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.”...
(The entire section is 430 words.)
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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 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...
(The entire section is 1631 words.)