critical analysis of essay on man by alexander pope

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Critical Essays Alexander Pope's Essay on Man

The work that more than any other popularized the optimistic philosophy, not only in England but throughout Europe, was Alexander Pope's  Essay on Man  (1733-34), a rationalistic effort to justify the ways of God to man philosophically. As has been stated in the introduction, Voltaire had become well acquainted with the English poet during his stay of more than two years in England, and the two had corresponded with each other with a fair degree of regularity when Voltaire returned to the Continent.

Voltaire could have been called a fervent admirer of Pope. He hailed the Essay of Criticism as superior to Horace, and he described the Rape of the Lock as better than Lutrin. When the Essay on Man was published, Voltaire sent a copy to the Norman abbot Du Resnol and may possibly have helped the abbot prepare the first French translation, which was so well received. The very title of his Discours en vers sur l'homme (1738) indicates the extent Voltaire was influenced by Pope. It has been pointed out that at times, he does little more than echo the same thoughts expressed by the English poet. Even as late as 1756, the year in which he published his poem on the destruction of Lisbon, he lauded the author of Essay on Man. In the edition of Lettres philosophiques published in that year, he wrote: "The Essay on Man appears to me to be the most beautiful didactic poem, the most useful, the most sublime that has ever been composed in any language." Perhaps this is no more than another illustration of how Voltaire could vacillate in his attitude as he struggled with the problems posed by the optimistic philosophy in its relation to actual experience. For in the Lisbon poem and in Candide , he picked up Pope's recurring phrase "Whatever is, is right" and made mockery of it: "Tout est bien" in a world filled with misery!

Pope denied that he was indebted to Leibnitz for the ideas that inform his poem, and his word may be accepted. Those ideas were first set forth in England by Anthony Ashley Cowper, Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1731). They pervade all his works but especially the Moralist. Indeed, several lines in the Essay on Man, particularly in the first Epistle, are simply statements from the Moralist done in verse. Although the question is unsettled and probably will remain so, it is generally believed that Pope was indoctrinated by having read the letters that were prepared for him by Bolingbroke and that provided an exegesis of Shaftesbury's philosophy. The main tenet of this system of natural theology was that one God, all-wise and all-merciful, governed the world providentially for the best. Most important for Shaftesbury was the principle of Harmony and Balance, which he based not on reason but on the general ground of good taste. Believing that God's most characteristic attribute was benevolence, Shaftesbury provided an emphatic endorsement of providentialism.

Following are the major ideas in Essay on Man: (1) a God of infinite wisdom exists; (2) He created a world that is the best of all possible ones; (3) the plenum, or all-embracing whole of the universe, is real and hierarchical; (4) authentic good is that of the whole, not of isolated parts; (5) self-love and social love both motivate humans' conduct; (6) virtue is attainable; (7) "One truth is clear, WHATEVER IS, IS RIGHT." Partial evil, according to Pope, contributes to the universal good. "God sends not ill, if rightly understood." According to this principle, vices, themselves to be deplored, may lead to virtues. For example, motivated by envy, a person may develop courage and wish to emulate the accomplishments of another; and the avaricious person may attain the virtue of prudence. One can easily understand why, from the beginning, many felt that Pope had depended on Leibnitz.

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An Essay on Man

“Is the great chain, that draws all to agree, And drawn supports, upheld by God, or Thee?” – Alexander Pope (From “An Essay on Man”)

“Then say not Man’s imperfect, Heav’n in fault; Say rather, Man’s as perfect as he ought.” – Alexander Pope (From “An Essay on Man”)

“All are but parts of one stupendous whole, Whose body Nature is, and God the soul.” – Alexander Pope (From “An Essay on Man”)

Awake, my St. John! leave all meaner things

To low ambition, and the pride of kings., let us (since life can little more supply, than just to look about us and die), expatiate free o’er all this scene of man;, a mighty maze but not without a plan;, a wild, where weed and flow’rs promiscuous shoot;, or garden, tempting with forbidden fruit., together let us beat this ample field,, try what the open, what the covert yield;, the latent tracts, the giddy heights explore, of all who blindly creep, or sightless soar;, eye nature’s walks, shoot folly as it flies,, and catch the manners living as they rise;, laugh where we must, be candid where we can;, but vindicate the ways of god to man. (pope 1-16), background on alexander pope.

pope pic 2.jpg

Alexander Pope is a British poet who was born in London, England in 1688 (World Biography 1). Growing up during the Augustan Age, his poetry is heavily influenced by common literary qualities of that time, which include classical influence, the importance of human reason and the rules of nature. These qualities are widely represented in Pope’s poetry. Some of Pope’s most notable works are “The Rape of the Lock,” “An Essay on Criticism,” and “An Essay on Man.”

Overview of “An Essay on Man”

“An Essay on Man” was published in 1734 and contained very deep and well thought out philosophical ideas. It is said that these ideas were partially influenced by his friend, Henry St. John Bolingbroke, who Pope addresses in the first line of Epistle I when he says, “Awake, my St. John!”(Pope 1)(World Biography 1) The purpose of the poem is to address the role of humans as part of the “Great Chain of Being.” In other words, it speaks of man as just one small part of an unfathomably complex universe. Pope urges us to learn from what is around us, what we can observe ourselves in nature, and to not pry into God’s business or question his ways; For everything that happens, both good and bad, happens for a reason. This idea is summed up in the very last lines of the poem when he says, “And, Spite of pride in erring reason’s spite, / One truth is clear, Whatever IS, is RIGHT.”(Pope 293-294) The poem is broken up into four epistles each of which is labeled as its own subcategory of the overall work. They are as follows:

  • Epistle I – Of the Nature and State of Man, with Respect to the Universe
  • Epistle II – Of the Nature and State of Man, with Respect to Himself, as an Individual
  • Epistle III – Of the Nature and State of Man, with Respect to Society
  • Epistle IV – Of the Nature and State of Man with Respect to Happiness

Epistle 1 Intro In the introduction to Pope’s first Epistle, he summarizes the central thesis of his essay in the last line. The purpose of “An Essay on Man” is then to shift or enhance the reader’s perception of what is natural or correct. By doing this, one would justify the happenings of life, and the workings of God, for there is a reason behind all things that is beyond human understanding. Pope’s endeavor to highlight the infallibility of nature is a key aspect of the Augustan period in literature; a poet’s goal was to convey truth by creating a mirror image of nature. This is envisaged in line 13 when, keeping with the hunting motif, Pope advises his reader to study the behaviors of Nature (as hunter would watch his prey), and to rid of all follies, which we can assume includes all that is unnatural. He also encourages the exploration of one’s surroundings, which provides for a gateway to new discoveries and understandings of our purpose here on Earth. Furthermore, in line 12, Pope hints towards vital middle ground on which we are above beats and below a higher power(s). Those who “blindly creep” are consumed by laziness and a willful ignorance, and just as bad are those who “sightless soar” and believe that they understand more than they can possibly know. Thus, it is imperative that we can strive to gain knowledge while maintaining an acceptance of our mental limits.

1. Pope writes the first section to put the reader into the perspective that he believes to yield the correct view of the universe. He stresses the fact that we can only understand things based on what is around us, embodying the relationship with empiricism that characterizes the Augustan era. He encourages the discovery of new things while remaining within the bounds one has been given. These bounds, or the Chain of Being, designate each living thing’s place in the universe, and only God can see the system in full. Pope is adamant in God’s omniscience, and uses that as a sure sign that we can never reach a level of knowledge comparable to His. In the last line however, he questions whether God or man plays a bigger role in maintaining the chain once it is established.

2. The overarching message in section two is envisaged in one of the last couplets: “Then say not Man’s imperfect, Heav’n in fault; Say rather, Man’s as perfect as he ought.” Pope utilizes this section to explain the folly of “Presumptuous Man,” for the fact that we tend to dwell on our limitations rather than capitalize on our abilities. He emphasizes the rightness of our place in the chain of being, for just as we steer the lives of lesser creatures, God has the ability to pilot our fate. Furthermore, he asserts that because we can only analyze what is around us, we cannot be sure that there is not a greater being or sphere beyond our level of comprehension; it is most logical to perceive the universe as functioning through a hierarchal system.

3. Pope utilizes the beginning of section three to elaborate on the functions of the chain of being. He claims that each creatures’ ignorance, including our own, allows for a full and happy life without the possible burden of understanding our fates. Instead of consuming ourselves with what we cannot know, we instead should place hope in a peaceful “life to come.” Pope connects this after-life to the soul, and colors it with a new focus on a more primitive people, “the Indian,” whose souls have not been distracted by power or greed. As humble and level headed beings, Indian’s, and those who have similar beliefs, see life as the ultimate gift and have no vain desires of becoming greater than Man ought to be.

4. In the fourth stanza, Pope warns against the negative effects of excessive pride. He places his primary examples in those who audaciously judge the work of God and declare one person to be too fortunate and another not fortunate enough. He also satirizes Man’s selfish content in destroying other creatures for his own benefit, while complaining when they believe God to be unjust to Man. Pope capitalizes on his point with the final and resonating couplet: “who but wishes to invert the laws of order, sins against th’ Eternal Cause.” This connects to the previous stanza in which the soul is explored; those who wrestle with their place in the universe will disturb the chain of being and warrant punishment instead of gain rewards in the after-life.

5. In the beginning of the fifth stanza, Pope personifies Pride and provides selfish answers to questions regarding the state of the universe. He depicts Pride as a hoarder of all gifts that Nature yields. The image of Nature as a benefactor and Man as her avaricious recipient is countered in the next set of lines: Pope instead entertains the possible faults of Nature in natural disasters such as earthquakes and storms. However, he denies this possibility on the grounds that there is a larger purpose behind all happenings and that God acts by “general laws.” Finally, Pope considers the emergence of evil in human nature and concludes that we are not in a place that allows us to explain such things–blaming God for human misdeeds is again an act of pride.

6. Stanza six connects the different inhabitants of the earth to their rightful place and shows why things are the way they should be. After highlighting the happiness in which most creatures live, Pope facetiously questions if God is unkind to man alone. He asks this because man consistently yearns for the abilities specific to those outside of his sphere, and in that way can never be content in his existence. Pope counters the notorious greed of Man by illustrating the pointless emptiness that would accompany a world in which Man was omnipotent. Furthermore, he describes a blissful lifestyle as one centered around one’s own sphere, without the distraction of seeking unattainable heights.

7. The seventh stanza explores the vastness of the sensory and cognitive spectrums in relation to all earthly creatures. Pope uses an example related to each of the five senses to conjure an image that emphasizes the intricacies with which all things are tailored. For instance, he references a bee’s sensitivity, which allows it to collect only that which is beneficial amid dangerous substances. Pope then moves to the differences in mental abilities along the chain of being. These mental functions are broken down into instinct, reflection, memory, and reason. Pope believes reason to trump all, which of course is the one function specific to Man. Reason thus allows man to synthesize the means to function in ways that are unnatural to himself.

8. In section 8 Pope emphasizes the depths to which the universe extends in all aspects of life. This includes the literal depths of the ocean and the reversed extent of the sky, as well as the vastness that lies between God and Man and Man and the simpler creatures of the earth. Regardless of one’s place in the chain of being however, the removal of one link creates just as much of an impact as any other. Pope stresses the maintenance of order so as to prevent the breaking down of the universe.

9. In the ninth stanza, Pope once again puts the pride and greed of man into perspective. He compares man’s complaints of being subordinate to God to an eye or an ear rejecting its service to the mind. This image drives home the point that all things are specifically designed to ensure that the universe functions properly. Pope ends this stanza with the Augustan belief that Nature permeates all things, and thus constitutes the body of the world, where God characterizes the soul.

10. In the tenth stanza, Pope secures the end of Epistle 1 by advising the reader on how to secure as many blessings as possible, whether that be on earth or in the after life. He highlights the impudence in viewing God’s order as imperfect and emphasizes the fact that true bliss can only be experienced through an acceptance of one’s necessary weaknesses. Pope exemplifies this acceptance of weakness in the last lines of Epistle 1 in which he considers the incomprehensible, whether seemingly miraculous or disastrous, to at least be correct, if nothing else.

1. Epistle II is broken up into six smaller sections, each of which has a specific focus. The first section explains that man must not look to God for answers to the great questions of life, for he will never find the answers. As was explained in the first epistle, man is incapable of truly knowing anything about the things that are higher than he is on the “Great Chain of Being.” For this reason, the way to achieve the greatest knowledge possible is to study man, the greatest thing we have the ability to comprehend. Pope emphasizes the complexity of man in an effort to show that understanding of anything greater than that would simply be too much for any person to fully comprehend. He explains this complexity with lines such as, “Created half to rise, and half to fall; / Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all / Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d: / The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!”(15-18) These lines say that we are created for two purposes, to live and die. We are the most intellectual creatures on Earth, and while we have control over most things, we are still set up to die in some way by the end. We are a great gift of God to the Earth with enormous capabilities, yet in the end we really amount to nothing. Pope describes this contrast between our intellectual capabilities and our inevitable fate as a “riddle” of the world. The first section of Epistle II closes by saying that man is to go out and study what is around him. He is to study science to understand all that he can about his existence and the universe in which he lives, but to fully achieve this knowledge he must rid himself of all vices that may slow down this process.

2. The second section of Epistle II tells of the two principles of human nature and how they are to perfectly balance each other out in order for man to achieve all that he is capable of achieving. These two principles are self-love and reason. He explains that all good things can be attributed to the proper use of these two principles and that all bad things stem from their improper use. Pope further discusses the two principles by claiming that self-love is what causes man to do what he desires, but reason is what allows him to know how to stay in line. He follows that with an interesting comparison of man to a flower by saying man is “Fix’d like a plant on his peculiar spot, / To draw nutrition, propagate and rot,” (Pope 62-63) and also of man to a meteor by saying, “Or, meteor-like, flame lawless thro’ the void, / Destroying others, by himself destroy’d.” (Pope 64-65) These comparisons show that man, according to Pope, is born, takes his toll on the Earth, and then dies, and it is all part of a larger plan. The rest of section two continues to talk about the relationship between self-love and reason and closes with a strong argument. Humans all seek pleasure, but only with a good sense of reason can they restrain themselves from becoming greedy. His final remarks are strong, stating that, “Pleasure, or wrong or rightly understood, / Our greatest evil, or our greatest good,”(Pope 90-91) which means that pleasure in moderation can be a great thing for man, but without the balance that reason produces, a pursuit of pleasure can have terrible consequences.

3. Part III of Epistle II also pertains to the idea of self-love and reason working together. It starts out talking about passions and how they are inherently selfish, but if the means to which these passions are sought out are fair, then there has been a proper balance of self-love and reason. Pope describes love, hope and joy as being “Fair treasure’s smiling train,”(Pope 117) while hate, fear and grief are “The family of pain.”(Pope 118) Too much of any of these things, whether they be from the negative or positive side, is a bad thing. There is a ratio of good to bad that man must reach to have a well balanced mind. We learn, grow, and gain character and perspective through the elements of this “Family of pain,”(Pope 118) while we get great rewards from love, hope and joy. While our goal as humans is to seek our pleasure and follow certain desires, there is always one overall passion that lives deep within us that guides us throughout life. The main points to take away from Section III of this Epistle is that there are many aspects to the life of man, and these aspects, both positive and negative, need to coexist harmoniously to achieve that balance for which man should strive.

4. The fourth section of Epistle II is very short. It starts off by asking what allows us to determine the difference between good and bad. The next line answers this question by saying that it is the God within our minds that allows us to make such judgements. This section finishes up by discussing virtue and vice. The relationship between these two qualities are interesting, for they can exist on their own but most often mix, and there is a fine line between something being a virtue and becoming a vice.

5. Section V is even shorter than section IV with just fourteen lines. It speaks only of the quality of vice. Vices are temptations that man must face on a consistent basis. A line that stands out from this says that when it comes to vices, “We first endure, then pity, then embrace.”(Pope 218) This means that vices start off as something we know is wrong, but over time they become an instinctive part of us if reason is not there to push them away.

6. Section VI, the final section of Epistle II, relates many of the ideas from Sections I-V back to ideas from Epistle I. It works as a conclusion that ties in the main theme of Epistle II, which mainly speaks of the different components of man that balance each other out to form an infinitely complex creature, into the idea from Epistle I that man is created as part of a larger plan with all of his qualities given to him for a specific purpose. It is a way of looking at both negative and positive aspects of life and being content with them both, for they are all part of God’s purpose of creating the universe. This idea is well concluded in the third to last line of this Epistle when Pope says, “Ev’n mean self-love becomes, by force divine.”(Pope 288) This shows that even a negative quality in a man, such as excessive self-love without the stability of reason, is technically divine, for it is what God intended as part of the balance of the universe.


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“Alexander Pope.” : The Poetry Foundation . N.p., n.d. Web. 14 May 2013. < >.

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“An Essay on Man: Epistle II.” By Alexander Pope : The Poetry Foundation. N.p., n.d. Web. 14 May 2013. < >.

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Alexander Pope's Essay on Man: An Introduction

David cody , associate professor of english, hartwick college.

Victorian Web Home —> Some Pre-Victorian Authors —> Neoclassicism —> Alexander Pope ]

The Essay on Man is a philosophical poem, written, characteristically, in heroic couplets , and published between 1732 and 1734. Pope intended it as the centerpiece of a proposed system of ethics to be put forth in poetic form: it is in fact a fragment of a larger work which Pope planned but did not live to complete. It is an attempt to justify, as Milton had attempted to vindicate, the ways of God to Man, and a warning that man himself is not, as, in his pride, he seems to believe, the center of all things. Though not explicitly Christian, the Essay makes the implicit assumption that man is fallen and unregenerate, and that he must seek his own salvation.

The "Essay" consists of four epistles, addressed to Lord Bolingbroke, and derived, to some extent, from some of Bolingbroke's own fragmentary philosophical writings, as well as from ideas expressed by the deistic third Earl of Shaftesbury. Pope sets out to demonstrate that no matter how imperfect, complex, inscrutable, and disturbingly full of evil the Universe may appear to be, it does function in a rational fashion, according to natural laws; and is, in fact, considered as a whole, a perfect work of God. It appears imperfect to us only because our perceptions are limited by our feeble moral and intellectual capacity. His conclusion is that we must learn to accept our position in the Great Chain of Being — a "middle state," below that of the angels but above that of the beasts — in which we can, at least potentially, lead happy and virtuous lives.

Epistle I concerns itself with the nature of man and with his place in the universe; Epistle II, with man as an individual; Epistle III, with man in relation to human society, to the political and social hierarchies; and Epistle IV, with man's pursuit of happiness in this world. An Essay on Man was a controversial work in Pope's day, praised by some and criticized by others, primarily because it appeared to contemporary critics that its emphasis, in spite of its themes, was primarily poetic and not, strictly speaking, philosophical in any really coherent sense: Dr. Johnson , never one to mince words, and possessed, in any case, of views upon the subject which differed materially from those which Pope had set forth, noted dryly (in what is surely one of the most back-handed literary compliments of all time) that "Never were penury of knowledge and vulgarity of sentiment so happily disguised." It is a subtler work, however, than perhaps Johnson realized: G. Wilson Knight has made the perceptive comment that the poem is not a "static scheme" but a "living organism," (like Twickenham ) and that it must be understood as such.

Considered as a whole, the Essay on Man is an affirmative poem of faith: life seems chaotic and patternless to man when he is in the midst of it, but is in fact a coherent portion of a divinely ordered plan. In Pope's world God exists, and he is benificent: his universe is an ordered place. The limited intellect of man can perceive only a tiny portion of this order, and can experience only partial truths, and hence must rely on hope, which leads to faith. Man must be cognizant of his rather insignificant position in the grand scheme of things: those things which he covets most — riches, power, fame — prove to be worthless in the greater context of which he is only dimly aware. In his place, it is man's duty to strive to be good, even if he is doomed, because of his inherent frailty, to fail in his attempt. Do you find Pope's argument convincing? In what ways can we relate the Essay on Man to works like Swift's Gulliver's Travels , Johnson's "The Vanity of Human Wishes" ( text ), Tennyson's In Memoriam and Eliot's The Wasteland ?

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“Essay on Man” by Alexander Pope Essay (Critical Writing)

Form and style, the interpretation.

Alexander Pope attempted to explain what it means to be human and how he should behave. His writing was done in a grand scale, similar in extent to the works of great writers who came before him. In order to correctly interpret and appreciate his masterpiece it would be helpful to know more about the author and the historical context of this particular work of literature.

However, another way to interpret and appreciate this masterwork is through a formalistic approach. In this type of literary criticism, the critique is limited by the text itself and must only focus on the intrinsic meaning.

This technique does not concern with social theories that could have influenced the author like Marxism, liberalism, and feminism. Thus, the formalist criticism of Pope’s work can be accomplished through the close reading of the text with an eye towards the use of rhetorical devices.

In the beginning, the author clarified the purpose of his work. He wanted to understand God, the world, and man. Thus, he said “through worlds not numbered though the God be known, it is ours to trace him only in our own” (Pope, p.7). Thus, it must also be pointed out that the author’s main tool is the power of observation.

It is important to highlight the fact that the author did not use prose to convey his thoughts. It can be argued that he can write a treatise using prose because of his skill as a writer, piece, however, he chose poetry. One can argue that the author finds this method more effective and can provide a better platform for the expression of his ideas.

The theme that immediately jumps out of the pages is one of confusion but not of despair. The author is hopeful that there is a solution to his dilemma. But before going any further it is important to look at how the author uses words to prove his claim.

The first thing that has to be recognized is the mastery of the heroic couplet. There can be a more technical explanation of how a heroic couplet should be used and its intended effect. But in the case of Pope’s work, its main attribute is the capability to deliver a message that is pleasant to the ear but at the same time helps the reader to retain the essence of the message.

The other laudable feature of his poetry is the presence of rhyming words that were placed there not only for the sake of creating a rhyme. These words were carefully chosen not only to provide a beautiful external form for readers to enjoy, but also as a way to enforce the message. It can be comparable to an architect who values both form and function. One of the best examples can be seen in the second epistle where Pope writes:

  • Know then thyself, presume not God to scan,
  • The proper study of mankind is man.
  • Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
  • A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
  • With too much knowledge for the septic side,
  • With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride (Pope, p.12).

Ever couplet is an idea that can stand alone. Each couplet is like a cell that can sustain itself. It was designed to impart certain knowledge and at the same time a particular assertion regarding man, God or the world.

In this case the author succeeded in not only expressing what he believes are God’s attributes and man’s behavior tendencies, but also in illustrating man’s mistaken notion about God.

But aside from the power of the verse that speaks about human nature, Pope’s went to a step further. He connected both ideas and combined it into one coherent message that understanding man is dependent on man alone.

Another interesting feature of the use of the heroic couplet is that the author was able to use it without sacrificing unity. It is easier to use prose but he took the more difficult path. Thus, the critique should appreciate how these couplets are woven together into a single tapestry.

For instance, in the second epistle, he began by saying that it is not the responsibility of God to teach man how to understand himself. It is the sole responsibility of man to study mankind and then he ended it by providing the evidence.

He asserted that in an unconscious or conscious manner, human beings had tried for ages to amass knowledge in order to gain understanding about life. The only problem is that man has no way of organizing his thoughts. Although he has increased his stockpile of knowledge he does not know how to use it effectively to provide a solution to some of the most important problems in life.

It is interesting to note that although he used poetry and demonstrated his master of the use of the heroic couplet, the power of the stanzas cannot be explained only through these techniques. Pope also displayed his mastery of words, especially when it comes to word associations. Consider the following example from the first epistle:

  • When the proud steed shall know why man restrains
  • His fiery course, or drives him o’er the plains;
  • When the dull ox, why now he breaks the clod,
  • Is now a victim, and now Egypt’s god (Pope, p.6)

The word associations were as sharp and accurate as the rhyming of the words. The beauty in the composition is not only in the external form but the content. The ideas are packed so closely because there is not a single word that was wasted or out of place.

The use of metaphors are purposely ordered to create a specific effect and not simply for the sake of decoration. When he wanted to express man’s wisdom and man’s folly side-by-side he used word associations to force the mind to consider something that is so obvious but escapes his notice.

He brought the reader’s attention to a fiery stallion. There is no better way to express a fiery attitude, an explosive character that cannot be bent so easily. Nevertheless, man was able to bend the will of a wild horse. His abilities and wisdom has given him the power to tame a wild thing. Thus, he is able to force an animal many times his strength to do his bidding.

However, the author immediately switches to another related aspect of man’s nature. Although, there are numerous examples to his amazing capabilities there are also examples to his folly.

In this regard Pope could never have used a better imagery in the same way that he depicted the foolishness of worshipping worthless idols. He made his point much clearer because he simply did not say that it is foolish to worship something that cannot speak and move. He went even further by pointing to a dim-witted cow.

A cow was placed side-by-side with a fiery horse. The cow is easily controlled by man. The cow cannot outrun man and therefore easily managed. After that Pope brought in another image, that of a cow breaking clod. There is no better way to picture slavery.

The cow is a slave and not only that, the cow is made to do something that is dirty. No human being would like to be caught breaking the hardened earth or forced into servitude to do the works reserved for beasts of burden. But here the cow willingly obeyed the master.

Pope changed gears once again to say that although this is the truth, there are people who worship cows, turn them into deities and sacrifice other animals or even fellow human beings to honor them.

The genius of Pope is seen not only in the expert use of poetry but also in connecting meanings to the clever use of word associations. For example he did not only talk about the foolishness of turning cows to deities but he also chose the term Egypt or Egyptians to show that sophisticated cultures fell victim to an erroneous method of thinking.

Therefore, the goal of the author is to correct the way people think about themselves. At first the poem started in confusion and despair. The folly of man is evident. The excesses of his pride and lust have led him to dark places.

There seem to be no hope but at the end, the author made a clear argument that there is a light at the end of the darkened tunnel. His solution is to use reason and to understand how the world behaves to provide insight that can be used to illuminate the mind.

The author’s use of poetry and heroic couplets provided him the means to deliver a significant amount of information while at the same time demonstrate the efficient use of limited space. However, his rhyming words are only part of the profound power and beauty of his work. It is the clever use of word associations that enabled him to make his mark as a powerful writer.

Pope, Alexander. Essay on Man . PA: The Pennsylvania University Press, 1999.

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IvyPanda. (2020, July 1). "Essay on Man" by Alexander Pope.

""Essay on Man" by Alexander Pope." IvyPanda , 1 July 2020,

IvyPanda . (2020) '"Essay on Man" by Alexander Pope'. 1 July.

IvyPanda . 2020. ""Essay on Man" by Alexander Pope." July 1, 2020.

1. IvyPanda . ""Essay on Man" by Alexander Pope." July 1, 2020.


IvyPanda . ""Essay on Man" by Alexander Pope." July 1, 2020.

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Pope's Poems and Prose

By alexander pope, pope's poems and prose summary and analysis of an essay on man: epistle i.

The subtitle of the first epistle is “Of the Nature and State of Man, with Respect to the Universe,” and this section deals with man’s place in the cosmos. Pope argues that to justify God’s ways to man must necessarily be to justify His ways in relation to all other things. God rules over the whole universe and has no special favorites, not man nor any other creature. By nature, the universe is an order of “strong connexions, nice dependencies, / Gradations just” (30-1). This order is, more specifically, a hierarchy of the “Vast chain of being” in which all of God’s creations have a place (237). Man’s place in the chain is below the angels but above birds and beasts. Any deviation from this order would result in cosmic destruction. Because the universe is so highly ordered, chance, as man understands it, does not exist. Chance is rather “direction, which thou canst not see” (290). Those things that man sees as disparate or unrelated are all “but parts of one stupendous whole, / Whose body nature is, and God the soul” (267-8). Thus every element of the universe has complete perfection according to God’s purpose. Pope concludes the first epistle with the statement “Whatever is, is right,” meaning that all is for the best and that everything happens according to God’s plan, even though man may not be able to comprehend it (294).

Here is a section-by-section explanation of the first epistle:

Introduction (1-16): The introduction begins with an address to Henry St. John, Lord Bolingbroke, a friend of the poet from whose fragmentary philosophical writings Pope likely drew inspiration for An Essay on Man . Pope urges his friend to “leave all meaner things” and rather embark with Pope on his quest to “vindicate the ways of God to man (1, 16).

Section I (17-34): Section I argues that man can only understand the universe with regard to human systems and constructions because he is ignorant of the greater relationships between God’s creations.

Section II (35-76): Section II states that man is imperfect but perfectly suited to his place within the hierarchy of creation according to the general order of things.

Section III (77-112): Section III demonstrates that man's happiness depends on both his ignorance of future events and on his hope for the future.

Section IV (113-30): Section IV claims that man’s sin of pride—the attempt to gain more knowledge and pretend to greater perfection—is the root of man’s error and misery. By putting himself in the place of God, judging perfection and justice, man acts impiously.

Section V (131-72): Section V depicts the absurdity of man’s belief that he is the sole cause of the creation as well as his ridiculous expectation of perfection in the moral world that does not exist in the natural world.

Section VI (173-206): Section VI decries the unreasonableness of man’s complaints against Providence; God is good, giving and taking equally. If man had the omniscience of God, he would be miserable: “The bliss of man [...] / Is, not to act of think beyond mankind” (189-90).

Section VII (207-32): Section VII shows that throughout the visible world, a universal order and gradation can be observed. This is particularly apparent in the hierarchy of earthly creatures and their subordination to man. Pope refers specifically to the gradations of sense, instinct, thought, reflection, and reason. Reason is superior to all.

Section VIII (233-58): Section VIII indicates that if God’s rules of order and subordination are broken, the whole of creation must be destroyed.

Section IX (259-80): Section IX illustrates the madness of the desire to subvert God’s order.

Section X (281-94): Section X calls on man to submit to God’s power. Absolute submission to God will ensure that man remains “Safe in the hand of one disposing Pow’r” (287). After all, “Whatever is, is right” (294).

Pope’s first epistle seems to endorse a sort of fatalism, in which all things are fated. Everything happens for the best, and man should not presume to question God’s greater design, which he necessarily cannot understand because he is a part of it. He further does not possess the intellectual capability to comprehend God’s order outside of his own experience. These arguments certainly support a fatalistic world view. According to Pope’s thesis, everything that exists plays a role in the divine plan. God thus has a specific intention for every element of His creation, which suggests that all things are fated. Pope, however, was always greatly distressed by charges of fatalism. As a proponent of the doctrine of free will, Pope’s personal opinions seem at odds with his philosophical conclusions in the first epistle. Reconciling Pope’s own views with his fatalistic description of the universe represents an impossible task.

The first epistle of An Essay on Man is its most ambitious. Pope states that his task is to describe man’s place in the “universal system” and to “vindicate the ways of God to man” (16). In the poem’s prefatory address, Pope more specifically describes his intention to consider “man in the abstract, his Nature and his State, since, to prove any moral duty, to enforce any moral precept, or to examine the perfection of imperfection of any creature whatsoever, it is necessary first to know what condition and relation it is placed in, and what is the proper end and purpose of its being.” Pope’s stated purpose of the poem further problematizes any critical reading of the first epistle. According to Pope’s own conclusions, man’s limited intellect can comprehend only a small portion of God’s order and likewise can have knowledge of only half-truths. It therefore seems the height of hubris to presume to justify God’s ways to man. His own philosophical conclusions make this impossible. As a mere component part of God’s design and a member of the hierarchical middle state, Pope exists within God’s design and therefore cannot perceive the greater logic of God’s order. To do so would bring only misery: “The bliss of man [...] / Is, not to act of think beyond mankind” (189-90).

Though Pope’s philosophical ambitions result in a rather incoherent epistle, the poem demonstrates a masterful use of the heroic couplet. Some of the most quoted lines from Pope’s works actually appear in this poem. For example, the quotation “Hope springs eternal in the human breast: / Man never is, but always to be blest” appears in the problematic first epistle (95-6). Pope’s skill with verse thus far outweighs his philosophical aspirations, and it is fortunate that he chose to write in verse rather than prose. Indeed, eighteenth-century critics saw An Essay on Man as a primarily poetic work despite its philosophical themes.

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Pope’s Poems and Prose Questions and Answers

The Question and Answer section for Pope’s Poems and Prose is a great resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.

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Study Guide for Pope’s Poems and Prose

Pope's Poems and Prose study guide contains a biography of Alexander Pope, literature essays, quiz questions, major themes, characters, and a full summary and analysis.

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Essays for Pope’s Poems and Prose

Pope's Poems and Prose essays are academic essays for citation. These papers were written primarily by students and provide critical analysis of Alexander Pope's Poems and Prose.

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Analysis of Alexander Pope's "An Essay on Man"

Analysis of Alexander Pope's "An Essay on Man"


In the early 1730s, Alexander Pope's essay on man presented one among the most optimistic philosophy throughout Europe during his day. In the rational effort to justify the role of Divinity in man, Pope makes a representative contribution to the neoclassical enlightenment movement. This poet work among other preceding literature showed considerable contribution in neoclassicism on the abstract and imperfection of human beings and the supremacy of divinity, as well as the purpose of all things in the harmonious order of the universe. The three centuries old text presents an expansive scope of discerning knowledge emphasizing of the contribution of science in the up-to-date society. The work blended borrowed schools of thought from Pope's intellectual peers creating a poem on the same theme. The philosophical encouragement of the essay made considerable efforts to present a coherent justification on theodicy or the divine plan.

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The first epistle of the essay describes the place of man in the universal system justifying the way of God. In this text, Pope portrays his ambitious effort to prove man's moral duty considering his abstract nature to enforce morality, a reflection of the perfection of imperfection, and the consideration of the purpose of the mortal beings. In this message, Pope dramatizes man's shortfall on the intelligence of God's order and design. The poem, Pope perceives himself as an existing example of a mare component of God's design, thus, a member of the hierarchical positioning within the logic state of God's order. The text makes expansive use of heroic rhyme to demonstrate in the incoherence of the philosophical aspirations and ambitions in the epistle showing Pope's arguments depicting the fatalistic element of man and the entire world. Demonstration of divinity supremacy shows the purpose and God's intention in every element of creation making everything in the universe fated.

The effort of embodying the "Essay on Man" Pope applies his mastery in poetry to portray the central figure of speech in perfectly rhymed stanzas of satiric and philosophical achievements. The articulation of the central tenets to show the aesthetic philosophy of morality Pope is a prominent literary neoclassicist characterized by his level of intellect, the order and logic of reasoning, emphasis of form, and acceptance of the imperfection of man's nature in the ancient Greek and Roman context. Among the distinct elements of neoclassicism presented in Pope's "Essay on Man" is the display of emphasizes on the level of knowledge and philosophical argument of man's imperfection. The poem lays direct demonstration of mankind efforts to rank the natural world and lack of particular knowledge on the relationship of nature's components.

The application of prudence evokes the philosophical argument on the order of the universe in the essence of morality and divinity enhancing the wisdom of the present and future submission of man to the universe entity. In the neoclassical perspectives, Pope advocated for complete submission of man into God's order. Compounding themes and cultural ideas on "An Essay on Man" illustrates the mastery of heroic stanzas used to produce argumentative perspective of life on moral stands and godliness. The four sections of the essay present artistically engineered arguments in philosophy denoting the existence of man in the harmony with the world. Pope contends that the world has unified order because God created it and advocate for the order of integrating inferiors and superiors being to strive for unity. This literal text gives Pope commendable merit of the successful achievement gained as an advocate of neoclassicism as the proceedings of emotional and sincerity of human beings. The principle argument that everything exists has an active role to contribute to divine plan meaning that God has specific intentions when creating every element in the world. Pope brings in the spiritual perspective of creation and genesis of life and existence of man. The major distress in the enticing understanding of the divine connection of creation and existence Pope laments of the existence of fatalism.

The laid-back description on reconciling the universe gives the school of thought perceived by Pope to yield unrealistic phenomena of the existence of man. In the initial epistle, Pope utilizes the slogan "Of the Nature and State of Man, with respect to the Universe" shows the realistic position of man in the cosmos. Therefore, the justification of God's ways or purpose for man equates to the importance of all other minute things that enhance the totality of cosmic connection without favoritism for any species. The philosophical perspective of the 19th century Pope contributes considerably on the relationship of humanity and the entity of universal happening. To symbolize the effectiveness of human-universe relationship Pope states that: "...for me health gushes from a thousand footstool earth my canopy the skies..." (p.330). in this argument, the poet makes an impression that the earth is created for human being's pleasure. The interaction of man with all the things in the universe helps fulfill man's immediate and subsidiary needs for survival. Human conformity to coexisting order shows the finest arrangement of humanity explaining that the challenges experienced by man attribute to circumstantial interdependence.

The second dispatch of the essay presents the interpretive challenges preceded by the initial epistle. This philosophical argument dictated in this point of view urged man to understand his position and role in the phrase "know thyself". The classical meaning of the primary phrase driving this idea shows that Pope denoted man's achievement of neoclassicism is typically an inward truth more than the external forces. In the continuity of the first epistle that described man's relationship with divinity and other creatures, this epistle introduces the role of science in nature. In this conviction, man is echoed to the presumptuous understanding of God through scientific tools. The abrupt change of focus in this stanza shows an advocate for self-love, self-maintenance and general self-fulfillment of man's life. The neoclassicism philosophy signifies that man's cause of action and conduct derives from the passion of self-actualization. The ruling of passion is characterized by Pope's doctrine to explain the difference in human conduct governed by individualized desires. In this perspective, human conduct is explainable to clear understanding why certain people behave in certain ways to fulfill their inner or self-desires. The passion drive manifests individualism that characterizes the personality elements constituent of humanity. Pope is successful in his demonstration of the unimposing elements of self-love and reasoning driven by passion. He makes a philosophical argument that reasoning regulates human conduct while self-love originates from concrete reasoning for short and long-term effects.

In the third stanza, Pope demonstrates man as a social being. He shows the family religion and political obligations that bond humanity. In precedent to the second epistle that denotes that man's conduct is governed by self-love, the element of love forms a building block that attacks man to each other. In this rational thinking, Pope applies the in-depth meaning of the phrase "Relate to the whole" that signified the interdependence of man with other social systems to form completeness of coexistence. In this principle of human conduct, man uses instinct and reasoning to relate to God's creation. In Pope's effort to make a philosophical representation of instinct and reasoning, he demonstrates the distinctness of nature to help man to use reasoning due to his brain power and beasts use instincts to execute their functionalism. In this contrast of conduct gives the man the upper hand in ruling the universe. Man is able to make calculated behavior as the principal elements of reasoning while other creatures use instinctive features to discern conduct. In this epistle, Pope applied the "government and laws" (272) understanding to show the probe of humanity. Thus in the interest of achieving divinity man integrates the understanding of God's supremacy, self-love, and governance to prevent public conflict for universal wellness.

In the fourth Epistle, Pope gives an effective conclusion to the essay by demonstrating closure on the relationship between man and the purpose of the universe. In this precedent Pope advocates for happiness as the untimely goal attainable by the principals of virtue and behavior. The adoption of the phrase "soul's calm sunshine" describes the inner peace and happiness that enhances serenity in the coexisting of man and the universe. Giving a successful conclusion to his neoclassical contribution to the ancient literature of quality and effectiveness of creating construction, Pope raised concerns about the reward and punishment systems of the universe. The conduct of man earns him rewards of happiness and peaceful coexistence with the universe and divinity. In this discussion, Pope states that God acts in the general order of existence rather than the specifications of law and principals drawn by man applicable in the holistic characterization of order and divine plan. The philosophical perspective of this epistle shows that God is just in his treatment of man in all situations without contradictions and oppression. The experience of God's hierarchical order comes into numerous contradictions with man order to show the difference in sense and conduct of human perspective and divine rational.

Works Cited

Pope, Alexander, and Tom Jones. An Essay on Man. Princeton University Press, 2016.

Pope, Alexander, et al. The Enduring Legacy: Alexander Pope Tercentenary Essays. Cambridge University Press, 1988.,,

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An Essay on Man

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Summary and Study Guide

Alexander Pope is the author of “An Essay on Man,” published in 1734. Pope was an English poet of the Augustan Age, the literary era in the first half of the 18th century in England (1700-1740s). Neoclassicism, a literary movement in which writers and poets sought inspiration from the works of Virgil, Ovid, and Horace, influenced the poem. Writing in heroic couplets, Pope explores the connection between God, human nature , and society. The poem is philosophical and discusses order, reason, and balance, themes that dominated the era. Pope dedicated the poem to Henry St. John, one of his close friends and a famous Tory politician.

This is Pope’s final long poem. It was intended to be the first part of a book-length poem on his philosophy of the world, but Pope did not live to complete the book. Pope initially published “An Essay on Man” anonymously, as he had a fractious relationship with critics and wanted to see how people would respond to the work if unaware that he had written it. The work was praised highly when it was published, and is still esteemed as one of the most elegant didactic poems ever composed.

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Poet Biography

Alexander Pope was born in 1688 in London, England. His father was a wealthy merchant, but because he was Catholic and the Church of England was extremely anti-Catholic, his family could not live within ten miles of London, and Pope could not receive a formal education. As a result, Pope grew up near Windsor Forest and was self-taught. At the age of 12, he contracted spinal tuberculosis, which resulted in lifelong debilitating pain. He grew to be four and a half feet tall and was dependent on others.

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Despite these early challenges, Pope’s poetic talent enabled him to attain a higher social status. He began publishing poetry at the age of 16. He translated Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey , as well as the works of Shakespeare, and sold the translations for a subscription fee. From the profits of these translations, Pope purchased a grand mansion and large plot of land in Twickenham in 1719. Pope is famous for being the first poet able to support himself entirely on his writing. He valued his friendships, which were with some of the greatest minds of his time, including Jonathan Swift, the famous satirist and author of A Modest Proposal .  Pope also had many enemies due to his biting wit and talent for mocking the conventions of his era. For this, he was called “The Wasp of Twickenham.” His Essay on Criticism (1711) expressed his views on criticism and poetry. His mock-epic poem, The Rape of the Lock (1714), was one of his most famous satirical poems. His satire , The Dunciad (1728) lambasted the culture and literature of his day.

He died in 1744 at the age of 56 from edema and asthma. He never married and had no children. Pope is considered one of the greatest English poets of the 18th century and his style defined the Augustan age of poetry. After Shakespeare, he is the second most quoted writer in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations .

Pope, Alexander. “ An Essay on Man .” 2007. Project Gutenberg .

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