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
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
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.
- Billingslea, S.. Echoes of Leibniz in Pope’s Essay on Man: Criticism and Cultural Shift in the Eighteenth Century. The Journal of the Undergraduate Research at the University of Tennessee, Vol 8, Issue 1: 2017. Retrieved from: https://trace.tennessee.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=https://www.google.com/&httpsredir=1&article=1361&context=pursuit
- Chattopadhyay, S.. Review of the Princeton Edition of Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man. Humanities Commons, NY: 2017. Retrieved from https://hcommons.org/deposits/item/hc:15829/