Analysis of Alexander Pope's An Essay on Man
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Analysis of Alexander Pope's An Essay on Man
There are three main issues that Pope talks about in his long poem "An Essay on Man." First, the poet evokes a timeless vision of humanity in which the universe is connected to a great chain that extends from God to the tiniest form of life. Secondly, Pope discusses God's plan in which evil must exist for the sake of the greater good, a paradox not fully understandable by human reason. Thirdly, the poem accuses human beings of being proud and impious. Pope feels that man claims more insight into the nature of existence then he possesses.
In "An Essay on Man" Pope is trying to make clear the relationship of humanity to the universe, himself, society and also to happiness. He states…show more content…
Man knows that he possesses free will. In order for him to make the right choices, man must know that there is a choice to make between good and evil, and that he has to accept responsibility for his choices. Pope discuses the presence of evil throughout the universal chain: "If the great end be human happiness then nature deviates; and can man do less?" (330). This implies that there is beauty in nature, but there is also evil when nature destroys towns, homes and human life. If nature can be evil, how can man be expected never to be evil? Man has the power of good to help feed the hungry, care for the sick, and comfort the dying. Yet, man chooses to exercise his evil side: destroying, killing and bringing down those that are weaker.
In addition to discussing evil, Pope also suggests that human beings are full of pride and impiety. "All this dread order break-for whom? For thee? Vile worm!" laments Pope, "Oh madness! Pride! impiety!" (332). He is saying that man sees himself as the center of the universe around which all things revolve. Humanity cares about nothing but itself. Pope draws us into the poem by reminding us that we too have tendencies to make assumptions and that we all have our own desire to see the universe revolving around us. Pope discusses humanity's downfall, writing: "In pride in reasoning pride, our error lies" (329). Here, Pope puts forth the
The Essay on Man is a philosophical poem, written, characteristically, in heroic couplets, and published between 1732 and 1734. Pope intended it as the centerpiece of a proposed system of ethics to be put forth in poetic form: it is in fact a fragment of a larger work which Pope planned but did not live to complete. It is an attempt to justify, as Milton had attempted to vindicate, the ways of God to Man, and a warning that man himself is not, as, in his pride, he seems to believe, the center of all things. Though not explicitly Christian, the Essay makes the implicit assumption that man is fallen and unregenerate, and that he must seek his own salvation.
The "Essay" consists of four epistles, addressed to Lord Bolingbroke, and derived, to some extent, from some of Bolingbroke's own fragmentary philosophical writings, as well as from ideas expressed by the deistic third Earl of Shaftsbury. Pope sets out to demonstrate that no matter how imperfect, complex, inscrutable, and disturbingly full of evil the Universe may appear to be, it does function in a rational fashion, according to natural laws; and is, in fact, considered as a whole, a perfect work of God. It appears imperfect to us only because our perceptions are limited by our feeble moral and intellectual capacity. His conclusion is that we must learn to accept our position in the Great Chain of Being — a "middle state," below that of the angels but above that of the beasts — in which we can, at least potentially, lead happy and virtuous lives.
Epistle I concerns itself with the nature of man and with his place in the universe; Epistle II, with man as an individual; Epistle III, with man in relation to human society, to the political and social hierarchies; and Epistle IV, with man's pursuit of happiness in this world. An Essay on Man was a controversial work in Pope's day, praised by some and criticized by others, primarily because it appeared to contemporary critics that its emphasis, in spite of its themes, was primarily poetic and not, strictly speaking, philosophical in any really coherent sense: Dr. Johnson, never one to mince words, and possessed, in any case, of views upon the subject which differed materially from those which Pope had set forth, noted dryly (in what is surely one of the most back-handed literary compliments of all time) that "Never were penury of knowledge and vulgarity of sentiment so happily disguised." It is a subtler work, however, than perhaps Johnson realized: G. Wilson Knight has made the perceptive comment that the poem is not a "static scheme" but a "living organism," (like Twickenham) and that it must be understood as such.
Considered as a whole, the Essay on Man is an affirmative poem of faith: life seems chaotic and patternless to man when he is in the midst of it, but is in fact a coherent portion of a divinely ordered plan. In Pope's world God exists, and he is benificent: his universe is an ordered place. The limited intellect of man can perceive only a tiny portion of this order, and can experience only partial truths, and hence must rely on hope, which leads to faith. Man must be cognizant of his rather insignificant position in the grand scheme of things: those things which he covets most — riches, power, fame — prove to be worthless in the greater context of which he is only dimly aware. In his place, it is man's duty to strive to be good, even if he is doomed, because of his inherent frailty, to fail in his attempt. Do you find Pope's argument convincing? In what ways can we relate the Essay on Man to works like Swift's Gulliver's Travels, Johnson's "The Vanity of Human Wishes" (text), Tennyson's In Memoriam and Eliot's The Wasteland?
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