Interpretation Of An Essay On Man By Alexander Pope

An Essay on Man is a poem published by Alexander Pope in 1733–1734.[1][2][3] 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).[4] More than any other work, it popularized optimistic philosophy throughout England and the rest of Europe.

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

On 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".[5] 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.[6]

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 all the way from inanimate matter up to God."[7]

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, with four separate books. What we have today would comprise the first book. The second was to be a set of epistles on human reason, arts and sciences, human talent, as well as the use of learning, science, and wit "together with a satire against the misapplications of them." The third book would discuss politics, and the fourth book "private ethics" or "practical morality." Often quoted is the following passage, the first verse paragraph of the second book, which 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.[8]
Placed 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 reas'ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much;
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus'd;
Still by himself, abus'd or disabus'd;
Created half to rise and 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!

Pope says that man has learnt about Nature and God's creation by using science; science has given man power but man intoxicated by this power thinks that he is "imitating God". Pope uses the word "fool" to show how little he (man) knows in spite of the progress made by science.

Notes[edit]

  1. ^Pope, Alexander (1733). An Essay on Man; In Epistles to a Friend (Epistle II) (1 ed.). London: Printed for J. Wilford. Retrieved 21 May 2015.  via Google books
  2. ^Pope, Alexander (1733). An Essay on Man; In Epistles to a Friend (Epistle III) (1 ed.). London: Printed for J. Wilford. Retrieved 21 May 2015.  via Google books
  3. ^Pope, Alexander (1734). An Essay on Man; In Epistles to a Friend (Epistle IV) (1 ed.). London: Printed for J. Wilford. Retrieved 21 May 2015.  via Google books
  4. ^Candide, or Optimism. Review of the Burton Raffel translation by the Yale UP.
  5. ^Voltaire, Lettres Philosophiques, amended 1756 edition, cited in the Appendix (p.147) of Philosophical Letters (Letters Concerning the English Nation), Courier Dover Publications 2003, ISBN 0486426734, accessed on Google Books 2014-02-12
  6. ^Harry M Solomon: The rape of the text: reading and misreading Pope's Essay on man on Google Books
  7. ^Leo Damrosch (2005). Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius. HOughton Mifflin Company. 
  8. ^In the first edition, this line reads "The only Science of Mankind is Man."

External links[edit]

Alexander Pope Essay On Man Analysis

Alexander Pope is one of the few 18th century poets who's still widely read today, and An Essay on Man is one of his most popular works. It's quite likely to come up as an essay topic, and if you have to write an analysis of it your first question will probably be where to start. That really depends on what your exact task is; if you have to look at one aspect of the poem - its imagery, for example - your research will be quite different to that for a general analysis. Here are some ideas for an analysis essay on this poem.

Structure

The poem is extremely long and is broken into four epistles - letters - each of which is intended to explore a different aspect of human nature. Within each epistle the structure is simple; it is written in couplets, where every group of two lines rhyme and have the same meter. Rhyme and meter frequently change quite a lot between successive line pairs, however.

Themes

The overarching theme of the poem is human nature, but this is broken down into many smaller themes. In fact each epistle is prefaced by a summary, around 300 words log, of the themes it covers. It is quite impossible to examine each theme individually without writing a fairly long book; for an essay it's best to stick with the group of themes represented by each epistle. These are as follows:

  • Man as related to the universe
  • Man as related to himself
  • Man as related to society
  • Man as related to happiness

With each epistle running to around 400 lines and 3,000 words, these themes are obviously explored in some detail.

Basic Principles

Pope was quite religious, and the poem uses arguments from classical and Enlightenment philosophy to argue that the existence of God can be deduced from reason. To be technical he uses the teleological argument and the argument from necessary being.

The poem also uses philosophical ideas to discuss the nature of man himself. The main thrust of Pope's argument is that happiness is based on moral virtue rather than worldly gains. Likely influences are the Roman thinkers Seneca and Horace.

This really is a huge poem and it's very difficult to do much more than skim the surface in a general analysis essay. If you can it's best to focus on one aspect of the work. This will let you go into much more detail and demonstrate your knowledge of it, which generally means a better grade.

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