Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man stands as an intellectual landmark of the eighteenth century because it embodies the cosmological, theological, and ethical thought of its age. Heavily influenced by Pope’s friend Lord Bolingbroke, whose philosophy was congenial to Pope, An Essay on Man actually sums up the leading principles of the time. Arthur Lovejoy’s The Great Chain of Being (1936) provides the essential background for a thorough understanding of the traditions upon which Pope drew.
The central conception of this poem rests, however, upon the ideas of plenitude, gradation, and continuity. Plenitude, for Pope, means the overwhelming fullness of creation, of a universe inhabited by all possible essences created by God. The abundance and variety of creation are also marked by gradation, the notion that there exists a graduated chain or rank among creation, moving from the lowest created thing up to God. This chain implies, of course, subordination of lower creatures to higher because each step up the ladder marks a slight variation upon the preceding step. Thus man (given the poem’s title, the use of this word, rather than “people” or “humanity,” may be considered accurate) is superior by virtue of his reason to lower beings. The ordered harmony of the entire creation depends upon the proper ordering of parts. Continuity, this ordered continuum of creation, is for Pope the principle of social and divine love that ties together all forms of creation in measured rule.
Epistle 1 explains the relationship of man to the universe. Man’s knowledge of the universe must be limited to this world only; however, because evil exists on earth, one should not question God’s ways or his justice. It is enough to know that God, because of his infinite goodness, created a perfect system and that man is merely a small part of the gigantic whole. God created the universe in one vast chain; somewhere along this chain man’s place may be found. The imperfections in his nature man pretends to find are not really imperfections, for God created man suited to his place and rank in creation. Our happiness here consists in two things: our ignorance of the future and our hope for better things in the future. “Hope springs eternal in the human breast:/ Man never Is, but always to be blest.”
Man’s chief error is his pride, which causes him to aspire to be better than he is, to question Providence about the fitness of things. Such pride inverts the real order since people are the judged, not the judges. Man must not presume to doubt the justice of God’s dispensations. Another error is that man sees himself wrongly as the final cause of all creation, as though all nature exists to serve him alone.
Equally unjust is man’s wish for the strength of wild beasts or the power of angels, because God made the earth and all its inhabitants in a graduated scale; at the bottom of this scale are the lowest of creatures, man stands in the middle, and above men are multitudes of angels and, finally, God:
Vast chain of Being! which from God began,Natures ethereal, human, angel, man,Beast, bird, fish, insect, what no eye can see,No glass can reach; from Infinite to thee,From thee to Nothing.
Each animal is subordinated to the ranks above and superior to those below. Man, by virtue of his reason, rules all creation below, but he is not of ethereal substance, as an angel is, and does not possess angelic power. Therefore it is absurd to claim another’s place since each is a part of the whole ordained by God. To break this vast chain at any point would destroy the whole and violate God’s plan. Man should not view creation as imperfect because he can envision only a part of it. His middle place on the scale implies a limited perception of...