Explain the meaning of "Whatever is, is right," from epistle 1 of Pope's An Essay on Man. I need general clarification of the big picture of Pope's meaning. Pope declares, "Whatever is, is right." Does he believe that even horrible things that happen all around are part of a larger plan, compelled by God, that is "right" in ways that we can't fully appreciate? Does he mean that wars or outbreaks are "right" in a larger sense? Would he explain to a dying individual that what he is suffering is "right"? Would he explain that an individual who loses someone in car accident due to a drunk driver is "right"? What is Pope really declaring here regarding what is right?

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Alexander Pope's line (in fact, half a line) "Whatever is, is right" is just as facile as it first appears, a point noted by no less a critic than Samuel Johnson. It is no accident that the line recalls Candide's contention that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds, since Voltaire was satirizing the view of Leibniz, whose optimistic philosophy was a response to the same problem that Pope addresses here.

The problem in question was most famously expressed by the Greek philosopher Epicurus in the form of a trilemma:

  1. If God cannot prevent evil, then he is not omnipotent.
  2. If God does not care to prevent evil, then he is not omnibenevolent.
  3. If God is both omnipotent and omnibenevolent, how can there be evil?

The answer of both Leibniz and Pope is essentially: "There is no evil. You merely think there is because your perspective is imperfect. God, being perfect, sees the entire picture and knows that what you regard as evil is, in fact, a necessary part of his divine plan." This is what Pope means when he says, a few lines earlier in the poem,

Cease then, nor ORDER Imperfection name:

Our proper bliss depends on what we blame.

Pope would (and does) therefore contend that someone who dies in pain or is killed by a drunk driver is part of the perfect divine plan. Perhaps they are being punished, or perhaps they will go straight to heaven. In either case, we should not question but to submit to the will of God, which is exactly what Pope exhorts his readers to do. Although many readers, such as Johnson and Voltaire, have found this a profoundly unsatisfactory solution to Epicurus's trilemma, the enthusiasm with which many others have seized on it reflects the lack of satisfactory solutions to the problem.

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It is essential, while trying to understand Pope's meaning in An Essay on Man, to understand what Pope is not talking about as much as it is to understand what he is talking about. First, using the one issue of war as an illustration of what he is not talking about, if you do a quick document search of Epistle 1 of An Essay on Man, you'll find that not once does Pope mention war. In other words, Pope is not addressing the atrocities of man's injustice to man or man's brutality to man, nor is he discussing a philosophical perspective on nature's horrific modes of robbing life from vital people. Pope is talking about a philosophical perspective on being a human being alive in a relationship with God and with nature; in other word, a philosophy of living.

Pope orients readers to his discussion on his philosophy of being alive by introducing two of the three main points:

What can we reason, but from what we know? / Of Man what see we, / ... / Thro' worlds unnumber'd tho' the God be known, / 'Tis ours to trace him only in our own.

In this, Pope lays out the scope for two-thirds of his discussion: man and man's relationship to God. The third point, man's relationship to nature, is presented by Pope's lines: "Ask of thy mother earth, why oaks are made / Taller or stronger than the weeds they shade?" Through questioning "mother earth," Pope explores the relationship between man and nature. This he paints as a changeable and unpredictable one, with levels of chaotic arrangement in how man and nature relate:

When the proud steed shall know why Man restrains / His fiery course, or drives him o'er the plains; / ... / Then shall Man's pride and dullness comprehend / ... / Why doing, suff'ring, check'd, impell'd; and why / This hour a slave, the next a deity.

Elsewhere, Pope brings up natural calamities ("earthquakes swallow, ... tempests sweep"). Pope deepens his questioning of nature by asking if nature errs when death descends from the "livid sun" or when "towns" are taken to "the grave." The answer Pope presents is that the "first Almighty Cause" acts by "gener'l" not specific precepts, therefore calamities are not aimed at humankind, they are purely vagaries of "mother earth," and "mother earth" is not perfect: "And what [is] created perfect?" Pope's focus here is present a philosophical perspective of how to live with nature that is not perfect. In other words, the meaning in his final statement, "One truth is clear, "Whatever IS, is RIGHT," pertains to a philosophic perspective on how to live with God and nature, not to one explaining destruction and death.

Pope's major points admonish comprehension of the majesty of God and the imperfect and impartial grandeur of nature, which he suggests will counter a tendency to complain and rail against Fortune:

If nature ... / ... stunn'd him with the music of the spheres,
How would he wish that Heav'n had left him still [alone].

He suggests that such an experience gives new understanding of being alive:

Just as absurd, to mourn the tasks or pains ... / All are but parts of one stupendous whole, / Whose body, Nature is, and God the soul;

Pope strives to persuade the reader: "say not Man's imperfect, Heav'n in fault; / Say rather, Man [is] as perfect as he ought." Pope's philosophical concern with life and living is summarized as:

All Chance, Direction, which thou canst not see; / ... / All Discord, Harmony, not understood; / ... / One truth is clear, "Whatever IS, is RIGHT."

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