Analysis of Alexander Pope’s An Essay on Man

By the time Alexander Pope chose to publish his An Essay on Man (1734), he had received thorough and undeserved criticism from the poetasters, or “dunces,” whose activities he so often correctly lambasted, most notably in The Dunciad (1723). Still smarting from Pope’s satire, his enemies turned the public against his Epistle to Burlington (1731), misrepresenting it as a personal attack on Burlington, one of Pope’s close friends. A biased public did not take the poem as Pope intended, as a satire on the vanity of nobility as a whole. In reaction to that misunderstanding, Pope devised a clever and, as it proved, wildly successful plan to publish An Essay on Man anonymously, allowing the public and the dunces themselves to render an honest evaluation. Pope published through his known bookseller two poems in 1733 clearly under his own name, “Epistle to Bathurst” and the First Satire of the Second Book of Horace. He then chose a different bookseller for An Essay on Man, and because his precise rhymes were so well known, even inserted one weak rhyming couplet to mislead his readers. Pope hoped for a fair reception of a poem that he knew would draw charges of religious unorthodoxy if printed under his name. His plan worked beautifully, and his usual critics raved about the genius evident in this work by a new poet.

Later critics did not evaluate the poem as one of Pope’s stronger pieces, claiming that Bolingbroke influenced Pope to adopt some of his own metaphysical views and an ideology of natural theology. The fatalistic and naturalistic themes were the result, as they saw Pope reducing man to little more than a puppet with no free will. He attempted to consider man and his experience apart from Christian revelation, the more familiar and acceptable approach used by poets including John Milton. Thus, he ignores those events of history considered crucial by many, such as the creation, man’s fall from grace in the Garden of Eden, the birth of Christ, Christ’s death and resurrection, and the fi al days as predicted by the biblical book of Revelation. He also excluded references to myths and their explanations for man’s condition. Pope instead perceived of man as making discoveries through his experience based on reason. He also hoped to demystify some language with which the church had embedded specific symbolic meaning. As Locke did, Pope believed that words simply referred to our ideas, not to any hidden essence. Pope would add in 1738 the “Universal Prayer” to the end of further editions of Essay on Man, but he never escaped that early judgment of religious unorthodoxy in his lifetime.


Later evaluations found the poem nothing short of brilliant, with Pope’s desire to challenge the value of what passed for 18th-century “wit” even beyond what he had in his An Essay on Criticism and to reconcile philosophy with man’s perception of “sense.” Pope wrote in “The Design” that precedes the poem:

The science of Human Nature is, like all other sciences, reduced to a few clear points: there are not many certain truths in this world. It is therefore in the Anatomy of the Mind as in that of the Body; more good will accrue to mankind by attending to the large, open and perceptible parts, than by studying too much such finer nerves and vessels, the conformations and uses of which will for ever escape our observation.

Structured in four epistles, the poem stretches to slightly more than 1,300 lines. Pope originally conceived it as an introduction to an extended work that would include the moral essays. According to Pope’s notes, the additional sections would cover themes including “Knowledge and its limits,” “Government, both ecclesiastical and civil,” and “Morality, in eight or nine of the most concerning branches of it; four of which would have been the two extremes to each of the Cardinal Virtues.” He eventually gave up the plan, for unknown reasons. Pope provides an “Argument” that precedes each epistle, making clear the various points each will attempt to make.

The First Epistle clarifies, according to its argument, “the Nature and State of Man, with respect to the Universe.” Major points include the fact that man can only judge other systems, of which he remains ignorant, in relation to his own system. In addition, he should not be considered imperfect, but suitable to his rank within the general order of things. All present happiness depends upon ignorance of the future. Aiming to know more than is possible causes “Man’s error and misery.” Man is part of an order and suborder that extend above and below him, and if any part is destroyed, the entire order disintegrates. If any individual wished that to take place, it would be the result of pride and madness. Man must assume his proper place in Providence.

Pope opens the First Epistle by addressing Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, telling him, “leave all meaner things / to low ambition, and the pride of Kings.” The speaker invites Bolingbroke to join in study instead of “all this scene of Man / A mighty maze! but not without a plan.” He makes clear his belief that we can only reason from what we know; only God can know all the secrets of the universe. He then references “the great chain” (33), imagery he will return to later. This traditional concept would be familiar to his readers, who shared the vision of man in the most crucial central position on a ladder of creation. At the top is God, followed by other superior ethereal creatures, then humans, then angels, then “Beast, bird, fi sh, insect!” and finally, “what no eye can see” (239). Man represents a combination of beastly sensual instinct and spiritual intelligence. He needs to resist the temptation of pride to rise above his natural place, and he must resist surrender to animal instinct. Man reflects all parts of his world, resulting in a condition labeled by the ancients concordia discors, or the harmonization of opposites: “But All subsists by elemental strife; / And Passions are the elements of Life.” This First Epistle yields one of Pope’s most quoted lines as he writes of hope, encouraging man to nurture that emotion as he awaits death and future blessings:

Hope humbly then; with trembling pinions soar;
Wait the great teacher Death, and God adore!
What future bliss, he gives not thee to know,
But gives that Hope to be thy blessing now.
Hope springs eternal in the human breast:
Man near Is, but always To, be blest;
The soul, uneasy and confin’d from home,
Rests and expatiates in a life to come. (90–98)

Man’s bliss “Is not to act or think beyond mankind.” He lacks “a microscopic eye . . . / For this plain reason, Man is not a Fly.” Pope closes the First Epistle by inserting a basic axiom of philosophy, “All x is y.” He includes paradox as he writes:

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. (289–294)

The Second Epistle notes as its argument “Of the Nature and State of Man, with respect to Himself, as an Individual.” Points include that man should study himself, rather than prying into God’s business; that his capacity remains limited; and that Two Principles remain necessary to man: Self-love and Reason; Self-love is stronger. He examines the passions and how reason should override them and concludes by noting “the ends of Providence and general Good are answered in our Passions and Imperfections,” and they are well distributed and useful.

The epistle opens with another famous line, as its second, “The proper study of Mankind is Man.” The speaker urges man to try to do things he supposes he cannot, such as instructing “the planets in what orbs to run” and teaching “Eternal Wisdom how to rule,” after which he will “drop into thyself, and be a fool!” (30). He urges man, “Trace Science then, with Modesty thy guide; / First strip off all her equipage of Pride” (44– 45). All man needs to heed are two principles: “Two Principles in human nature reign; / Self-love, to urge and a Reason, to restrain.” Neither is good or bad on its own, and both are required in the government of man. Expressing a typical 18th-century thought, Pope writes that habit and experience strengthen Reason and help restrain Self-love. All passion results from Self-love:

Love, Hope, and Joy, fair pleasure’s smiling train,
Hate, Fear, and Grief, the family of pain;
These mix’d with art, and to due bounds confin’d
Make and maintain the balance of the mind. (117–120)

Concordia discors appears again as “lights and shades,” which may cause strife, but that strife “Gives all the strength and colour of our life” (121–122). Reason may even help in overcoming madness. He suggests that each individual nurtures his or her own virtue, which is closest to his or her vice, for “Extremes in Nature equal ends produce, / In Man they join to some mysterious use” (205–206). Pope closes by noting the stages of life and including another well-known phrase as a metaphor for death, “Life’s poor play is o’er!” (282), drawing on the familiar allusion since the Renaissance to life as a performance, men the players. The final line offers the comfort “tho’ Man’s a fool, yet God is Wise.”

The Third Epistle argues “Of the Nature and State of Man, with respect to Society.” Pope discusses the Universe as a single social system, “Nothing made wholly for itself, nor yet wholly for another” and asserts that animals know happiness and that Reason and Instinct operate for the good of each individual and for Society. While Instinct proves good for Society, Reason proves better, the origins of Monarchy, Religion, and Government, all from the Principle of Love, and Superstition and Tyrrany from Fear. Finally, he discusses the various forms of government and their true ends.

Pope offers a theory in his fi rst few lines based on a “chain of Love” that all men can observe. They can see “The single atoms each to other tend” and can see that “All forms that perish other forms supply.” In other words, he concludes, “Parts relate to whole” (21), a line critics suggest relates to the various parts of the poem relating to its whole. As he describes monarchs, wits, and tyrants, he describes two types of discord. One is warlike and violent, the other benevolent and creating peace; neither is good on its own. Instinct causes men to feel compassion for others and results in service, an aspect that Reason, “cool at best” (85), ignores. God sets the proper bounds of each and “On mutual Wants built mutual Happiness” (112), linking all creatures and all men. The speaker notes that left to his instincts, man might allow his greed to lead to destruction and savagery, and that he can learn control by observing nature. The bees can teach arts of building, “the mole to plow, the worm to weave” (176). Such statements draw from classical sources, in which efficient creatures were posed as examples for human society to imitate.

The speaker states that men never possessed any divine right (236) and supplies various examples of the effect of fear on others. Pope returns to what at first seems to be a paradox, writing,

So drives Self-love, thro’ just and thro’unjust
To one Man’s pow’r, ambition, lucre, lust:
The same Self-love, in all, becomes the cause
Of what restrains him, Government and Laws. (269–272)

However, as Pope critics later explained, what he writes contains no true contradiction. The sharing of self-interest makes for proper government. In the end, “Self-love forsook the path it first pursu’d, / And found the private in the public good” (281–282). The fi nal couplet reads, “Thus God and Nature link’d the gen’ral frame, / And bade Self-love and Social be the same.”

In the Fourth and final Epistle Pope’s focus is happiness, including false notions of happiness; that happiness is the end of and attainable by all men; that God intends happiness to be available to all; thus, it must be social, governed by general laws. Happiness does not consist in external goods; is kept even by providence, through Hope and Fear; and the good man will have an advantage. We should not judge who is good, and external goods are often inconsistent with or destructive of virtue. He also deals with the nobility, with superior talents, with fame, and concludes that “the perfection of Virtue and Happiness consists in a conformity to the Order of Providence here, and a Resignation to it here and hereafter.”

The reader has no doubt regarding Pope’s major topic after reading the fi rst line, which declares, “Oh Happiness! Our being’s end and aim!” Line 3 describes that state of being as “That something still which prompts th’eternal sigh, / For which we bear to live, or dare to die” (4–5). Discussion with others regarding the location of bliss will evoke varied responses. Some believe it exists “in action, some in ease, / Those call it Pleasure, and Contentment these” (22–23), as Pope makes the point that we cannot learn of bliss; we must experience it for ourselves in order to recognize it. Most importantly, happiness must “Subsist not in the good of one, but all” (38). Because of order, some will enjoy more happiness, or bliss, than others; however, “Condition, circumstance is not the thing; / Bliss is the same in subject or in king” (57–58). The speaker notes unequivocally that “all the good that individuals fi nd” (77) “Lie in three words, Health, Peace, and Competence” (80). These elements are composed of, and supported by, further elements and the consideration of all results in the truth that he “Who sees and follows that great scheme the best, / Best knows the blessing, and will most be blest” (95–97). He then makes clear that those who are virtuous and just may die too soon, but their deaths are not caused by their virtue.

In order to enjoy a true kingdom on earth, everyone must cooperate, even though “What shocks one part will edify the rest, / Nor with one system can they all be blest” (147–148). Again, discord may evoke harmony, as evidenced by the fact that “sometimes virtue starves, while Vice is fed” (149). Humility, Justice, Truth, and Public Spirit deserve to wear a Crown, and they will, but one must wait to receive the rewards of possessing such traits. In the meantime, “Honour and shame from no Condition rise; / Act well your part, there all the honour lies” (193–194). Pope assembles an honor code for all to follow, as he attempts to convince individuals not to feel jealousy toward others who seem to have more possessions, as these do not lead to bliss. One should also avoid a desire for fame, which Pope defines as “a fancy’d life in others breath” (237). Rather, “An honest Man’s the noblest work of God” (248), and “ ‘Virtue alone is Happiness below’ ” (310). Pope has managed, through various examples, to lead from his opening request for a defi nition of happiness to the conclusion that virtue equates to that state, and, because virtue is available to all, everyone can enjoy happiness. He echoes his previous sentiments, including that selflove must be pushed from the private to the public, or social level, and that “God loves from Whole to Parts; but human soul / Must rise from Individual to the Whole” (361–362). As any worthy lesson does, this one bears repeating, and Pope closes with that emphasis:

That REASON, PASSION, answer one great aim;
That true SELF-LOVE and SOCIAL are the same;
That VIRTUE only makes our BLISS below; A
nd all our Knowledge is, OURSELVES TO KNOW. (395–398)

Hammond, Brean S. Pope and Bolingbroke: A Study of Friendship and Infl uence. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1984.
Morris, David P. Alexander Pope, the Genius of Sense. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Categories: Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Poetry

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