At a glance:
- Author: Alexander Pope
- First Published: 1733
- Type of Work: Philosophic Poetry
- Genres: Philosophy, Essays, Poetry, Didactic literature
- Subjects: Philosophy or philosophers, Religion, God, Human race, Eighteenth century, Ethics, Life, philosophy of, Theology, Evil
Pope’s principle for understanding man is the Great Chain of Being, which orders all creation according to God’s will. The disorders which man sees in the universe are actually parts of some larger perfection which man’s limited knowledge cannot perceive. Man’s prideful speculations, not the external universe, are the cause of his misery.
Within man himself, there is also an order based on the workings of self-love (the faculty of desire) and reason (the faculty of judgment). Right living depends upon the two working in harmony, since neither is good or evil in itself. Rather, good or evil arises out of their proper or improper use.
Human society also partakes of this universal order. The imitation of nature and rational self-love enable man to create a successful social order, but his favoring of a particular government or religion, instead of reliance on general principles, creates dissension and tyranny. Man’s end--happiness--is attained when he submits to Providence and dispenses with pride.
Part of the essay’s greatness is Pope’s unity of structure and theme. The poem’s orderly exposition of ideas, its concentration on universals rather than specifics, and its heroic couplet verses, reflect the ideas of balance, subordination, and harmony better than even the finest prose.
Cutting-Gray, Joanne, and James E. Swearingen. “System, the Divided Mind, and the Essay on Man.” Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900 32, no. 3 (Summer, 1992): 479-494. Considers the poem from philosophical and religious viewpoints, questioning whether Pope was merely compiling accepted truths or undermining the system that the poem claims to support.
Mack, Maynard. Alexander Pope: A Life. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1985. Definitive biography of Pope, written by a great scholar. References to the poem appear throughout the book, but the major commentary is in chapter 21.
Nuttall, A. D. Pope’s Essay on Man. Winchester, Mass.: Allen & Unwin, 1984. Addresses the poem as the major philosophical statement in eighteenth century English. Views the poem as including religious issues. Section on public and critical reaction to the poem.
Piper, William Bowman. “Pope’s Vindication.” Philological Quarterly 67, no. 3 (Summer, 1988): 303-321. Confronts questions related to the poem’s religious issues by comparing it to John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Although traditional readings have disregarded this comparison, Piper asserts that Pope is more persuasive concerning the reality of God than Milton is.
Pope, Alexander. An Essay on Man. Edited by Maynard Mack. London: Methuen, 1964. Contains a detailed introduction that analyzes the structure and artistry of the poem, its philosophical context, and Pope’s Roman Catholic background. The scholarly notes are not intrusive.
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