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Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 288

John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester (commonly called "Rochester"), was a poet known for his wit, his controversial verses, and his sexual indiscretions (as he was known for enjoying alcohol and fathering illegitimate children). He lived during the reign of Charles II during the Restoration period—a period named for the restored monarchy. "A Satire Against Reason and Mankind" is his most popular work, and it is representative of the strain of his verses.

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The poet laments the condition of man, to such an extent that he wishes he were another beast. The poem's tone is satirical and its content ironic; he claims that he would prefer to "be a dog, monkey, or a bear" (5) instead of a man. At least these creatures, according to Rochester, are spared the toil of being a man. Man struggles to acquire knowledge, but this attempt is always futile, amounting to only "mountains of whimseys, heaped in [man's] own brain" (17). Man is unable, according to Rochester, to understand things outside of himself.

Rochester claims that witty people are like whores, insofar as they please their admirers temporarily but have little substance. He also avers that religious men are misguided, as they think that their life has meaning when it does not. Rochester concludes with a sort of challenges to those who would prove him wrong. He devotes an entire stanza to a musing on some imagined individual who is "humble" and "of honest sense" (212). Rochester claims that, were a man to exist in reality, he (and the rest of the "rabble" [219]) would obey this man. The fact that no one is, in fact, revered in this way is evidence for the implied fact that no such man exists, proving Rochester's verses true.

The Poem

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 515

“A Satire Against Mankind,” sometimes called “A Satire Against Reason and Mankind” or simply “Satire,” is one of John Wilmot, earl of Rochester’s best-known poems. Written in iambic pentameter with a slightly irregular rhyme scheme (rhyming couplets occasionally give way to triplets), it is a humorous but bitter denunciation of human nature and all its vain pretensions to wisdom and virtue. The first forty-five lines of the poem form a general reflection on the failings of reason, which misleads and deceives people. People believe themselves to be eminently wise, but they are in fact the greatest of fools. Reason is compared to an ignis fatuus (literally a “false fire,” or will-o’-the-wisp) that leads people through the treacherous landscapes of their own minds. Clever people who profess to be “wits” are singled out for particular criticism, wit being decried as “vain frivolous pretence.”

Rochester then introduces an interlocutor, a “formal Band, and Beard,” or conventional, venerable clergyman, who agrees with the speaker in the poem that wit is abhorrent, but who takes issue with him for railing against humankind and reason in general. This interlocutor praises humankind as being made in God’s image and possessing souls, which, he says, raise people above the beasts by allowing them to comprehend the universe, Heaven, and Hell.

The speaker retorts that people are mites who presume to compare their brief lives to the infinite. Humanity makes up its own cosmic mysteries and then solves them. The speaker is contemptuous of philosophers who prefer their cloisters to the wide world, and who spend their time thinking because they are incapable of doing.

The speaker distinguishes between false reason and right reason, which exists only insofar as it governs action and helps people enjoy life. This “right” reason comes from the senses; for example, the speaker’s right reason tells him to eat when he is hungry, whereas humankind’s more common false...

(The entire section contains 1144 words.)

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