Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man”

British poet Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man” (1734) captures perfectly the symbiotic mindsets emerging during this time period from a religious believer’s perspective; wherein the hitherto dominant worldview based on faith-based reasoning–which was simultaneously nurturing, incorporating, but also quite often competing with–alternative naturalistic philosophies growing among cultured circles of Europe.  But unlike similar works of the time touching on near identical themes, Pope’s poem conveys a unique dose of optimism at the cooperative relationship between faith and science, and the former’s inevitable superiority of the latter.

It begins rather pointedly:

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of Mankind is Man.

If there is one thing that the Enlightenment is known for it is the gradual shift from a focus on a Divinely guided understanding of the world, to one that places greater emphasis on empiricism to study the natural order of things.  That is not to say that all Enlightenment thinkers eschewed the Almighty in their personal philosophy, but that the intellectual work they produced began to rely more on naturalism to explain life, than appealing to the supernatural (this is evident even in works that set out to support the existence of the supernatural realm–like Descartes–while still using largely rationalist arguments as opposed to metaphysical ones to make their case).  What Pope is characterizing in the the above lines is not new, of course, but a reversion to the ancient adage of Protagoras where “Man is the measure of all things,” which had once again now become the starting point of the philosophers of the poet’s day, from whence they advanced all remaining premises and deductions they set out to theorize and prove.

Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A Being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,

Pope’s diction suggests that man, at his core, exists in a state of constant conflict.  His great wisdom, a feat that has made him capable of attaining unprecedented knowledge, also has the capacity to give rise to great arrogance, stifling modest and balanced introspection.

He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;

Despite man’s reasoned understanding of his great intellect, he nevertheless cannot help but be constantly confronted with his innate limitations.  Least of all, how no matter the vastness of his capability to study and learn expands, this same knowledge betrays the undeniable fact that–just as all things in nature–the fintie mortality of every man, of every talent and intellect, is ever-present and inescapable.

In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas’ning but to err;

Unlike the rest of nature, man holds an added burden that while all other creatures have the fortune to maintain a level of blissful ignorance regarding their mortality, man alone must carry forward with full knowledge that there awaits an end to the road of life.  He also carries with him the knowledge that the advent of man in nature, both physically and intellectually, is traced by a tradition of succumbing to an innumerable number of falsehoods, often as direct result of his intellectual limitations.

Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much;
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus’d;
Still by himself, abus’d or disabus’d;

It is man’s greatest gift–his intellect, his ability to reason and contemplate the natural world–that is the source of his greatest misery.  Seemingly, the more man understands about the world, and ultimately about himself, the more he is torn as he is confronted with doubts, fears, and insecurities regarding his place in the grand scheme of nature, which his perception places him master of, but his intellect relegates him from.

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.

The conflict between science and religion is a well-attested phenomenon in the modern age, whether one agrees or disagrees with the validity driving either side of the argument.  And it was during Alexander Pope’s lifetime, with the advent of the Age of Reason and Enlightenment ideals, that a true push for alternative ways of understanding the natural world began to take root among the intellectual circles of Europe.

For a devout believer like Pope, these naturalistic alternatives would seem ultimately unsatisfied and foolhardy.  However, unlike the more authoritative stance taken on by religious institutions both in Pope’s days and generations past, the poet doesn’t give a modicum of resistance in his writings to the new scientific values and trends man is leading himself towards:

Go, wondrous creature! mount where science guides,
Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides;
Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
Correct old time, and regulate the sun;
Go, soar with Plato to th’ empyreal sphere,
To the first good, first perfect, and first fair;

Pope personally rejects the notion that man is the measure of all things, as he accepts the existence of a higher plane of knowledge and being.  Therefore, he gives no credence to the idea that the finite intellectual pursuit of the modern, enlightened man can have any bearing on the infinite knowledge of God.  For the former is by the nature of its earthly creators’ limitations, doomed to fall short of the omniscience and glory of the Creator of all things in existence.

Or tread the mazy round his followers trod,
And quitting sense call imitating God;
As Eastern priests in giddy circles run,
And turn their heads to imitate the sun.

Whatever threat might be perceived by some as coming from the advances in intellectual realms of science, Alexander Pope remains unimpressed, and sees them as self-defeating imitations of the deeper satisfactions and knowledge revealed by spiritual truths, which for the poet far surpass the wisdom and musings of even the cleverest of God’s creations, precisely because they are still God’s creations; be they aware of it, or not:

Go, teach Eternal Wisdom how to rule—
Then drop into thyself, and be a fool!

 

Bibliography

Pope, Alexander.  An Essay on Man: Epistle II.  1734.

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