Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
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...
(The entire section is 1631 words.)
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