Alexander Pope: An Essay on Man Notes by Dr. Honora M. Finkelstein   Epistle 1, "Of the Nature and State of Man, with Respect to the Universe."  Pope's contention in this section is that man, with his limited perspective, cannot know God's divine plan. Man's ignorance, however, is appropriate to his place on the Great Chain of Being. To Pope, the confusing state of things conceals a perfect harmony. In his introduction to Henry St. John, Lord Bolingbroke, he calls for looking at what life is all about, and perhaps determining whether a plan is discernable. Man may be limited in his abilities, but if he tries, he may be able to "vindicate the ways of God to man." 1. In a sense, Pope is following the concept of Descartes that calls for reasoning from what we know. Though there may well be other worlds, circling other suns, this is the only one we have any way of examining. And who put it together and placed man in his station of the Great Chain—God, or man himself? 2. Why is man so weak, small, and blind? Why isn't he higher on the chain? Did God make a mistake? The answer must be that we don't see the whole plan. If that's the case, then man's situation is as good as it should be in any given point and time. 3. In one sense, it is a blessing not to know the future, but just to live in the present moment. Also, it is impossible from the human perspective to know what anything means: a. "Atoms or systems into ruin hurled, And know a bubble burst, and now a world." b. The noble savage ("the poor Indian") by contrast with the sophisticated human of Pope's society, is content just to be. 4. In their pride, the humans of his society have an inappropriate value system, by which they do what they please unthinkingly, then blame God if anything goes wrong. We are unwise to want to be angels, or more than we are, for in doing so, we upset the order of things. 5. Prideful humans think the world has been put here for them to use—and as long as things are going right, this seems to be the case. But then they question the appropriateness of natural disasters, and wonder if Nature has made a mistake. One might also ask, if Nature were not to upset humans, then should we not expect earthly rulers to comport themselves more benignly? However, though it would seem better for us is all were harmony, the truth is that all exists in "elemental strife" or chaos. 6. Humans want to be both higher and lower, to contain within themselves the grace of the angels and the gifts of all other animals. But if they had the gifts of other creatures, they would not be human, and they might regret having lost who they are. 7. In the Great Chain, all the animals have powers and gifts. But man has reason, which is all these powers combined. 8. Every system on the Chain is necessary; were one to fall, the whole would be wrecked. (I wonder what Pope would say about all the species being destroyed today.) 9. Humans and every other creature are like parts in the great body of Nature, of which God is the soul, and indeed the all in all. 10. Stop calling the ORDER imperfect. If we have limitations, they are appropriate, and whatever we experience, don't blame Nature or God—"Whatever IS, is RIGHT!" Epistle 2, "Of the Nature and State of Man with Respect to Himself, as an Individual" Perhaps the most famous lines in the poem are those that introduce this section: "Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; The proper study of mankind is Man." Two things are important here: a) The idea that man can't have a clue about the purpose of things; and b) The echo of the injunction by Socrates and the mystery schools of the ancient world to "Know thyself." At best man is a paradox, and life on the physical plane is a dichotomy. In the portion of this section that is missing, Pope demonstrates that the influence of Reason on the passions results in man's creativity and achievements. Hence, and in spite of arguments to the contrary, man's nature is exactly what it is supposed to be. In Epistle 3, "Of the Nature and State of Man, with Respect to Society," Pope shows that man's self-interest and his drive for self-fulfillment actually work for the good of society as a whole. God "bade Self-love and Social be the same." And in Epistle 4, "Of the Nature and State of Man, with Respect to Happiness," the universe and its experiences of evil and pain will not necessarily provide the contentment sometimes called happiness. Pope therefore defines happiness as virtue, which is dependent, as with the Stoics, on one's inner life, which comes from a benevolent attitude toward the world. By recognizing that God has a balanced plan for the universe and by recreating that balance within himself, man can become happy. Perhaps the value of the piece is not so much to philosophy, but to poetry, for Pope's contribution to the world of literature is his polish. The poem is in heroic couplets, which links it to the traditional poetry of the Classical world (and the period in which he wrote was called the "'Augustan Age," connecting it to the Golden Age of Rome.) And he renders somewhat difficult abstract concepts into vivid images and quotable phrases. Made with Xara Website by Susan Smily