An Essay on Man | Study Guide

Alexander Pope

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An Essay on Man | Summary

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Summary

The Design

The first portion of "Essay on Man," called "The Design," is written in prose and serves as an introduction to the piece. The speaker addresses the essay to his friend Henry St. John, Lord Bolingbroke, who has written on similar subjects. The speaker explains the purpose of the essay—to write about "Man in the abstract, his Nature and his State." He believes it is necessary to know something thoroughly before criticizing it. The speaker claims that human nature can be reduced to a few points of argument. He has tried to avoid extreme opinions in the piece, striking a moderate stance.

The speaker explains that he has written the essay in verse for two reasons. First, the speaker believes that verse is easier than prose for the reader to understand and remember. Second, he contends that it is easier to be concise in verse. The speaker also says that this essay is merely a basic map of humanity. He alludes to the fact that his health may prevent him from writing further.

Epistle 1

The poem is divided into four numbered sections that Pope calls Epistles, or letters. Each epistle is preceded by an "Argument" that first states the topic of the epistle and then summarizes the main point of each stanza in the epistle with a list corresponding to the numbered stanzas. The topic of Epistle 1 is "Of the Nature and State of Man, with respect to the Universe." Its main points are the following:

  1. Humans can judge "only with regard to our own system."
  2. Man is not imperfect; he has a proper place in creation.
  3. Present happiness depends on hope for the future.
  4. The cause of human misery is the desire for more knowledge.
  5. It is absurd to seek perfection.
  6. It is unreasonable to complain against Providence, or God.
  7. The visible world shows a universal order in which creatures are inferior to humans and reason is the highest human power.
  8. All creatures are connected, and the connections cannot be destroyed.
  9. It is madness to want to disrupt creation.
  10. Humans must submit absolutely to God.

The speaker begins Epistle 1 by urging his friend Bolingbroke to put aside unimportant and mundane tasks and instead embark on a journey with him. "Awake, my St. John!" he says. "Leave all meaner things / To low ambition." Bolingbroke and the speaker must "vindicate the ways of God to man," or relate God's laws to human society.

The speaker states that God may have other worlds to think about and observe. Humans, however, can only see the world from their own points of view. People do not understand the reason for their weaknesses, much as they cannot understand why an oak is stronger than the weeds beneath it. The speaker writes that God hides the future from humankind. If a lamb knew that slaughter awaited him, he wouldn't frolic happily. Likewise, God has given all people the gift of not knowing the future so that people may have hope. "Hope springs eternal in the human breast," Pope famously writes.

There exists a natural order, and it allows for flaws, both in nature and in humans. Every creature has a purpose. If all other creatures are happy with their lots in life and were created perfectly for their functions, why should humans be unhappy? If people could do everything they wanted, it would not suit them. Rather, God in his wisdom gives people some gifts and elects not to give them others.

The speaker discusses the "vast chain of being," which man cannot comprehend. The chain includes organisms too small to see, creatures of the heavens and the oceans, and creatures superior and inferior to people. Yet if one link in this great chain was missing, all existence would be imperiled. Even the heavens would fall if the lowest creature were eliminated from the vast chain. All parts of people's bodies work together and are necessary. Similarly, every creature in the universe is important to the whole. Thus, man should not bemoan his place in the world. Pope writes that man should believe in God's power. Everything exists according to God's plan. Man should submit to God because "whatever is, is right."

Epistle 2

In the Argument of Epistle 2, Pope states its topic: "Of the Nature and State of Man with respect to Himself, as an Individual." Its stanzas will cover the following ideas:

  1. Man's business is to study himself, not God.
  2. Humans are governed by two principles, self-love and reason; both are necessary.
  3. Passions have their uses.
  4. Human nature mixes virtue and vice.
  5. Vice is odious, and humans deceive themselves about it.
  6. Human passions and imperfections lead to general good.

The speaker admonishes people to know themselves. Humans cannot presume to question God or nature. Rather, they should study themselves, including their weaknesses: "The proper study of mankind is man." The speaker claims that humanity is at once too knowledgeable and too weak.

Human nature has two basic principles—self-love and reason. The stronger of these principles is self-love. Both are important, however, and should balance each other out. Self-love sees only what is important in the present. People therefore need reason to consider consequences and what will happen in the future. Without both self-love and reason, humans would accomplish nothing. They would instead root to a spot like a plant and rot there. As humanity becomes wiser with experience, reason triumphs over self-love. However, both work together to make people want pleasure and not pain.

The speaker next addresses passions. Passions can be selfish, but if one is passionate about something good, one should cultivate the passion. Stoics, who have no passions, may have virtue. Stoicism, a school of thought dating to ancient Greece and Rome, values morality and tranquility. However, stoics' virtue does not help them accomplish anything. It is therefore important to have a passion that drives one to achieve. The speaker compares passions to a wind that propels a ship: "passion is the gale." People cannot attribute passion only to God. He may be the one who mounts the storm, but then, God leaves man to pursue his passions. All different experiences and emotions, even bad ones like fear or grief, push man forward.

Reason is what helps people to make their passions productive. Passion quells their natural desire to make things easier for themselves. Passion will make people fight against adversity to achieve their goals. Even vices such as envy and pride can become productive. For example, envy can inspire someone to create work that emulates greatness.

Although people fear vice, they become accustomed to it if they see it too often. People first pity, then embrace, vice. The speaker says that everyone must be both "virtuous and vicious." No one is always one or the other. Everyone has flaws, but these flaws are part of God's plan. One person's flaws make others stronger. No one wants to be someone else. One who is learned enjoys her education while someone who is foolish is grateful she doesn't have the burden of knowing more.

The speaker concludes Epistle 2 by claiming that every person in every station of life should be happy. God's omnipotence and benevolence mean that he balances life's losses with gains. "Though man's a fool, yet God is wise," he says.

Epistle 3

The topic of Epistle 3 as stated in its argument is "Of the Nature and State of Man with respect to Society." Its stanzas will make the following points:

  1. The universe is a single system.
  2. Reason and instinct both operate for the good of the individual.
  3. Society is carried along by instinct to a certain extent.
  4. Reason carries the society farther along than instinct.
  5. Political societies are human creations.
  6. True religion and government originate from love.

Everything in life is a "chain of love," and every living thing is part of it. All people—indeed, all living things—are a necessary part of the chain. For example, even things that die become life-giving fertilizer for plants. The greatest and the least of all organisms are all connected.

Humans cannot know the end of the chain, whether God only acts to serve man and has created all these other creatures to do so. The speaker lists various animals, from the lark to a bear, and questions whether they were created only for people's tables or other use. He believes not, saying it would be as silly for man to believe that as it would be for a "pampered goose" to believe that man was created for the goose's use.

While man may have powers of intellect that nature doesn't possess, nature can conquer all. Man may be a tyrant, but nature checks his tyranny. Man gives animals a place in the world so he can enjoy them. Animals are lucky because they don't have the useless knowledge that they will die. Man does know he will die. This enables him to dread death but also hope for it.

All creatures enjoy either reason or instinct, whichever suits them best. Sometimes reason is better, sometimes instinct, but both work in harmony to achieve the necessary ends. People don't know how man learned to "shun their poison, and to choose their food," any more than they know how the spider learned to weave a web. The speaker suggests that God's hand is apparent in what people have come to view as instinct.

All creatures have wants and depend on each other to build their happiness. Instinct brings animals and people together. They perpetuate their species: "Each sex desires alike, till two are one." They love again as they take care of their young.

Human beings remain in their parents' care longer than animals in order to develop reason. Humans are more emotionally connected to their parents and therefore take care of their aging parents. This connection comes from reason.

At first, man walked with beasts and learned from the animals. Man learned where to hunt from birds, about societies from ants, how to build from bees. Eventually, man would surpass and rule over all these creatures because man had reason.

Man built cities and societies. Though man waged wars, people also learned to negotiate and to engage in commerce. Eventually, kings were chosen to reign above all. The strongest were chosen.

Man formed governments and churches. Early churches were built on pride and bloody sacrifices. Gradually, guided by "one great first Father," man learned gentler ways that were for the good of all. Man developed faith through love. He developed governments in the same way. While man may disagree about faith, "all mankind's concern" should be charity. It is important that people support one another. The speaker concludes Epistle 3 by comparing human beings to planets. Each is on its own axis, yet all "make at once their circle round the sun." Thus, too, man must consider himself as an individual but also consider the greater good.

Epistle 4

The topic of this epistle is "Of the Nature and State of Man with respect to Happiness." The stanzas cover the following ideas:

  1. Humans have false ideas about happiness.
  2. God wants everyone to be happy.
  3. The good man is more likely to be happy.
  4. God does not bend his laws to favor particular individuals.
  5. Humans cannot judge the goodness of others.
  6. The rewards of virtue are not external goods.
  7. Virtue and happiness are joined when man bends to God's will.

The speaker first addresses false ideas of happiness, including the idea that happiness comes with wealth and fame. In reality, the speaker says, happiness is "never to be bought, but always free." All people want happiness, but if they are unhappy they should blame themselves, not God. Although people have different ideas of what it means to be happy, happiness is attainable by all. However, one should strive for the happiness of everyone, not just one's own. God wants everyone to be equally happy even though some people are wealthier, healthier, or wiser than others. Reasonable people want three things—"health, peace, and competence." His use of competence in this context stresses his belief that people should be content with the gifts and riches they can secure within their own power.

In this epistle, the speaker addresses his friend St. John for the first time since the beginning of the poem, telling him that, having fled from monarchs, happiness dwells with him. Presumably Pope is saying that Bolingbroke no longer has to trouble himself with the wants of kings.

The speaker discusses the connection between goodness and happiness. He writes that sometimes bad people may pretend to be good. People who are actually good, however, will be happier. People may wonder why a good man dies while a bad man lives, or why a virtuous man starves while a bad man eats well. According to the speaker, God will not alter his laws in order to favor individuals. Moreover, it is only for God to judge who is good or evil. "The good must merit God's peculiar care," Pope writes, but "who, but God, can tell us who they are?"

If people were granted everything they wanted, they would want more. The speaker asks why God would give people the same gifts now that they would expect in heaven; gifts given too easily might make people evil. People should be content to do their duty.

Next, the speaker reflects on the happiness of several historical figures, including Roman emperor Julius Caesar (100 BCE–44 BCE) and Oliver Cromwell (1599–1658), who served England as Lord Protector (head of state in place of a king) from 1653–58 following its civil wars. The speaker believes that Caesar was not happy with all his power and that Cromwell was "damned to everlasting fame." No one can be happy without virtue, even if one has fame, nobility, or superior talents. When guilt and greatness are mingled in a person, then "all that raised the hero, sunk the man."

The "first, last purpose of the human soul" is to love God and humankind. Thus one should even let one's enemies have a part of happiness. The speaker writes of the ripple effect of a pebble thrown into a lake—the thrown pebble makes circle after circle in the water. Like a stone thrown into a lake, a small act of charity could have a ripple effect.

The author addresses the ending of the poem to "my friend." For the third time in the poem the speaker states, "Whatever is, is right." Pope concludes by restating the ideas that only virtue "makes our bliss" and that the goal of knowledge is self-understanding.

Analysis

Form

The text is both an essay, a short piece of nonfiction usually looking at the subject from a personal point of view, and a poem. The essay is a form first perfected by Michel Montaigne (1533–92), who used it to emphasize that the writings were attempts to express thoughts and personal experiences. Pope does not pretend at authority but, rather, expresses what he thinks and may still have been considering at the time of the writing.

Meter and Rhyme

The poem is written in heroic couplets—that is, pairs of lines that rhyme at the end written in iambic pentameter. In iambic pentameter, each line is made up of 10 syllables and 5 "feet." A foot is an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable. Iambic pentameter is one of the most common forms of poetry. Pope is considered a master of it, though it was also frequently employed by Chaucer, Robert Browning, and Shakespeare in his sonnets.

Audience

Pope addresses his poem to Henry St. John Bolingbroke, with whom he had discussed the philosophical ideas expressed in the poem. However, prior to addressing the poem to Bolingbroke, he considered other likely readers. Pope most likely did not mean the essay as an address to Bolingbroke specifically, but rather, he meant it to be a teaching tool for people in general. This assumption is shored up by Pope's statement in the section called "The Design" that he chose to write the work in couplets to make the lessons in the text easier for the reader to absorb and retain. Pope saw himself as a teacher, spooning out his lesson in manageable bites.

Neoclassic Poetry: The "Art That Hides Art"

The philosophy in "An Essay on Man" is not strikingly original. Epistle 1 looks at man's place in the universe; Epistle 2 concerns the concept of individuality; Epistle 3 examines man's relationship to others; and Epistle 4 considers the pursuit of happiness. Underlying Pope's conclusions and advice is a strong religious faith; God is at the center of his philosophy, which extols virtue. These ideas are typical of the Neoclassical movement. The major Neoclassic writers, besides Pope, included British authors John Milton (1608–74), John Dryden (1631–1700), and Samuel Johnson (1709–84) along with Anglo-Irish writer Jonathan Swift (1667–1745). Their work showed a strong respect for and desire to imitate classical writers, especially those of ancient Greece and Rome. They looked to humankind as the main source of inspiration and stressed the importance of respecting one's place in the order of the universe.

Literary critic M.H. Abrams quotes the Roman poet Horace in describing Neoclassic poetry as the "art that hides art." That is, the poems follow a restrictive pattern yet make their points with what Abrams calls "seeming freedom and triumphant ease." Thus Pope's achievement in "An Essay on Man" was not the originality of his thought but his ability to express Neoclassic ideas and ideals in flowing, memorable language.

Nature

Much of Pope's essay looks at nature as a way of "vindicat[ing] the ways of God to man." He refers to each creature having different abilities. Bulls have strength, bears have fur to stay warm, and a spider can nimbly create a web. While man has powers of intellect, nature does not give him the powers of animals, such as a fly's "microscopic eye."

Animals are lucky, Pope says, because they don't have the useless knowledge that they will die. Man does know he will die. This enables him to dread death but also to welcome it and "calmly pass away" as a release from declining health.

Nature can be kind, spreading out flowers and herbs for man's enjoyment. However, it can also be cruel, sending violent storms and earthquakes or the burning sun. For this reason it is best that man respect nature and the "general order" that it represents.

Happiness Is Universal

Pope begins Epistle 3 by saying, "The Universal Cause / Acts to one end, but acts by various laws." He puts this in quotation marks, though there is no evidence that someone said this exact thing before he did. He may, however, have been relying upon the general ideas of the Roman poet Lucretius, who had similar theories. This means that man may complain that he isn't happy or isn't having good fortune, but it is only important that the universe as a whole is happy and that there is balance. Some people may suffer, but overall, there is more happiness than not.

The entire topic of Epistle 4 is happiness: its false notions, God's desire for general happiness, how to obtain it through virtue. The latter point is so important to Pope that he repeats it in Epistle 4, saying both "virtue alone is happiness below," and in the poem's next to last line, that "virtue only makes our bliss below."

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