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 final 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, fish, 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 first 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 final 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 first 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 find” (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 definition 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;
And all our Knowledge is, OURSELVES TO KNOW. (395–398)


In the opening lines of the Essay on Man [34, 37], Pope proposes to ‘vindicate the ways of God to Man’ in a sweeping survey of God’s ‘mighty maze’, and thus conspicuously picks up the mantle of poetic and theological authority from Milton, whose Paradise Lost sought to ‘justify the ways of God to Man’ (references to ‘A. Wild, where weeds and flow’rs promiscuous shoot,/Or Garden, tempting with forbidden fruit’, EM, I: 7– 8, make the ‘target’ poem still more obvious); but the context has changed from Milton’s apocalyptic and fundamentalist account of the archetypal human Fall to a far more diagrammatic view of the universe, in which all forms of life, from flies to humans to angels, have an allotted, correct place. Pope’s cosmos functions as an expression of complementary forces; Milton’s dynamic narrative of war in heaven is replaced by a system of balances; catastrophe and redemption become stasis and resignation. No doubt Milton’s poem derives some of its energies from the conflicts of the Civil War, while Pope’s was written in an era of greater political stability, at least nominally. Nonetheless, despite the monumental (and sometimes couplet-like) symmetry of Pope’s four-part ‘Essay’, the poem is perhaps not best read as a systematic treatise, but as a looser, more flexible treatment of the world in relation to some constant concerns. The ‘Epistles’ which make up the poem were published separately and take the form of a serious quasi-letter to a friend: ‘Essay’ in the sense of ‘A loose sally of the mind; an irregular indigested piece; not a regular and orderly composition’ (Samuel Johnson’s definition).

Pope describes his Essay as ‘steering betwixt the extremes of doctrines seemingly opposite … forming a temperate yet not inconsistent, and a short yet not imperfect system of Ethics’ (TE III.i: 7). The main gravamen of the Essay is thus an assault on pride, on the aspiration of mankind to get above its station, scan the mysteries of heaven, promote itself to the central place in the universe. Pope’s manner is not bardic or prophetic like Milton’s, but it does cast itself as having authority: ‘Know then thyself, presume not God to scan…’, an attitude borrowed from Milton’s Raphael, who counsels Adam not to seek higher knowledge than is appropriate. But there is something disturbing about this assumption of authority. Milton’s angel warns Adam against seeking heavenly knowledge in a voice scripted for him by the earthbound poet Milton in a poem whose vision of the cosmos from Hell, through Chaos, Eden and on up to Heaven is one of its main readerly pleasures. Similarly, Pope counsels concentration on the human scale in what is, nonetheless, his cosmological testament. Milton aspires to be the poet of God, and so indeed does Pope; if the latter is seeking to stifle adventurous mental journeys, he can only do so by giving them a certain amount of weight and interest.

The vision which is offered the reader after the opening invocation to the philosopher-friend to ‘Awake!’ is not however either simply satirical or straightforwardly didactic. Despite the continual use of imperative verbs such as See, Look, Mark, Note, which make it evident that it is part of the poem’s didactic design to make visible the plan of the maze, the theological defence of God’s providence depends on the assertion that we cannot know more than our own very limited place in the pattern. Pope seeks a way out of this paradox by contrasting visions: human vision is limited to its own state, but can reason and infer other states from that position.

Thro’ worlds unnumber’d tho’ the God be known,
’Tis ours to trace him only in our own.
He, who thro’ vast immensity can pierce,
See worlds on worlds compose one universe,
Observe how system into system runs,
What other planets circle other suns,
What vary’d being peoples ev’ry star,
May tell why Heav’n has made us as we are. (EM, I: 21–8)

Pope instantly oversteps the limits he places on human knowledge (‘’Tis ours to trace him only in our own’), by imagining an infinity of parallel universes, the knowledge of which is only available to the unidentified ‘He’ who is the subject of the long-delayed main verb ‘May’ at line 28; the ‘He’ ought to be God, but he seems oddly separated from his agency as Creator. But the delay between subject and object here actually makes the passage read the other way, and gives us for the duration of the sentence the sensation that we are in the position of the nameless ‘He’, envisaging other systems running into each other, watching other planets circling round other suns, imagining lives in other worlds.

Pope draws on Renaissance images of a ‘great chain’ (EM, I: 33) by which all creatures from microscopic organisms to angels are like links in a graded series which cannot be broken without destroying the hierarchical pattern; thus aspiration to see higher up the chain is conflated with aspiration to be higher up it. Again the proposition is that our limited vision cannot see only the limitations of our place in the chain, and not its active dynamism:

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. (EM, I: 57–60)

Our cosmological position is also limited temporally by our blindness to the future, and Pope reminds us of our superiority of knowledge over other creatures on earth, to indicate our own inferiority to creatures we cannot (but again, do) imagine (I: 81–6). We might imagine, for example, a Heaven

Who sees with equal eye, as God of all,
A hero perish, or a sparrow fall,
Atoms or systems into ruin hurl’d,
And now a bubble burst, and now a world. (EM, I: 87–90)

But in doing so Pope has once again opened a syntactic window for the reader limited to seeing only a part, to imagine what it would be like to see the whole, to be the person ‘Who sees … as God of all’ the role of all disasters from miniscule to cosmic in some functionally perfect arrangement. In some ways, Pope is giving room to that restless desire for advancement and knowledge which the poem’s overall task is to stifle.

Pope discovers this intellectual pride to operate at more or less every level of human experience, including the bodily senses.

Why has not Man a microscopic eye
For this plain reason, Man is not a Fly.
Say what the use, were finer optics giv’n,
T’ inspect a mite, not comprehend the heav’n
Or touch, if tremblingly alive all o’er,
To smart and agonize at ev’ry pore
Or quick effluvia darting thro’ the brain,
Die of a rose in aromatic pain (EM, I: 193–200)

Pope is resisting the imaginative world opened up by improved microscopic technology, just as his cosmic vision ambivalently absorbs the epochal discoveries in physics made by Newton; his moral point is that Man has the right amount of perception for his state and position in the system, no more and no less. And yet the intensification of experience offered by shifting one’s sense of one’s senses (so to speak), has attracted him into one of the most memorable pieces of imagining in the entire poem. These lines on human senses open a new vista of creation in which the differences in perception (‘The mole’s dim curtain, and the lynx’sbeam’, deaf fish against hyper-alert birds, stupid pig against thoughtful elephant) are seen as fascinatingly complementary. If we renounce inappropriate intensities of sensual experience, as Pope says we must, we can nonetheless celebrate them vicariously in other, notionally lesser creatures: ‘The spider’s touch, how exquisitely fine!/ Feels at each thread, and lives along the line’ (EM, I: 217–8). Pope’s ‘line’ becomes the line for this feeling to live along, an exquisite model of his theory of connection between self and exterior, creature and creature.

It is tempting (for Pope tempts us) to imagine what it would be like to dissolve the boundaries between reason and sensation, between the mind of the ‘half-reas’ning elephant’ and human reason – ‘For ever sep’rate, yet for ever near!’ (EM, I: 224). The reason we cannot, and should not seek to, break this bound or alter our place on the ladder, is correspondingly huge in its theological overtones. Since the system which Pope has imagined is cosmological, if anything steps out of line the entire cosmos is ruined:

Let Earth unbalanc’d from her orbit fly,
Planets and Suns runs lawless thro’ the sky,
Let ruling Angels from their spheres be hurl’d,
Being on being wreck’d, and world on world,
Heav’n’s whole foundations to their centre nod,
And Nature tremble to the throne of God: (EM, I: 251–6)

This is the over-reaching imagination turned Satanic, with the verb ‘Let’ ambiguously placed between a sort of ironic command to those who would aspire beyond their station, and a more internalised third person imperative, suggesting the poet as God-substitute could actually conjure such an impiety. As if to suppress that suggestion, poetry is then turned to the service of discovering the immanence of God not at the top of the scale, but in every part of ‘one stupendous whole’, as the soul of that body which is nature (EM, I: 267–80). This is a kind of sleight of hand whereby the scale becomes nullified as a system of differences and hierarchies, because God is in fact present in equal measure everywhere: ‘As full, as perfect, in a hair as heart’ (EM, I: 276). No point, then, but to ‘Submit – In this, or any other sphere’ (EM, I: 285), since all the angles are covered by God:

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.’ (EM, I: 289–94)

Pope works up this dominating, pacifying rhetoric partly out of a sense of his own poetic audacity and its closeness to the aspirations of reason and pride. The final crowning hyperbole, ‘Whatever IS, is RIGHT’, is based on an assumed power of poetic imitation of God and a suppressed identification with that voice which might find much of what IS, to be WRONG.

The second Epistle sets about redeploying those energies of enquiry into the microcosmos of the human mind. Man is situated amid warring conceptions of his own nature: ‘A being darkly wise, and rudely great’, ‘In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast’, ‘Created half to rise, and half to fall’ (EM, II: 3–18). Using his favourite device of the telling oxymoron, Man becomes a miniature cosmology which has internalised that war which Milton turns into narrative: he is both Adam and Satan, top and bottom of the scale. But the solution to the ‘riddle’ cannot be Newtonian science, which (Pope implies) insensibly slides from describing the universe to imagining that it controls it (EM, II: 19–30). Pope acknowledges Newton’s genius as a scientist but limitations as a philosopher:

Could he, whose rules the rapid Comet bind,
Describe or fix one movement of his Mind
Who saw its fires here rise, and there descend,
Explain his own beginning, or his end (EM, II: 35–8)

The real mystery is the human mind, Pope declares, and after a further lofty dismissal of the new learning (II: 43–52), he offers a theory which does appear to attempt to fix ‘the Mercury of Man’, under the direction of ‘Eternal Art’ (EM, II: 175–7) – a kind of thermodynamics of the self: ‘Two Principles in human nature reign;/Self-love, to urge, and Reason, to restrain’ (EM, II: 53–4). This opposition is dynamic, functional – it is not that reason is good and self-love bad, but that both function according to ‘their proper operation’ within the human system.

Self-love is a kind of id, appetitive, desiring, urging, instigating action; reason is an ego which judges, guides, advises, makes purposeful theenergies of self-love. Without these complementary forces human nature would be either ineffectual or destructive (this is the true cosmic drama):

Man, but for that, no action could attend,
And, but for this, were active to no end;
Fix’d like a plant on his peculiar spot,
To draw nutrition, propagate, and rot;
Or, meteor-like, flame lawless thro’ the void,
Destroying others, by himself destroy’d. (EM, II: 61–6)

Pope is clearly fascinated by the energies of this self-love, which might ‘flame lawless thro’ the void’, and is considerably less moralistic about it than one might expect. In his subsequent discussion, self-love is a strong, active ‘moving principle’, and reason appears rather tame and distant. Pope wants to strengthen reason’s claim gradually; by the end of the passage we find ‘Attention, habit and experience gains,/ Each strengthen Reason, and Self-love restrain’ (EM, II: 79–80), allying each element with its opposite quality in a characteristic pattern. Pope gives weight to what moralists often shun: contending that ‘strength of mind is Exercise, not Rest’ (EM, II: 104), Pope wants to enjoy the tempestuous nature of this internal cosmos: ‘Nor God alone in the still calm we find,/He mounts the storm, and walks upon the wind’ (EM, II: 109–10).

Pope must find something resulting from this elemental strife, however, which explains differences in human characters, and he does this with the theory of the ‘ruling passion’, a kind of debased, dark version of self-love which Pope initially characterises as the ‘Mind’s disease’ which is inherent from birth in the way death is (EM, II: 133-60). ‘Passions, like Elements, tho’ born to fight,/Yet, mix’d and soften’d, in his work unite’ (EM, II: 111– 12), Pope contends, to some extent converting an innate psychomachia into a dynamic ‘well accorded strife’ which ‘Gives all the strength and colour of our life’ (EM, II: 121–22). The middle section of the epistle actually posits a far more negative theory of the mind, in which a baneful ‘ruling passion’, aligned from birth with a kind of death instinct, dominates the individual in an almost toxic way (II: 141–4); a kind of internal fall, in which the mind’s energies are all poisoned by some dominant characteristic (envy, hatred, greed). Reason can negotiate with this force (II: 162–4), but only ‘Th’ Eternal Art’ (of God), can reclaim the disastrous energy of the ruling passion by grafting onto it some matching virtue: ‘’Tis thus the Mercury of Man is fix’d,/Strong grows the Virtue with his nature mix’d’ (EM, II: 177–8). We are on a knife-edge between lust and love,avarice and prudence, anger and fortitude, with only ‘The God within the mind’ (EM, II: 204) to distinguish and prioritise the contrary energies.

Thus committed to a view of the psyche as functioning according to some ‘mysterious use’ which combines moral opposites in an aesthetic process determined by God, Pope can open the case for a social patterning required by inherent weaknesses in mental life: ‘Each individual seeks a sev’ral goal;/But HEAV’N’s great view is One, and that the Whole’ (EM, II: 237–8). Aware of the multiplicity of shades of character between the tidy oppositions of Virtue and Vice (EM, II: 210), Pope offers in the last fifty lines of the epistle vignettes which refuse to show lives, however clearly defined individually, operating in isolation; each condition has its unexpected compensations (‘See some strange comfort ev’ry state attend’, EM, II: 271); but only in social interaction is the plan of God really being enacted. Across the structure of the epistle, Heaven has replaced science as the artist of the mind, with society as the place in which psychomachic forces operate to a benign ratio.

Epistle III opens with a bravura display of the ‘chain of love’, finding even in the most basic matter the tendency to unite:

See plastic Nature working to this end,
The single atoms to each other tend,
Attract, attracted to, the next in place
Form’d and impell’d its neighbour to embrace. (EM, III: 9–12)

Sociality is the basic pattern of all nature; life-cycles provide a chronological sequencing of the same principle, one which should remind us of our own place in the scheme, a mutual dependency of created things (III: 21–6).

In Pope’s imagination, everything works by analogy with something else; relations between wild animals and human beings are transformed into visions of power relations between animals and other animals, wild and tame, domestic and feral (III: 49–70). The psychology which in Epistle II contrasted self-love and reason inside the human mind now contrasts animal instinct with human reason, providing a different set of conflicts and analogies. Again, ‘honest Instinct’ is valued surprisingly highly – ‘Sure never to o’er-shoot, but just to hit,/While still too wide or short is human Wit’ (EM, III: 89–90). Pope finds art in the spider’s web, ‘Columbus-like’ courage to explore in the stork (EM, III: 103–6); he contends that instinct is God’s direction, reason merely man’s. Wresting the garden of Eden from Milton’s narrative of Adam led astray by inferiorEve, Pope posits a ‘state of nature’ of undivided unity between human and animal, in which human Reason is instructed to learn from animal Instinct to find food, medicine, the arts of building, ploughing and sailing; even politics. Animals show the arts of society before mankind has them (III: 183–8).

Pope is in somewhat dangerous water here, and deliberately maintains absolute balance between two types of political system: a communitarian republic (the Ants), and a property-owning monarchy (the Bees). In discovering these ‘subterranean works and cities’ (EM, III: 181) to the eye, Pope is privileging the function of naturally-ordered society, of whichever kind, over any sort of individualism. How Pope gets from here to modern political systems is a good deal more vexed, though it has been plausibly suggested that in playing off ‘patriarchal’ theories of the origins of government (based on the authority of the father) against ‘contractual’ ones (based on mutual agreement), Pope finally has ‘something for the contractualists, and something more for the patriarchalists’ (Erskine-Hill 1988, 79–93). By secularising and naturalising the mythic origins of government, Pope adapts patriarchalism for civil society. From a state of nature in which gender divisions play no part at all except in providing the object of mutual desire, Patriarchs suddenly appear, ‘by Nature crown’d … King, priest, and parent of his growing state’ (EM, III: 215–16). The patriarch becomes a type of God, and it is by analogy with such a god, Pope suggests, that people discover ‘One great first father, and that first ador’d’ (EM, III: 226). Thus hierarchical monarchy, and the belief system which underpins it, emerge along patriarchal lines. But Pope draws on both sides to celebrate a modern system which reconciles competing energies:

’Till jarring int’rests of themselves create
Th’according music of a well-mix’d State.
Such is the World’s great harmony, that springs
From Order, Union, full Consent of things! (EM, III: 293–6)

The ‘mixed monarchy’ for which Britain deemed itself famous is registered in the movement of Pope’s verse as a series of checks and balances in which no one element predominates, just as the commons, the lords and the monarch were supposed to make up a political system which avoided the extremes of anarchy and tyranny (III: 297–302). In the end, Pope argues, the social nature of human interaction can be viewed by analogy with wider cosmology:

On their own Axis as the Planets run,
Yet make at once their circle round the Sun:
So two consistent motions act the Soul;
And one regards Itself, and one the Whole. (EM, III: 313–16)

‘Regarding the whole’ then became Pope’s chief poetic problem.

Epistle IV was published somewhat apart from the earlier epistles, in 1734 [37], and in many ways it is the least in keeping with the others, showing a pronounced tendency to dissolve its polished sense of order into a more stridently satirical account of human folly. Order is still ‘Heav’n’s first law’ in Pope’s scheme (EM, IV: 49), and human disparities still work in harmonious formation: ‘All Nature’s diff’rence keeps all Nature’s peace’ (EM, IV: 56). But the epistle shows Pope searching for a means of addressing the multivalence of human experience, and social inequalities in particular, without entirely being able to rely on the format of the vertical chain of being or the horizontal analogy from physics; in what is largely a catalogue of human errors on the subject of happiness, and a teaching of contempt for material good, Pope begins to quote some of his own earlier formulations in newly problematic contexts. So ‘All partial Evil, universal Good’ (EM, I: 292) is rephrased at IV: 114 as one of a range of possibilities for explaining the presence of ‘III’ in the world; ‘Whatever IS, is RIGHT’, the triumphantly confident punchline of Epistle I (EM, I: 294), appears now to need further qualification (IV: 145). Pope’s answer to these problems – the presence of evil, inequalities of fortune, potential for happiness not being realised – is in the end located in a retreat from the world into personal Virtue. The public world is presented as increasingly corrupt and unstable, with fame intangible and misleading (IV: 217–58); the only universally available and reliable happiness is an inner conviction of virtuous life. There is path and pattern attached to the life of Virtue, for he who is ‘Slave to no sect, who takes no private road’ (EM, IV: 331) can perceive ‘that Chain which links th’immense design’ (EM, IV: 333), and acts his part in it. Pope’s privileging of virtue is not however an isolating condition but a sort of precondition for outward-directed action. Inner virtue leads to civic virtue, charity, benevolence, but it must be that way round:

God loves from Whole to Parts: but human soul
Must rise from Individual to the Whole.
Self-love but serves the virtuous mind to wake,
As the small pebble stirs the peaceful lake;
The centre mov’d, a circle strait succeeds,
Another still, and still another spreads,
Friend, parent, neighbour, first it will embrace,
His country next, and next all human race,
Wide and more wide, th’o’erflowings of the mind
Take ev’ry creature in, of ev’ry kind;
Earth smiles around, with boundless bounty blest,
And Heav’n beholds its image in his breast. (EM, IV: 361–72) T

he physical metaphor of the mind rippling and overflowing into wider contexts itself oversteps its ostensible purpose here and reminds us of several of the physics-derived images in earlier epistles; this is the ecological system of mind, world and universe as it is supposed to work at the end of the argument.

But the actual end of the work is curious. Pope onece more addresses Bolingbroke, his ‘guide, philosopher, and friend’ (EM, IV: 390), according him as an exile from worldly political success the sort of inner virtue already established as God’s true template and suggesting that Bolingbroke’s future fame might preserve Pope’s as well. So much is placed in the form of a question (IV: 383–90). However, as Pope comments on the truth-value of his work, and moves finally into recalling the summaries of each earlier epistles so as to provide argumentative closure (IV: 391–8), the question mark, though grammatically required because the statement depends on the question to Bolingbroke, is lost, and the apparent certainties of Pope’s own commentary on what he has achieved in his fearsomely disciplined attempt to systematise chaos are haunted by a ghostly sense of query.

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

Source: Baines, Paul. The Complete Critical Guide to Alexander Pope. London: New York, 2001.

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