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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 233

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The themes of Rochester's Satire Against Reason and Mankind include reason, man's position among beasts, and religion.

The faculty of human reason (referred to in the poem's title) is, according to Rochester, no cause for celebration. It makes men think that they are better than they are, and it inspires them to aim for things that are impossible to achieve. The poet claims that books give men false hope, which makes them struggle in vain (20). Reason is without merit, as it often contradicts the five human senses.

The poet claims, in the beginning of the poem, that he would rather be a beast. Lest this seem like a superficial trope, the poet picks up this theme later by comparing a hound with a statesman, claiming that the former kills a hare more efficaciously than a politician conducts business and so is truly smarter.

Rochester supplies an interlocutor who claims that the "great Maker" (62) took care to make man with reason, and so reason should be exalted. The poet refutes this, saying that reason is no cause for exaltation, as reason causes men to betray one another with "smiles, embraces, friendship, [and] praise" (135). It is vain, according to Rochester, for a clergyman to suppose that he is better than the rest—and in doing so, he is made more foolish. If a truly "honest" and "humble" (212) man existed, he would have a great following.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 598

Rochester lived at the dawn of the Enlightenment, a time when new scientific discoveries and new ways of thinking were sweeping aside long-held traditional beliefs. Rochester was probably very familiar with Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan (1651), and much of his poetry seems to reflect a Hobbesian influence. It was in Rochester’s era that the traditional notion of humanity being at the center of a divinely ordained universe, in which God took an active and pervasive interest, was replaced by a new vision of the cosmos as a vast, impersonal world, in which the role of humankind was minor. God was still a presence in this new vision, but He was seen as being like a clockmaker; He created the world, set it in motion, and sat back to watch impartially as it operates.

In such an intellectual environment, doubt of human’s importance and distrust of, or contempt for, older ideas of people’s divine nature as common in literature. “A Satire Against Mankind” is a compelling and particularly dark enunciation of these doubts. Rochester mocks humankind for thinking that the gift of reason raises them to a status close to the divine: “This supernatural gift, that makes a mite,/ Think he is the image of the Infinite:/ Comparing his short life, void of all rest,/ To the Eternal, and the ever blest.” He sneers at human intellectual pretensions: “This busy, puzzling, stirrer up of doubt,/ That frames deep mysteries, then finds ‘em out.”

Rochester does not reject humankind and its pretensions to reason as completely worthless, however; he expresses a firm belief in human ability to know the immediate environment, via the senses. In this sense, he is a true product of the Enlightenment, in that he trusts empirical evidence and observable experience above all metaphysical speculations. He says: “Our sphere of action, is life’s happiness,/ And he who thinks beyond, thinks like an ass.” Rochester objects to human presumption in believing that one can understand cosmic mysteries and the nature of the universe simply because, as a human, one is capable of thought.

Rochester’s satire seems to spring as much from pain at human weakness as from contempt for human follies. The final stanza is a kind of apology (in some early texts it is shown as a separate addendum to the main part of the satire) in which Rochester says that meeting a truly virtuous, modest, and pious man would readily convince him to revise his views on humankind. One senses that he truly wishes to discover such a good person and would be glad to “adore those shrines of virtue” if he could. Yet even such a paragon would not entirely convince him of humankind’s redeemability; if such a person did exist, it would only prove that there is more difference among individual people than there is between human and beast. The whole poem, despite its stinging criticism of human vice and weakness, is tinged with sadness at human imperfections and inability to make sense of anything beyond one’s immediate sensory perceptions. At the end of one’s life, Rochester says, “Old age, and experience, hand in hand,/ Lead him to death, and make him understand,/ After a search so painful, and so long,/ That all his life he has been in the wrong.” It is this heartfelt undertone of pain and sorrow at the human condition that tempers the vitriolic condemnation of humanity and makes “A Satire Against Mankind” both a classic statement of the ethos of Rochester’s era and a timeless meditation on the nature of humanity.