The English Restoration of 1660 delineates a dramatic transition in British literature from writing that is elegant, expressive, and often sentimental to prose and poetry that embraces simple, lucid, classical forms (Evans 203). Additionally, the years after the Restoration saw writers continuing to investigate new regions of the scientific, the philosophical, the political, and the moral. Antecedents of this trend include seventeenth century writers such as Francis Bacon, who pondered always the "nature of truth" (Evans 199), Thomas Hobbes, a political philosopher who asserted that sovereign power is ultimately borrowed from the citizen (McKay, Bennett, and Buckler 552), and John Locke, who contended that all human notions are "derived from experience" (McKay, Bennett, and Buckler 606). Bacon, Hobbes, and Locke foreshadowed and typified the sorts of philosophical texts that would become common during the Enlightenment, works that often expressed the Rationalism of the age. Enlightenment Rationalism is composed of three essential understandings: first, explorations of natural science can be employed to discover truth about other facets of existence; second, the scientific method can uncover truths about society, not just the traditional sciences; and lastly, with newly discovered truths in hand, it is possible to improve the world and the individual. This last tenet is the notion of progress (McKay, Bennett, and Buckler 604). Implicit in all of these understandings is the assumption that man can use reason to arrive at truth and to better the world. Alexander Pope (1688-1744), who was a poet, a satirist, and a scholar ("Alexander Pope" 2212), embodied all of the aforementioned values in his poetry, particularly in An Essay on Man, which overtly supports and defends Rationalism as a philosophical stance.
In "Epistle 1" of An Essay on Man, Pope immediately tackles the first tenet of the philosophy of Rationalism, namely that the observation of nature can reveal truths about the world in its entirety (McKay, Bennett, and Buckler 604). Indeed, Pope uses the exploration of nature as a metaphor for man's circuitous quest for truth in a confusing and sometimes contradictory world. Pope describes the world as "A mighty maze! But not without a plan; a wild, where weeds and flower promiscuous shoot" (1.6-7). This line foreshadows Pope's later assertions that man will never be able to fully understand divine intentions or creations because of the vast diversity and impenetrable complexity of the universe. However, the text does assert that through careful observations and the use of reason, man may indeed be able to sense a divine outline of reality by witnessing the evidence of a central plan for that reality.
Pope expands his metaphor in his descriptions of various earthly creatures; some creatures, like man, are weak and small, but other creatures are weaker and smaller. These descriptions beg the question, "Where does man fit into the equation of all God's creatures?" What is man's "rank" (1.2.48)? We are created masters of the world, but we are also fragile and weak, susceptible to injury or death, and worse, stupidity and pride (2.1.16). Pope states that man may labor arduously toward a goal without achieving that goal, while God can effortlessly succeed in any endeavor (1.2.53-55). However, man has achieved many things, and man is gifted with the ability to reason. The juxtaposition of great failings with great capacity interests Pope. He comments upon the rapidly changing status of creatures in nature, giving the example of the oxen once worshipped in Egypt who are now toiling as common beasts of the fields (1.2.62-64). Man, according to Pope, may be able to learn something of his own status by observing the illustrations of nature. In our pride, we see ourselves as above all other creatures on Earth, when we may truly "act second to some sphere unknown" (1.2.58). If we do not see this, we can blame our "dullness" (1.2.65), but we should not blame God if we do not understand that we are only as perfect as we should be (1.2.70). Heaven, after all, "from all creatures hides the book of Fate" (1.2.77).
Although man is not now and nor ever will be privy to God's actual blueprint of creation, Pope presents his evidence for the existence of God's central plan by providing examples in nature of abilities and circumstances so amazing and appropriate that they could not possibly have occurred by chance. Chief among these examples are the stunning skills and instincts of the spider and the bee. How could a creature perform such fabulous feats without a design? The very existence of the spider crafting his web refutes the notion of life springing from nothingness (1.7.210-220).
Pope does more than try to parse man's place in the universe in An Essay on Man; he also tackles the difficult theological question of why horrible things happen to men in a world constructed by "the first Almighty Cause" (1.5.145). Pope is extremely clever in these passages. He acknowledges earthquakes and plagues, which are "natural" disasters, but he then discusses various tyrants and evildoers of the human variety, such as Alexander the Great and Cesare Borgia. According to Pope, none of these seemingly horrible aspects of human existence, neither the natural disasters nor the human disasters, have been able to destroy the fabric of God's creation (1.5.142-172). Of course, man would prefer to live in peace and safety, but it does not appear to be the nature of man (according to Pope) to exist in such a state. Pope puts forward a theory: perhaps everything is driven by strife, and without this strife, the universal plan would grind to a halt. We cannot know, because we are humans, not the omniscient God, and therefore, we should not complain about the world the way it is (1.5.165-170). This theorizing about God's rationale for earthly suffering is an example of Pope's implementation of Rationalism in An Essay on Man. Pope is using existing information in an attempt to arrive at new understanding and new truth.
In An Essay on Man, Pope clearly states the relationship between the use of the scientific method for purposes beyond simply understanding the natural world, namely that of uncovering truths about society in general. In "Epistle1," Pope comments that observation of the structure of the universe can indeed lead to a better understanding of man's place and purpose in it.
Observe how system into system runs,
What other planets circle other suns,
What varied being peoples every star,
May tell why Heaven has made us as we are. (1.1.25-28)
According to Pope, then, the macrocosm of the universe may mirror the microcosm of the Earth, thereby providing a rationale of sorts. Pope also states that "The proper study of mankind is Man" (2.1.2), and implicit in this remark is the charge that man should seek knowledge of the nature of man using all available evidence, even if we are forever barred from knowing why God created us as He did. The great goal is not to understand God; rather, our goal is to understand ourselves as God has made us.
Pope's An Essay on Man gives much credence to the notion of progress resulting from a better understanding of the world, but he does not restrict himself only to praising humans who have become sophisticated in their reasoning.
The concept of the "noble savage" is very present in the poem, most prominently in Pope's description of the "poor Indian" (1.3.99). Although this Indian is not formally educated, he is able to see God in the natural world far better than one who has erred by adhering too stringently to science. The Indian is able to find heaven through his appreciation of natural beauty and through his observation of God's plan in that natural beauty. He does not crave material wealth. The Indian is at peace and does not put on airs or consider himself to be better than God's other creatures, a fact which is evidenced by the Indian's thought that when he dies one day, his loyal dog will be by his side (1.3.99-112). The Indian's calm is a demonstration of Pope's idea of progress for society: serenity enmeshed with true understanding. This would be a world that has progressed beyond strife, greed, envy, pride, or arrogance, a world guided by simple reasoning.
Pope is greatly critical of man's failings, and he uses An Essay on Man to define and to seek expiation of these failings. Among Pope's chief criticisms of mankind seems to be man's tendency to complain about his own condition. At many junctures, Pope cautions the reader (in the person of mankind) to stop bemoaning his state. Pope finds particular fault in the humans who complain of their own uncomfortable condition while harming the circumstances of others. As an example, Pope cites men who destroy creatures for sport, rather than for nourishment (1.4.117).
To complain in such a way while behaving injuriously, implies the poem, is a fundamentally unreasonable position.
Pope addresses reason and the philosophy of Rationalism specifically in…