Alexander Pope, an outstanding poet and thinker of the 18th century Britain, is famous for propagation of enlightenment ideas. In his poem “Essay on Criticism” he calls for return to Greco-Roman literature traditions of the Classic Era, opposing what he sees as negative cultural trends, namely: vanity, unnecessary eloquence, overused cliches and bad taste, in critical works as well as in poems they are aiming at.
The message of the Essay on Criticism
In the Essay on Criticism, Pope points out such damaging ways of contemporary critics as poor judgement that does not allow to understand a poet’s ideas at full extent, lack of education and the negative effects of semi-education (‘A little learning is a dangerous thing’), unnecessary attention to unimportant details or desire to scandalize authors in order to achieve their own popularity instead of honestly mentioning poems’ faults without forgetting to acknowledge their strong sides. Moreover, Pope’s essay aims at replacing these practices with best practices of classic (predominantly Greek and Roman) authors and thus improving the general relationship between critics and poets whose poems they were reviewing. It is considered as one of the key works of the neoclassical era in England.
The Ideas of The Essay on Criticism
The Essay was divided by its author into 3 parts, each meant to convey a separate message, as an element of the general purpose of the poem. In Part I the grave problem of false critic is introduced to the reader. Pope describes bad qualities of contemporary critics and explains the weak sides of their works. Furthermore, this motive will be reinforced in other Pope’s works in the future. Part II explores the notion of good judgement and its importance for the literature, including the criticism. The dangers of shallow reactions and blind following of fashionable trends are mentioned. Part III depicts an ideal figure of educated critic possessing all the qualities Pope sees as important for this profession.
With the help of this structure Pope tells his readers about the problem of literature criticism of that era, its importance and the ways to solve it. The following key ideas are expressed throughout all three parts of the Essay:
Writer’s awareness of his own limitations as a key to judge other writers;
Understanding laws and forces of nature and interconnections between them as a key to creativity and to the ability of understanding art;
Importance of having both intellect and good judgment (as highlighted by Szilagyi, 1979);
Qualities of ancient poetry and criticism as a goal for a contemporary author;
Importance of studying ancients’ qualities instead of blindly copying their style;
Necessity of analyzing a poet’s aim before judging his work;
Fallacy of judgement by eloquence or strict literature rules without seeing a poem as a whole;
The need for tact and tolerance: ‘To err is human, to forgive divine’.
In order to reach complete understanding of Pope’s ideas, remarks and references, it is necessary to fully understand the context of the era, as well as to have decent knowledge of a number of classical works, as stressed by Rumens (2013).
Conclusion: The Essay’s Role in English Culture
In his Essay on Criticism Pope was aiming to uphold tradition started with Horace’s ‘Ars Poetica’ and maintained in Boileau’s ‘Art Poétique’ and introduce it to British literary circles. Written in ancient heroic verse, Pope’s poetic essay attempts to lead others not only by his arguments, but also by the example of his style and the broad range of cultural references he makes. The essay is influenced by, and contains references to, classical works of Horace and other Roman poets, as well as some French and English writers and critics of the 17th century, making its context very broad and rich.
This critical essay will summarize Thomas Robert Malthus’ intriguing ‘’Principles of Population,’’ a book that dates back to 1798. Malthus was an English scholar and economist who had quite controversial ideas for his era. The purpose of this essay is to thoroughly analyze Malthus’ ideas and talk about the cultural significance it has had since the day it was published. Although Thomas Robert Malthus’ book was published way back in 1798, it continues to be an important work in economics. This article will look into the insights of the work by Malthus. It will also provide a summary and analysis of the essay.
One of the main ideas in Malthus’ work is that population, if unmonitored, will double in size every twenty-five years, and because of that, the quality of life will gradually decrease. He states that human nature is unalterable and that it is in human nature to be passionate towards the opposite sex. Malthus wasn’t the first one to notice that production and reproduction levels are unequal. However, he was the first one to publicly share his thoughts about preventing overpopulation and how overpopulation has a negative impact on the socio-economic dynamics of society.
What the Essay Was All About
Malthus wrote extensively on the issue of population, joining the ranks of other prominent enlightenment philosophers of the time. In the first two chapters of his work, Malthus gives the most important assertions that he will be making. He emphasizes the importance of the human population. He says that the increase in the human population can always catch up with the increase in the supply of food. He believes that no matter how rich human society becomes advanced collectively, there will still be portions of the population that will remain poor.
He believes that even if human society becomes opulent, a section of it will almost have no food. This belief stems from the fact that the population can grow exponentially, where the food supply can only grow at a steady rate.
The growth of the food supply will depend on a lot of factors and resources. The population, on the other hand, can grow even if the conditions are not so good, but when there are stability and growth in the food supply, there is even more growth in the population.
The Savage and the Civilized Nations
To illustrate his point, Malthus used examples of different types of civilizations in history. First, he went through the history of what he called the savage civilizations. The savage civilizations would include the nomadic people, those who have not developed proper agriculture.
He then goes on to discuss the histories of the civilized nations, the ones that have come to develop well. But whether he was looking into a nomadic nation or at a civilized one, he saw a quick rise in the population when there was an improvement in the food supply. That increase meant there are more humans to feed.
When the increase in the population happens, different “vices” and “misery” take place to keep a large population at a sustenance level. He talks about two types of hindrances to the growth of the population. He terms these hindrances as “checks”. The first one is “Preventive Check”. In modern society, for example, it may become fashionable not to raise a family. Having a family can be seen as a hindrance and so people might not opt to have family or have children. That is seen as a “Preventive Check”.
The second type of check is the “Positive Check” in which the population growth is hindered after it has started already.A pandemic, for example, can cause the growth of the population to suddenly stop or slow down.
Americas and the Old Countries
Malthus utilizes Chapters 6 to 9 to discuss the examples of the old European countries and the Americas. Keep in mind that at the time that the essay was written, most of the European countries still have colonies. He used its example where the abundance of resources has led to the rapid growth of the population.
Malthus also used the “old” European countries at that period, to show how the Positive Checks can hinder the growth of the population as political turmoil and wars cause a decline in the European population. Although it must be pointed out that there a major conflict and political turmoil in the Americas was concluded at the time that he wrote the essay. The American Revolution ended in 1783 resulting in the separation of the colonies from the old world.
Responding to Godwin
In 1793, William Godwin published his “Enquiry Concerning Political Justice” which became a rather popular work. In it, Godwin asserts that certain trends that would happen to the human population in the future. He says that humanity would soon attain a level of equality during which the resources will become stabilized.
Godwin contends that through the improvement of humanity, the passion between the opposite sexes would die down, resulting in a lower birth rate. Additionally, the average life span would greatly improve due to advances in knowledge.
Malthus spends Chapters 10 to 15 of his work in debunking the claims made by Godwin. He asserts that the claims are not proven or are unrealistic. It does not take much for him to disprove most of Godwin’s ideas because those are mere speculation. It is not surprising that Godwin’s work is now largely forgotten, whereas Malthus remains relevant.
The Definition of Wealth
In Chapters 16-17 of the Principles of Population, Malthus meditates on wealth and the normal definition used for it. He asserts that wealth, as it is normally defined does not help with the well-being of the population in general. This means that a nation becoming “wealthy” in the terms defined by a leading economist like Adam Smith would not do anything for the masses.
His argument on this chapter echoes many modern thinkers who are calling out modern world economies since they are not producing real “wealth”.
The Principles of Population
The final two chapters of Malthus’ work was dedicated to reconciling the idea of a Christian God with that of the harsh realities being pointed out by his “Principles of Population”. He asserts that God created the principle to benefit mankind. He believes that the tension between food supply and population helps humans by cultivating their minds and improving their spirit.
He argues that even the evils of poverty and hunger exist for humans to develop their virtue and to spur them into action. Hunger, for example, allows for humans to become virtuous by encouraging charity and compassion.
Analysis of the Poem
His work was publicly criticized over the years, and one argument has stood out. Namely, Malthus was using a mathematical illustration to exemplify the unequal relationship between production and reproduction. He concluded that if the world’s population doubled every twenty-five years, agricultural production would not be able to keep up with the demand. Although he was most likely aware of the fact that the population cannot continuously grow if there aren’t enough resources to support the growth, he merely wanted to explain how population checks are necessary to keep the quality of life from decreasing.
Malthus is often accused of predicting a future where the population would collapse by outpacing the food supply. Moreover, many critics argue that he was wrong because he didn’t consider the possibility of significant increases in food production. However, Malthus already had an argument that would defend his ideas.
Namely, he makes it clear that, regardless of how much production increases in the future, it would still be unable to keep up with unchecked growth in population. He concludes that certain checks are necessary to keep everything in order – positive and preventive checks. Positive checks refer to raising the death rate, while preventive checks lower the birth rate. Positive checks are “actual distresses of some of the lower classes, by which they are disabled from giving the proper food and attention to their children,” and they include wars, disease, and hunger, while preventive checks occur among the upper class, and include celibacy and birth control.
We can safely compare his ideas to the vicious circle of supply and demand. Growing food production leads to lower prices, which consequently leads to an increase in the birth rate. An increase in birth rate is followed up with an increase in demand, which then leads to an increase in food prices. That demand causes an increase in the production of the land itself. So, it is safe to assume that the relationship between the fertility of land and people is reciprocal. One has a significant impact on the other and vice-versa.
Although Thomas Robert Malthus was very direct and intense with the wording of Principles of Population, there is still some truth when it comes to the essence of his work. It is a proven fact that the increase in production capabilities was always met with a growth in population. It is also true that people can reproduce more rapidly than they can increase food production. If we remove all the controversies that surround his work, we can strip down the whole essay to a single point – the population is, and must be, controlled through a series of positive or preventive means. Whether we like it or not, such checks are nearly always out of our control.
Alexander Pope’s ‘Essay on Man’ is one of the prominent philosophical works of 18th century England that combined poetic interpretation of positivist thought with an attempt of rational analysis of unpredictability of human fate. Written in 1734, it belongs to Pope’s late works and thus has encompassed the philosophical ideas he has been developing for many years.
The poem was written in didactic style, in heroic couplets (paying tribute to the popularity of this poetic form in Ancient Rome) and contained explorations into the limits of human capabilities, comparing it to Nature’s and Heaven’s grand powers. At the same time Pope has disclosed and sharply criticised human self-confidence which given the above difference can only be regarded as pitiful and unjustified.
With possible parallels to a number of thinkers of that era, such as Leibnitz and Milton, the Essay has gained huge popularity not only in England, but in the rest of Europe as well (as shown by Billingslea, 2017). Voltaire and Kant left positive remarks about it, while Rousseau has been criticizing some of Pope’s ideas about mankind, as did a number of other continental writers who attacked the poem either from philosophical or religious positions. As a result, the Essay remained significantly popular till the end of the century and beyond, thus making a significant contribution to contemporary philosophy, particularly the morality theories. Initially, the poem was published anonymously and Pope has acknowledged his authorship more than a year later. Nevertheless, its success among the literary circles was significant from the start.
The Structure and Key Ideas of the Poem
The Essay on Man is divided into 4 parts, or epistles as they were named by the author. Each one of them explores certain problem or concept and has a logical conclusion as well as connections to other parts. Brief contents of these epistles are as follows:
Comparison between a human being and the universe; analysis of the problem of interaction between both, given their vastly different dimensions.
Detailed exploration of the human individuality, with close focus on human flaws such as: limited understanding of the surrounding world, short lifespan, poor judgement and arrogance.
Closer look into the relations between a person and the society. Here author performs analysis of the role of religion, politics and education in human life.
Overview of individual values that influence a person’s well-being and, even more importantly from the author’s point of view, the understanding of Nature’s and God’s grandiosity.
The general thesis of the poem is that a grave humanity’s error is assuming its superiority over the whole world after it has learned so much with the help of science. While admitting that a man has achieved immense power, Pope warns many times throughout the text against such self-confidence: ‘Ask for what end the heav’nly bodies shine, Earth for whose use? Pride answers, ” ‘Tis for mine…”’ In order to combat such blinding arrogance, he highlights the limitations of human mind and body, depicting the actual greatness of Earth and the universe and praising the absolute power of God. Thus, Pope draws a universal hierarchy in which man, according to numerous arguments present in this poem, holds but a middle place: he dominates above plants and animals yet nevertheless is far inferior to greater powers of the universe, ultimately to God, its creator
Criticism of Human Knowledge
Analysis of this fallacy of humankind brings Pope to the declaration of man’s foolishness. Human knowledge is claimed to be significantly limited regardless of all contemporary scientific progress. In fact, the authors brings here the argument of the danger of semi-education which brings the reader back to his earlier works where the same problem of ignorance has been often highlighted. This claim is followed by a conclusion that humanity ought to explore itself better, prior to assume its position in the world. Thus a man would better understand his limitations and therefore avoid to overthrow this spiritual hierarchy. Pope’s strong suggestion for humanity is: ‘Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; The proper study of mankind is man.’ This is his solution for gaining better harmony on both individual and societal levels.
Historical and Cultural Significance of the Essay on Man
Alexander Pope’s ideas expressed in this work has made a significant influence on the pan-European thought, as he had summarized not only moral and religious teachings but also used the results of contemporary natural scientific research in order to make a solid ground for his arguments. His work provides a valuable material that helps to understand the progress of human self-understanding in the Enlightenment Era.
While Pope’s religious views and moral statements based on them sound controversial for a modern reader, his words about the powers of nature and human selfishness and pride seem quite relevant, even today, as argued by Chattopadhyay, 2017.