mankind" ; man is to know himself.
What man will come to know is that he is ruled by passion; passion is the ruler and reason it's counsellor.
Attention, habit and experience gains;Pope's theme is again repeated: the two driving forces of man are his reason and his passion. However, passion is the king and reason but a "weak queen."
Each strengthens Reason, and Self-love restrains.
Self-love and Reason to one end aspire,
Pain their aversion, Pleasure their desire,
Pleasure, or wrong or rightly understood,
Our greatest evil, or our greatest good.
Passions, tho' selfish, if their means be fair,
List under reason, and deserve her care
On life's vast ocean diversely we sail,
Reason the card, but passion is the gale;2
Love, Hope, and Joy, fair Pleasure's smiling train,
Hate, Fear, and Grief, the family of Pain,
These mix'd with art, and to due bounds confin'd,
Make and maintain the balance of the mind:
What can she more than tell us we are fools?Reason ("th' Eternal Art, educing good from ill") is not a guide but a guard. Passion is the "mightier pow'r." Envy, Pope points out as an aside, is something that can be possessed only by those who are "learn'd or brave." Ambition: "can destroy or save, and makes a patriot as it makes a knave."
Teach us to mourn our nature, not to mend.
A sharp accuser but a helpless friend!
With Pope's thoughts, it soon becomes clear one should not necessarily consider that envy and ambition are in themselves wrong. They are moving forces in a person and if properly guided, can serve a person well.
As, in some well-wrought picture, light and shadeEach person is driven by self-love, but on the same occasion "each on the other to depend, a master, or a servant, or a friend, bids each on other for assistance call." Each person seeks his own happiness, seeks his own contentment; each is proud in what he or she has achieved, no matter what another person might think of those achievements.
And oft so mix, the diff'rence is too nice,
Where ends the virtue, or begins the vice.
And virtuous and vicious ev'ry man must be,
Few in the extreme, but all in the degree;
Whate'er the passions, knowledge, fame, or pelf,None of us should be critical of another person's choice in life, who is to know it is right.
Not one will change is neighbour with himself.
The learn'd is happy nature to explore,
The fool is happy that he knows no more;
The rich is happy in the plenty given,
The poor contents him with the care of Heaven,
See the blind beggar dance, the cripple sing
The sot a hero, lunatic a king;
The starving chemist in his golden views
Supremely bless'd, the poet in his Muse.
Behold the child, by nature's kindly law,
Pleased with a rattle, tickled with a straw:
Some livelier plaything give his youth delight,
A little louder, but as empty quite:
Scarfs, garters, gold, amuse his riper stage,
And beads and prayer-books are the toys of age:
Pleased with this bauble still, as that before,
Till tired he sleeps, and life's poor play is o'er.
Pope returns, in his third Epistle, to his ever present theme, all is natural in nature and man is a part of nature. He first observes how "plastic" nature is, how everything is dependant on one and the other, is attracted to one and the other, down even to "single atoms." Everything "it's neighbour to embrace." (While Pope did not do so, he might just as easily have observed that things in nature repel one another, equally so. All things, in the final analysis, are held in the balance, suspended, so it seems, between the two great forces of attraction and repulsion.)
All forms that perish other forms supply,Then, Pope picks up once again his theme of the ruling principles, reason and passion. Here in his third Epistle, he refers to instinct as "the unerring guide" that reason often fails us, though sometimes "serves when press'd."
(By turns we catch the vital breath, and die)
Like bubbles on the sea a matter borne,
They rise, they break, and to that sea return
Nothing is foreign; parts relate to whole:
But honest instinct comes a volunteer,Instinct can be seen at work throughout nature, for example, "Who make the spider parallels design ... without rule or line?" Not just the spider does things by instinct, man does. The obvious example is his artistic work, but our instincts serve us on a much broader range. Think! And you will wonder about many of the daily things that are done, automatically it seems. What, exactly, is it that prompts us to do things.
Sure never to o'ershoot, but just to hit,
While still to wide or short is human wit;
Sure by quick nature happiness to gain,
Which heavier reason labour at in vain.
Who calls the council, states the certain day,Pope then comes to a rather critical passage in his essay, when he deals with family units in the animal kingdom versus human beings. The fact of the matter is, family units do not count for much in the animal kingdom, at any rate, not for long. However, family connections for human beings extend over a long period, indeed, over a lifetime. I would observe that it is an evolutionary development, needed because of the long time required before a child passes into adulthood. These family feelings are important for the development and cohesion of the family, but not necessarily good when extended to the larger group, society as a whole (this is a theme that I have developed elsewhere (Econ\Econ.doc) and which someday I hope to put up on the 'net.).
Who forms the phalanx, and who points the way?
Thus beast and bird their common charge attend,Pope then, continuing with his third Epistle, returns to his principle and the power of nature. Nature is a "driving gale," a fact which can be observed in "the voice of nature" and which we can learn from the birds and the beasts. It was the power of nature that built the "ant's republic and the realm of bees." Pope observes "anarchy without confusion."
The mothers nurse it, and the sires defend:
The young dismiss'd to wander earth or air,
There stops the instinct, and there ends the care;
The link dissolves, each seeks a fresh embrace,
Another love succeeds, another race.
A longer care man's helpless kind demands;
That longer care contracts more lasting bands:
Reflection, reason, still the ties improve,
At one extend the interest, and the love;
With choice we fix, with sympathy we burn;
Each virtue in each passion takes its turn;
And still new needs, new helps, new habits rise
That graft benevolence on charities.
Still as one brood, and as another rose,
These natural love maintain'd, habitual those:
The last, scarce ripen'd into perfect man,
Saw helpless from him whom their life began:
Memory and forecast just returns engage;
That pointed back to youth, this on to age;
While pleasure, gratitude, and hope, combined,
Still spread the interest, and preserved the kind.
Their separate cells and properties maintain.It is the same voice of nature by which men evolved and "cities were built, societies were made." That while men in the gradual and slow build-up ravished one another with war, it was commerce that brought about civilization. Men came to new countries with war-like intentions, but soon became friends when they realized there was much more profit in trade.
Mark what unvaried laws preserve each state;-
Laws wise as nature, and as fix'd as fate.
In vain thy reason finer webs shall draw;
Entangle justice in her net of law;
And right, too rigid, harden into wrong,
Still for the strong too weak, the weak too strong.
Yet go! and thus o'er all the creatures sway;
Thus let the wiser make the rest obey;
And for those arts mere instinct could afford,
Be crown'd as monarchs, or as gods adored.
When love was liberty, and nature law:So, it was trade that built civilizations, and Pope observes, that it was tradition that preserves them.
Thus states were form'd; the name of king unknown,
Till common interest placed the sway in one
'Twas Virtue only, or in arts or arms,
Convey'd unbroken faith from sire to son;Then, continuing in this historical vein, Pope deals with the development of government and of laws.
The worker from the work distinct was known,
So drives self-love, through just and through unjustPope makes a side observation that while government is necessary, its form is of less importance, what is important, is a good administration:
To one man's power, ambition, lucre, lust:
The same self-love, in all, becomes the cause
Of what restrains him, government and laws:
For, what one likes if others like as well,
What serves one will, when many wills rebel?
How shall we keep, what, sleeping or awake,
A weaker may surprise, a stronger take?
His safety must his liberty restrain:
All join to guard what each desires to gain.
Forced into virtue thus by self-defence,
Ev'n kings learn'd justice and benevolence:
Self-love forsook the path it first pursued,
And found the private in the public good.
'Twas then, the studious head or generous mind,
Follower of God or friend of human-kind,
Poet or patriot, rose but to restore
The faith and moral Nature gave before;
Relumed her ancient light, not kindled new;
If not God's image, yet his shadow drew;
Taught power's due use to people and to kings;
Taught not to slack nor strain its tender strings;
The less or greater set so justly true,
That touching one must strike the other too;
Till jarring int'rests of themselves create
Th' according music of a well-mix'd state.
Such is the world's great harmony, that springs
From order, union, full consent of things:
Where small and great, where weak and mighty made
To serve, not suffer, strengthen, not invade;
More pow'rful each as needful to the rest,
And in proportion as it blesses, blest;
Draw to one point, and to one centre bring
Beast, man, or angel, servant, lord, or king.
For forms of government let fools contest;Pope then concludes in his third Epistle, emphasizing that regard for oneself and his family has to be different than regard for the whole of society, that nature "link'd the gen'ral frame and bade self-love and social be the same."
Whate'er is best administer'd is best:
In his last Epistle on the Essay of Man, Pope deals with the subject of happiness. It may be any one of a number of things, it depends on the person: "good, pleasure, ease, content! whatever thy name." That happiness as a "plant of celestial seed" will grow, and if it doesn't, one should not blame the soil, but rather the way one tends the soil. Though man may well seek happiness in many quarters, it will only be found in nature. Man should avoid extremes. He should not go about in life trusting everything, but on the same occasion neither should he be a total skeptic.
Take Nature's path, and made Opinion's leave;To Pope, pleasure does not last, it "sicken, and all glories sink." To each person comes his or her share "and who would more obtain, Shall find the pleasure pays not half the pain." To be rich, to be wise: these are both laudable goals and a person looking about will always be able to find others who have riches and wisdom in varying degrees, but it cannot be concluded to any degree that they are happy. Happiness comes when one has "health, peace, and competence." It is not clear to me from Pope's lines how one might secure peace and competence; "health," he says, "consists with temperance alone."
All states can reach it and all heads conceive;
Obvious her goods, in no extreme they dwell;
There needs but thinking right, and meaning well;
And mourn our various portions as we please,
Equal is common sense, and common ease.
It is in the nature of man to attempt to change things; he is never happy with things as he finds them; never happy with his fellow man; never happy with the world about him. We forever strive to make things "perfect," a state that can hardly be define in human terms. Those that reflect on man's condition will soon have Utopian dreams.
But still this world, so fitted for the knave,It all too often appears to us that "virtue starves, while vice is fed." One might wish for man to be a God and for earth to be a heaven, both God and heaven coming from the imaginations of man. But, Pope concludes:
Contents us not. A better shall we have?
A kingdom of the just then let it be:
But first consider how those just agree.
The good must merit God's peculiar care;
But who but God can tell us who they are?
'Whatever is, is right.' -- This world, 'tis true,...Of fame, Pope says, it is but "a fancied life in others' breath ... All that we feel of it begins and ends in the small circle of our foes and friends ..." It will get you nothing but a crowd "of stupid starers and of loud huzzas." Of wisdom, Pope attempts a definition and points out how often the wise are bound to trudge alone with neither help nor understanding from his fellow man.
In parts superior what advantage lies!And so we arrive at the last of Pope's lines.
Tell, for you can, what is it ;
To see all others' faults, and feel our own:
Condem'd in business or in arts to drudge,
Without a second, or without a judge:
Truths would you teach, or save a sinking land?
All fear, none aid you, and few understand.
Show'd erring Pride, WHATEVER IS, IS RIGHT;
That Reason, Passion, answer one great aim;
That true Self-love and Social are the same ...
1The Poetical Works of Alexander Pope which includes Dr. Johnson's 65 page biography on Pope, Essay on Man (31 pp.); Essay on Criticism (17 pp.), Rape of the Lock (19 pp.), The Dunciad (31 pp.). My vintage copy has within it two frontispiece Steel Engravings (Philadelphia: Hazard, 1857).
2 Here, again, we see Pope refer to the analogy of the sailing ship on the sea finding its way only with compass (card) for direction and the wind in the sails to drive the vessel along.