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

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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.

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 reason says to wait until the clock indicates that it is the hour to dine. The speaker will allow that there is some value in reason if it is this right reason, but that humankind, in general, is still contemptible. People, he says, are worse than beasts who act on instinct. Beasts prey on other beasts for food, but humans prey on other humans by betraying them wantonly, out of hypocrisy and fear. Humans lust for power to protect themselves from other people. The concept of honesty is laughable, because an honest person will be cheated and despised. Politicians, he says, are venal and corrupt, and raise their friends and family rather than promote the good of the country. Church leaders are sinful hypocrites who preach heartily against sin but are really grasping and adulterous.

In the final stanza, the speaker claims that there may exist a humble, pious, honest person, and if he were to meet such a person he would be glad to recant this whole diatribe and pay homage to honesty; yet if there is such a person it would only prove that “Man differs more from man, than man from beast.”

Forms and Devices

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 341

Rochester supports his satire with vivid and sometimes fanciful images and metaphors, many of which extend for line after line. His images are often deliberately ridiculous, so as to point out the ridiculousness of human pretensions. When he describes reason as “an ignis fatuus of the mind,” for example, he describes how it leads the stumbling follower through “fenny bogs, and thorny brakes,” over “Mountains of whimseys” to a “boundless sea” where he tries desperately to stay afloat on books and to “swim with bladders of philosophy.” Some of the humorous comparisons are more barbed; wits, he says “are treated just like common whores,/ First they’re enjoyed, and then kicked out of doors.” Combining his criticism with humor makes it more palatable to the reader, and ensures that the poem will be taken more as a clever satire than as a vicious diatribe.

Rochester’s intent is not entirely to amuse, though. Many of his images are wickedly persuasive as they expose the darker side of human nature. He compares people to beasts who are armed by nature with teeth and claws, and says, “Man, with smiles, embraces, friendships, praise,/ Unhumanely, his fellow’s life betrays.” He chooses as his examples of humankind the types who are supposed to be the most just and least self-interested of men. The statesman, he says, should “his needful flattery direct,/ Not to oppress, and ruin, but to protect.” Instead, the statesman is proud and corrupt, receives bribes, and advances his family’s interests over the country’s. Clergymen receive the same satirical treatment. Rochester asks, “Is there a churchman who on God relys?/ Whose life, his faith, and doctrine justifies?” Rochester’s answer is an emphatic no. The clergyman, he says, “from his pulpit, vents more peevish lies,/ More bitter railing scandals, calumnies,/ Than at a gossiping are thrown about.” The clergymen is, moreover, proud, licentious, and greedy. By choosing as his particular subjects figures who should be examples of virtue in the community, Rochester broadens his satire from the individual to society.