Alexander Pope's "Essay on Man" explores the complicated nature of man and attempts to bring a sense of understanding to the problems we face. The approach is philosophical, yet Pope proves his points successfully by explaining mankind's place in the universe and by also focusing on the responsibilities of mankind.
The most interesting aspect of Alexander Pope's "Essay on Man" is the way in which Pope frames the poem, which is a "peculiarly modern way of enframing the familiar which shifts from the immediacy of the given world to the mediation of a theoretical map of nature" (Cutting-Gray). It is this perspective that allows us to view man's circumstances in a refreshing way. In "The Design," Pope introduces us to his initial thoughts regarding the poem and how it came to be. He tells us, " I thought it more satisfactory to begin with considering Man in the abstract" (Pope). It is this abstract view that adds to the poem's significance.
Mankind is viewed as a creature of the universe that The disputes come from "studying too much such finer nerves and vessels" (Pope). Pope says, "The disputes are all upon these last, and I will venture to say, they have less sharpened the wits than the hearts of men against each other, and have diminished the practice, more than advanced the theory of morality" (Pope).
Pope also explains his reason for writing his essay as a poem. He says, "This I might have done in prose; but I chose verse, and even rhyme, for two reasons. The one will appear obvious; that principles, maxims, or precepts so written, both strike the reader more strongly at first, and are more easily retained by him afterwards: the other may seem odd, but it is true; I found I could express them more shortly this way than that much of the force as well as grace of arguments or instructions depends on their conciseness" (Pope).
Pope also presents his intention in "The Design," which is to describe ethics in a different way. An important aspect of this work is Pope's approach to reason and virtue. His desire was to present us with a system that allowed both to have potential in the world instead of placing one as more important as the other. Pope also struggles with morality and mankind's fall from grace in Epistles I and II. As a result of the fall, man must find salvation. The poem considers the social, ethical, philosophical points-of-view to accomplish this task.
From this premise, he sets forth to work through a process that tests the ideas of man and calls into question their purity and value. According to M.H. Abrams, the essay gives "memorable expression to ideas about the nature of the universe and man's place in it, ideas upon which eighteenth-century optimism rested" (Abrams 2263). Additionally, he says that it is Pope's intention to "vindicate the ways of God to man" (2263). In addition, McLaverty explains, "Pope's aim was to restrict the role of reason while leaving persons free and capable of virtue. He was determined to avoid a system which made reason good and self-love bad; both had potential for good within a providential scheme" (McLaverty). These ideas help us understand Pope's frame of reference and his intentions with his essay.
In Epistle I, the poet acknowledges a definite plan for mankind in the universe. He is quick to point out that just because we are unable to comprehend the complexities of the entire universe, we should not doubt that things are happening as they should. For example, mankind is certainly aware that superior beings exist in the universe yet we cannot completely comprehend them. At this point in the poem, the poet says, "And all the question (wrangle e'er so long)/Is only this, if God has plac'd him wrong?" (I.49-50). This statement essentially tells us to have faith in God rather than rely on our own understanding when it comes to complex issues of the universe. We must simply move keeping in mind that:
So man, who here seems principal alone,
Perhaps acts second to some sphere unknown,
Touches some wheel, or verges to some goal;
Tis but a part we see, and not a whole. (I.57- 60)
The poet is not only asking us to accept our place in the universe but he is also asking us to realize that we are simply a part of everything that goes on in the universe.
The poet also suggests that we put a certain amount of faith in how the universe had been structured. He says, "The gen'ral order, since the whole began,/Is kept in nature, and is kept in man" (I.171-2). In fact, it is better that we not know certain things. For instance, the poet tells us, "The bliss of man (could pride that blessing find)/Is not to act or think beyond mankind" (I.189-90). This statement indicates that man's pride is the primary reason for believing that we could structure any universe that operates in a better way.
Evil is also an important aspect of the order of the universe. Evil is blamed on God but in the poet's estimation, the are the result of man's pride. Man has a tendency to misunderstand what he cannot comprehend. The poet tells us, "Each beast, each insect, happy in its own/Is Heav'n unkind to man, and man alone?" (I.185-6). This statement implies that we should accept the fact that we will not always understand everything. More importantly, this is not a bad thing. We should live and "Let earth unbalanc'd from her orbit fly/Planets and suns run lawless thro' the sky" (I.250-1). The poet admonishes man for thinking that order be broken just for him. In short, for man to return to his natural state in the universe, he must accept his place in that universe. The poet urges us to Cease then, nor order imperfection name:
Our proper bliss depends on what we blame.
Know thy own point: this kind, this due degree
Of blindness, weakness, Heav'n bestows on thee.
All nature is but art, unknown to thee;
All chance, direction, which thou canst not see;
All discord, harmony not understood;
All partial evil, universal good.
And, spite of pride, in erring reason's spite,
One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right. (I.288-93)
Evil and good exist in the universe together for a reason, he explains, whether we can understand it or not and our best response to this is to trust Providence. (I.205) Mankind exists as apart of the "Vast Chain of Being" (I.237). With this in mind, the poet explains how reason can lead us to make incorrect assumptions based on reason. (I.292). In other words, man's struggle is within his own mind. Mankind is much better off realizing his position in relation to the universe as a whole. This epistle is filled with questions concerning man's place and his own abilities.
Cutting-Gray claims that this point-of-view makes the poem "striking" (Cutting-Gray). She explains, "The human becomes the primary subject: the being and truth of all that is, appears grounded on man as the relational center of the world. The chain of being should 'vindicate the ways of God to Man' by outlining what belongs to and what properly happens in the sphere of nature. Instead, it becomes a picture of nature fixed by a projection. (Cutting-Gray).
In Epistle II, Pope begins with an urgent piece of advice from the poet. We are told to know then thyself, presume not God to scan,/The proper study of mankind is man. (Pope II.1-2). This is to be man's ultimate business. The poet describes mankind's state perfectly when he says that we have With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,/With too much weakness for the Stoic's pride" (II.5-6). This explains the conflicts that mankind encounters on an almost daily basis. These struggles prevent mankind from discovering who he really is. Man encounters stress and a certain amount of discomfort in life and tries to solve these problems with reason. Again, pride remains a primary factor in preventing any type of understanding. In short, mankind wants to understand and grasp everything. This attitude makes man want to be like God, which is a form of self-love. Self-love and reason do not generally co-exist.
In fact, "God made Man to be ruled by 'Self-love, to urge,' and 'Reason, to restrain'" (Infotrac). This can be seen when the poet explains:
Two principles in human nature reign;
Self-love, to urge, and reason, to restrain;
Nor this a good, nor that a bad we call,
Each works its end, to move or govern all. (II.51-55)
What man should realize is that "both are important. Both loathe pain and love pleasure" (Infotrac). this notion is at the heart of Pope's Epistle. Simply put, self-love and reason in any extreme can be dangerous for man. The key is to find a balance between the two. When we…