An Essay on Man Alexander Pope

The following entry presents criticism of Pope's poem An Essay on Man. See also, Rape of the Lock Criticism and Alexander Pope Criticism.

The philosophical poem An Essay on Man consists of four verse epistles, each of which was published separately and anonymously between February 1733 and January 1734 by a bookseller not previously associated with Pope's writings. Attesting to his belief that “the life of a Wit is a warfare upon earth,” Pope contrived the elaborate ruse partly to defuse the hostility provoked by his recent satires, notably The Dunciad (1728) and his Epistle to Burlington (1731), and partly to secure an impartial audience for the poem. Pope eventually identified himself as the author when he collected the epistles under the subtitle “Being the First Book of Ethic Epistles.” He had originally conceived of An Essay on Man as the introduction to an opus magnum on society and morality, but he later abandoned the plan. To this end, the poem addresses the question of human nature and the potential for happiness in relation to the universe, social and political hierarchies, and the individual. Articulating the values of eighteenth-century optimism, the poem employs a majestic declamatory style and underscores its arguments with a range of conventional rhetorical techniques. An Essay on Man met with international acclaim upon publication and generated no small share of controversy in ensuing decades. During the succeeding centuries, however, critics have perceived Pope's poem as fundamentally flawed, both aesthetically and philosophically. Nearly three hundred years after its publication, the poem generally merits distinction as, in David B. Morris's phrase, “a forlorn classic of ratiocination.”

Plot and Major Characters

Pope addressed An Essay on Man to Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, who served briefly as secretary of state and prime minister under Queen Anne. Previously acquainted with Pope by mutual association with Jonathan Swift, Bolingbroke retired in 1723 to Dawley, a farm neighboring Pope's Twickenham, and quickly befriended the poet, whose personal beliefs neatly coincided with his own. The friends often discussed much of the subject matter expressed in both Pope's poem and Bolingbroke's own amateur philosophical writings, usually as they walked the grounds of their properties. Divided into four parts, An Essay on Man explicates ideas commonplace among eighteenth-century European intellectuals concerning human nature and humanity's role in the universe. Proposing to “vindicate the ways of God to man,” the first epistle attempts to show the underlying harmony and virtue of the universe and the propriety of humanity's place in it, despite the presence of evil and apparent imperfection in the world. Each of the remaining epistles draws upon this premise, describing potential improvements to some aspect of human nature and society with the implicit understanding that the universe is divinely ordered and essentially perfect. The second epistle discusses humans as unique beings and shows how the psychological balance between self-interest and the “passions,” or emotions, under the guidance of reason, promotes virtuous living. The third epistle addresses the role of the individual in society, tracing the origins of such civilizing institutions as government and the class system to a constant interaction between the selfish motivations and altruistic impulses of individual humans. The fourth epistle frames the struggle between self-love and love of others in terms of the pursuit of happiness, arguing that any human can attain true happiness through virtuous living, which happens only when selfish instincts yield to genuine expressions of benevolence toward others and God.

Major Themes

Throughout the epistles of An Essay on Man Pope surveys such grand themes as the existence of a Supreme Being and the behavior of humans, the workings of the universe and the role of humans in it, and the capacity of government to establish and promote the happiness of its citizens. Consequently, the poem is one of Pope's most thorough statements of his philosophical, ethical, and political principles, which, however, were generally neither unique, radical, nor systematic. A practicing Catholic and instinctually conservative in his politics—each position precarious to acknowledge in Pope's time—Pope carefully avoids explicit references to specific church doctrines and political issues in the poem. Implicitly assuming such Christian notions as fallen man, lost paradise, and a beneficent deity, the poem presents an eclectic assortment of both traditional and current philosophical ideas that attempt to explain the universal characteristics of humankind. The poem borrows ideas from a range of medieval and renaissance thinkers, although Pope somewhat modifies them to suit his artistic purposes. The underlying theme of the poem is the idea that there exists an ordered universe which possesses a coherent structure and functions in a rational fashion, according to natural laws designed by God. The description of its structure derives from the metaphysical doctrine of the Great Chain of Being, which explains the fullness and unity of the natural world in terms of a hierarchy that ranges from plants and insects at one end to humans and angels at the other. As a creation of God, the universe ultimately is a perfect design that appears imperfect to humans because the ability to perceive its order correctly is diminished by pride and intellectual limitations. If humanity were to acknowledge with humility its insignificant position in the greater context of creation, Pope reasons, then humanity's capacity to live happily and virtuously on earth would be possible. Pope expresses many of his main ideas regarding human nature in language so indelible and pithy that some phrases from the poem have become commonplace in the English language.

Critical Reception

Upon publication, An Essay on Man made Pope the toast of literati everywhere, including his inveterate foes in London, whom he deceived into celebrating the poem, since he had published it anonymously. His avowed enemy Leonard Welsted, for instance, declared the poem “above all commendation.” This assessment typified the initial critical and popular response in England, which was generally echoed throughout Europe over the next two decades. Such notable figures as Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant rhapsodized about the poem's literary aesthetics and philosophical insights. However, the early universal appeal of An Essay on Man soon gave way to controversy inspired by a small but vocal community of metaphysicians and clergymen, who perceived challenges and threats in the poem's themes to their respective authority. These critics determined that its values, despite its themes, were essentially poetic and not coherently philosophical by any means. Within fifty years of its publication, the prevailing critical opinion of the poem mirrored that of Samuel Johnson, who noted, “Never were penury of knowledge and vulgarity of sentiment so happily disguised.” This consensus persisted throughout the nineteenth century and well into the twentieth century, as commentators also trivialized the work's poetic achievements—as they generally did Pope's other writings. Widely neglected and relegated to the dustbin of literary history, An Essay on Man has been often perceived as an historical curiosity disconnected from contemporary concerns, literary and otherwise. However, a number of recent critics have sought to rehabilitate the poem's status in the canon by focusing on its language and ideas in terms of the genre of philosophical poetry. Other commentators have attempted to reevaluate the poem's ideas within the context of early eighteenth-century thought in an effort to demonstrate that Pope derived his theodicy—or explanation of the ways of God—from the various philosophical and theological positions held by his intellectual peers.