‘Hope springs eternal in the human breast’ (I.95) writes Alexander Pope in his famous poem An Essay on Man. There’s a good chance you’ve heard this quote before, which illustrates just how influential this work is. In addition to its impressive breadth and innovative use of poetic forms, An Essay on Man is known for its insightful wisdom. In fact, Pope has become one of the most quoted English poets, not only because of the beauty of his work, but also because of the wise insight that pervades much of his poetry.
To understand the poem and the impulse behind it, it’s important to look at the ideas that were popular when Pope was writing. Pope lived from 1688 to 1744 and was considered one of the most definitive and influential voices of the first half of the 18th century. His work was part of the Neoclassical movement that reflected the ideals of the Enlightenment era. The Enlightenment began in the middle of the 17th century and lasted until the end of the 18th century. The Enlightenment emphasized the glory of reason and science and reflected the ideal that man could understand the world around him. This hope for understanding and outlining the human condition is at the heart of An Essay on Man.
In the poem, Pope attempts to ‘vindicate’ God’s ways to man, a task that clearly echoes John Milton’s famous claim in the epic poem Paradise Lost, which was first published in 1667 and told the story of the fall of man in the Garden of Eden. However, unlike Milton’s Paradise Lost, An Essay on Man is not specifically Christian and instead attempts to identify an ethical system that applies to humanity in a general sense. When Pope began the poem, he originally intended to make it much longer than the final version became, which further demonstrates just how idealistic he was. The poem was dedicated to Lord Bolingbroke, a political figure with whom Pope had many philosophical conversations and who likely helped Pope come to believe in many of the ideas he presents in An Essay on Man.
An Essay on Man consists of four epistles, which is a term that is historically used to describe formal letters directed to a specific person. The first epistle looks at man’s relation to the universe in order to present the concept of harmony that is referred to throughout the rest of the poem. Pope explains that human beings cannot come to fully understand their purpose in life by using only their mental faculties. Although humanity is at the top of the fixed hierarchy of the natural world, there are many things we cannot know, and so we must not attempt to become godlike. Rather, human beings must accept that their existence is the result of a perfect creator who created everything as perfectly as it can possibly be.
The second epistle uses the harmony described between humanity and the cosmos in the previous epistle to illustrate how humans can achieve harmony within themselves. Whereas the first epistle explores the inherently complex relationship man has with his material existence, the second describes the relationship that man has with his own desires, mental faculties, and spiritual aspirations. Pope again reinforces the idea that humans cannot fully understand God, but he also claims that self-love and reason can help man understand himself.
The third epistle deals with how the individual interacts with society. Pope argues that, in addition to the insight that it can offer regarding a person’s relationship with himself, the cosmos offers insight into how individuals can find harmony with society and the natural world.
Pope’s principle for understanding man is the Great Chain of Being, which orders all creation according to God’s will. The disorders which man sees in the universe are actually parts of some larger perfection which man’s limited knowledge cannot perceive. Man’s prideful speculations, not the external universe, are the cause of his misery.
Within man himself, there is also an order based on the workings of self-love (the faculty of desire) and reason (the faculty of judgment). Right living depends upon the two working in harmony, since neither is good or evil in itself. Rather, good or evil arises out of their proper or improper use.
Human society also partakes of this universal order. The imitation of nature and rational self-love enable man to create a successful social order, but his favoring of a particular government or religion, instead of reliance on general principles, creates dissension and tyranny. Man’s end–happiness–is attained when he submits to Providence and dispenses with pride.
Part of the essay’s greatness is Pope’s unity of structure and theme. The poem’s orderly exposition of ideas, its concentration on universals rather than specifics, and its heroic couplet verses, reflect the ideas of balance, subordination, and harmony better than even the finest prose.