An Essay on Man: Epistle I
To Henry St. John, Lord Bolingbroke
1 Awake, my St. John! leave all meaner things
2 To low ambition, and the pride of kings.
3 Let us (since life can little more supply
4 Than just to look about us and to die)
5 Expatiate free o'er all this scene of man;
6 A mighty maze! but not without a plan;
7 A wild, where weeds and flow'rs promiscuous shoot;
8 Or garden, tempting with forbidden fruit. [reference to Paradise Lost I, 1-2]
9 Together let us beat this ample field,
10 Try what the open, what the covert yield;
11 The latent tracts, the giddy heights explore
12 Of all who blindly creep, or sightless soar;
13 Eye Nature's walks, shoot folly as it flies,
14 And catch the manners living as they rise;
15 Laugh where we must, be candid where we can;
16 But vindicate the ways of God to man. [reference to Paradise Lost I, 26]
17 Say first, of God above, or man below,
18 What can we reason, but from what we know?
19 Of man what see we, but his station here,
20 From which to reason, or to which refer?
21 Through worlds unnumber'd though the God be known,
22 'Tis ours to trace him only in our own.
23 He, who through vast immensity can pierce,
24 See worlds on worlds compose one universe,
25 Observe how system into system runs,
26 What other planets circle other suns,
27 What varied being peoples ev'ry star,
28 May tell why Heav'n has made us as we are.
29 But of this frame the bearings, and the ties,
30 The strong connections, nice dependencies,
31 Gradations just, has thy pervading soul
32 Look'd through? or can a part contain the whole?
33 Is the great chain, that draws all to agree, [reference to Paradise Lost, V, 469-90]
34 And drawn supports, upheld by God, or thee?
35 Presumptuous man! the reason wouldst thou find,
36 Why form'd so weak, so little, and so blind?
37 First, if thou canst, the harder reason guess,
38 Why form'd no weaker, blinder, and no less!
39 Ask of thy mother earth, why oaks are made
40 Taller or stronger than the weeds they shade?
41 Or ask of yonder argent fields above,
42 Why Jove's satellites are less than Jove?
43 Of systems possible, if 'tis confest
44 That Wisdom infinite must form the best,
45 Where all must full or not coherent be,
46 And all that rises, rise in due degree;
47 Then, in the scale of reas'ning life, 'tis plain
48 There must be somewhere, such a rank as man:
49 And all the question (wrangle e'er so long)
50 Is only this, if God has plac'd him wrong?
51 Respecting man, whatever wrong we call,
52 May, must be right, as relative to all.
53 In human works, though labour'd on with pain,
54 A thousand movements scarce one purpose gain;
55 In God's, one single can its end produce;
56 Yet serves to second too some other use.
57 So man, who here seems principal alone,
58 Perhaps acts second to some sphere unknown,
59 Touches some wheel, or verges to some goal;
60 'Tis but a part we see, and not a whole.
61 When the proud steed shall know why man restrains
62 His fiery course, or drives him o'er the plains:
63 When the dull ox, why now he breaks the clod,
64 Is now a victim, and now Egypt's God:
65 Then shall man's pride and dulness comprehend
66 His actions', passions', being's, use and end;
67 Why doing, suff'ring, check'd, impell'd; and why
68 This hour a slave, the next a deity.
69 Then say not man's imperfect, Heav'n in fault;
70 Say rather, man's as perfect as he ought:
71 His knowledge measur'd to his state and place,
72 His time a moment, and a point his space.
73 If to be perfect in a certain sphere,
74 What matter, soon or late, or here or there?
75 The blest today is as completely so,
76 As who began a thousand years ago.
77 Heav'n from all creatures hides the book of fate,
78 All but the page prescrib'd, their present state:
79 From brutes what men, from men what spirits know:
80 Or who could suffer being here below?
81 The lamb thy riot dooms to bleed today,
82 Had he thy reason, would he skip and play?
83 Pleas'd to the last, he crops the flow'ry food,
84 And licks the hand just rais'd to shed his blood.
85 Oh blindness to the future! kindly giv'n,
86 That each may fill the circle mark'd by Heav'n:
87 Who sees with equal eye, as God of all,
88 A hero perish, or a sparrow fall,
89 Atoms or systems into ruin hurl'd,
90 And now a bubble burst, and now a world.
Vocabulary and Notes
St. John: Henry St. John (pronounced sin-jin), Viscount Bolingbroke (1678-1751), outstanding
Tory statesman who had to flee England in 1715. Pardoned, he returned in 1723. Bolingbroke was
an early friend of Pope and Swift, and a member of the Scriblerus Club. He is considered to have
given Pope the origìnal impetus for writing the Essay on Man, the Moral Essays, and the Imitations
of Horace. A freethinker and Deist, he may have provided Pope with the "philosophy" of the Essay,
although there has been a continual controversy as to whether the poem's point of view is Christian
6 maze: a labyrinth-like arrangement was frequently used in eighteenth-century gardening. plan: (1)
a drawing or sketch, (2) a scheme of arrangement.
7 promiscuous: mixed in an indiscriminate or disorderly way (formal).
10 open ... covert: terms from hunting, applying to ground that will not shelter animals and ground
11 tracts: (1) regions, (2) tracks.
11 giddy: causing dizziness or a feeling of unsteadiness: climbed to a giddy height.
14 continuing the hunting metaphor.
15 candid: (1) clear, (2) ingenuous.
29-31 The terms frame, bearings, gradation, ties may have architectural overtones, but they also
along with connections and ependencies were key terms of the new science.
31 To pervade: to spread through or be present throughout something.
40 Weed: wild plant, a plant that grows in water.
42 Satellites: tetrasyllabic (four-syllable word): sa-tal-li-tes. Jove is the planet Jupiter, four of whose
satellites were discovered by Galileo (1564-1642).
43-46 Of systems ... due degree. These are axioms common to many traditional cosmologies: (1)
that a deity of Infinite Wisdom exists and in his goodness could only create the best of all possible
worlds; (2) that the world so created is full, containing the maximum number of kinds of beings; (3)
that the hierarchy of kinds of being is arranged in even steps, so that each kind has its due degree.
49 To wrangle: to argue persistently and angrily.
53 works: also in the sense of the mechanical works in a clock or machine.
54 movement: also with reference to mechanism.
59 which: continuing the imagery of clockwork or mechanism.
63 The clod: a large lump of soil.
64 Egypt's Cod. A bull was worshipped at Memphis under the name Apis.
77 "[Pope] His happiness depends on his ignorance to a certain degree."
Alexander Pope (1688-1744)
English poet, was born in Lombard Street, London, on the 21st of May 1688. His father, Alexander
Pope, a Roman Catholic, was a linen-draper who afterwards retired from business with a small
fortune, and fixed his residence about 1700 at Binfield in Windsor Forest. Between his twelfth and
his seventeenth years excessive application to study undermined his health, and he developed the
personal deformity which was in so many ways to distort his view of life. He thought himself dying,
but through a friend, Thomas (afterwards the Abbe) Southcote, he obtained the advice of the famous
physician John Radcliffe, who prescribed diet and exercise. Under this treatment the boy recovered
his strength and spirits. He afterwards learnt French and Italian, probably in a similar way. He read
translations of the Greek, Latin, French and Italian poets, and by the age of twelve, when he was
finally settled at home and left to himself, he was not only a confirmed reader, but an eager aspirant
to the highest honours in poetry.
Before the poet was seventeen he was admitted in this way to the society of London "wits" and men
of fashion, and was cordially encouraged as a prodigy. He learnt most, as he acknowledged, from
Dryden, but the harmony of his verse also owed something to an earlier writer, George Sandys, the
translator of Ovid. At the beginning of the 18th century Dryden's success had given great vogue to
translations and modernizations. The air was full of theories as to the best way of doing such things.
What Dryden had touched, Pope did not presume to meddle with — Dryden was his hero and
master; but there was much more of the same kind to be done. Dryden had rewritten three of the
Canterbury Tales; Pope tried his hand at the Merchant's Tale, and the Prologue to the Wife of Bath's
Tale, and produced also an imitation of the House of Fame. Dryden had translated Virgil; Pope
experimented on the Thebais of Statius, Ovid's Heroides and Metamorphoses, and the Odyssey. His
metrical letter to Cromwell, which Elwin dates in 1707, when Pope was nineteen, is a brilliant feat
of versification, and has turns of wit in it as easy and spirited as any to be found in his mature
satires. Pope was twenty-one when he sent the "Ode on Solitude" to Cromwell, and said it was
written before he was twelve years old. Pope's next publication was the Essay on Criticism (1711),
written two years earlier, and printed without the author's name.
Windsor Forest, modelled on Sir John Denham's Cooper's Hill, had been begun, according to Pope's
account, when he was sixteen or seventeen. It was published in March 1713 with a flattering
dedication to the secretary for war, George Granville, Lord Lansdowne, and an opportune allusion
to the peace of Utrecht. This was a nearer approach to taking a political side than Pope had yet
made. His principle had been to keep clear of politics, and not to attach himself to any of the sets
into which literary men were divided by party. Although inclined to the Jacobites by his religion, he
never took any part in the plots for the restoration of the Stuarts, and he was on friendly terms with
the Whig coterie, being a frequent guest at the coffee-house kept by Daniel Button, where Addison
held his "little senate." He had contributed his poem, "The Messiah" to the Spectator; he had written
an article or two in the Guardian, and he wrote a prologue for Addison's Cato. The translation of
Homer was Pope's chief employment for twelve years. The Iliad was delivered to the subscribers
in instalments in 1715, 1717, 1718 and 1720. Pope's own defective scholarship made help necessary.
The profitableness of the work was Pope's chief temptation to undertake it. His receipts for his
earlier poems had totalled about £150, but he cleared more than £8000 by the two translations, after
deducting all payments to coadjutors — a much larger sum than had ever been received by an
English author before. The translation of Homer had established Pope's reputation with his
contemporaries, and has endangered it ever since it was challenged.
Pope, with his economical habits, was rendered independent by the pecuniary success of his Homer,
and enabled to live near London. The estate at Binfield was sold, and he removed with his parents
to Mawson's Buildings, Chiswick, in 1716, and in 1719 to Twickenham, to the house with which his
name is associated. Here he practised elaborate landscape gardening on a small scale, and built his
famous grotto, which was really a tunnel under the road connecting the garden with the lawn on the
Thames. He was constantly visited at Twickenham by his intimates, Dr John Arbuthnot, John Gay,
Bolingbroke (after his return in 1723), and Swift (during his brief visits to England in 1726 and
1727), and by many other friends of the Tory party. In 1717 his father died. He begun to correspond
with Martha Blount in 1712, and after 1717 the letters are much more serious in tone. He quarrelled
with Teresa, who had apparently injured or prevented his suit to her sister; and although, after her
father's death in 1718, he paid her an annuity, he seems to have regarded her as one of his most
dangerous enemies. His friendship with Martha lasted all his life. So long as his mother lived he
was unwearying in his attendance on her, but after her death in 1733 his association with Martha
Blount was more constant.
The year 1725 may be taken as the beginning of the third period of Pope's career, when he made his
fame as a moralist and a satirist. Edward Young's satire, The Universal Passion, had just appeared,
and been received with more enthusiasm than any thing published since Pope's own early successes.
This alone would have been powerful inducement to Pope's emulous temper. Swift was finishing
Gulliver's Travels, and came over to England in 1726. The survivors of the Scriblerus Club — Swift,
Pope, Arbuthnot, and Gay — resumed their old amusement of parodying and otherwise ridiculing
bad writers, especially bad writers in the Whig interest.
The Essay on Man was to have formed part of a series of philosophic poems on a systematic plan.
The other pieces were to treat of human reason, of the use of learning, wit, education and riches, of
civil and ecclesiastical polity, of the character of women, &c. Of the ten epistles of the Moral
Essays, the first four, written between 1731 and 1735, are connected with this scheme, which was
never executed. There was much bitter, and sometimes unjust, satire in the Moral Essays and the
Imitations of Horace. He died on the 30th of May 1744, and he was buried in the parish church of
Twickenham. He left the income from his property to Martha Blount till her death, after which it
was to go to his half-sister Magdalen Rackett and her children.
An Essay on Man
An Essay on Man is a poem published by Alexander Pope in 1734. It is a rationalistic effort to use
philosophy in order to "vindicate (to clear somebody or something of blame, guilt, suspicion, or
doubt) the ways of God to man" (l.16), a variation of John Milton's claim in the opening lines of
Paradise Lost, that he will "justify the ways of God to man" (1.26). It is concerned with the part evil
plays in the world and with the natural order God has decreed for man. Because man cannot know
God's purposes, he cannot complain about his position in the Great Chain of Being (ll.33-34) and
must accept that "Whatever IS, is RIGHT" (l.292), a theme that would soon be satirized by Voltaire
in Candide. More than any other work, it popularized optimistic philosophy throughout England
and the rest of Europe. The essay, written in heroic couplets, comprises four epistles. Pope began
work on it in 1729, and had finished the first three by 1731. However, they did not appear until
early 1733, with the fourth epistle published the following year. The poem was originally published
anonymously; Pope did not admit authorship until 1735.
Pope reveals in his introductory statement, "The Design," that An Essay on Man was originally
conceived as part of a longer philosophical poem, with four separate books. What we have today
would comprise the first book. The second was to be a set of epistles on human reason, arts and
sciences, human talent, as well as the use of learning, science, and wit "together with a satire against
the misapplications of them." The third book would discuss politics, and the fourth book "private
ethics" or "practical morality." Often quoted is the following passage, the first verse paragraph of
the second book, which neatly summarizes some of the religious and humanistic tenets of the poem.
The philosophical poem An Essay on Man consists of four verse epistles, each of which was
published separately and anonymously between February 1733 and January 1734 by a bookseller
not previously associated with Pope's writings. Attesting to his belief that “the life of a Wit is a
warfare upon earth,” Pope contrived the elaborate ruse partly to defuse the hostility provoked by his
recent satires, notably The Dunciad (1728) and his Epistle to Burlington (1731), and partly to secure
an impartial audience for the poem. Pope eventually identified himself as the author when he
collected the epistles under the subtitle “Being the First Book of Ethic Epistles.” He had originally
conceived of An Essay on Man as the introduction to an opus magnum on society and morality, but
he later abandoned the plan. To this end, the poem addresses the question of human nature and the
potential for happiness in relation to the universe, social and political hierarchies, and the individual.
Articulating the values of eighteenth-century optimism, the poem employs a majestic declamatory
style and underscores its arguments with a range of conventional rhetorical techniques. An Essay on
Man met with international acclaim upon publication and generated no small share of controversy
in ensuing decades. During the succeeding centuries, however, critics have perceived Pope's poem
as fundamentally flawed, both aesthetically and philosophically.
Plot and Major Characters
Pope addressed An Essay on Man to Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke, who served briefly as
secretary of state and prime minister under Queen Anne. Previously acquainted with Pope by
mutual association with Jonathan Swift, Bolingbroke retired in 1723 to Dawley, a farm neighboring
Pope's Twickenham, and quickly befriended the poet, whose personal beliefs neatly coincided with
his own. The friends often discussed much of the subject matter expressed in both Pope's poem and
Bolingbroke's own amateur philosophical writings, usually as they walked the grounds of their
properties. Divided into four parts, An Essay on Man explicates ideas commonplace among
eighteenth-century European intellectuals concerning human nature and humanity's role in the
universe. Proposing to “vindicate the ways of God to man,” the first epistle attempts to show the
underlying harmony and virtue of the universe and the propriety of humanity's place in it, despite
the presence of evil and apparent imperfection in the world. Each of the remaining epistles draws
upon this premise, describing potential improvements to some aspect of human nature and society
with the implicit understanding that the universe is divinely ordered and essentially perfect. The
second epistle discusses humans as unique beings and shows how the psychological balance
between self-interest and the “passions,” or emotions, under the guidance of reason, promotes
virtuous living. The third epistle addresses the role of the individual in society, tracing the origins of
such civilizing institutions as government and the class system to a constant interaction between the
selfish motivations and altruistic impulses of individual humans. The fourth epistle frames the
struggle between self-love and love of others in terms of the pursuit of happiness, arguing that any
human can attain true happiness through virtuous living, which happens only when selfish instincts
yield to genuine expressions of benevolence toward others and God.
Throughout the epistles of An Essay on Man Pope surveys such grand themes as the existence of a
Supreme Being and the behavior of humans, the workings of the universe and the role of humans in
it, and the capacity of government to establish and promote the happiness of its citizens.
Consequently, the poem is one of Pope's most thorough statements of his philosophical, ethical, and
political principles, which, however, were generally neither unique, radical, nor systematic. A
practicing Catholic and instinctually conservative in his politics—each position precarious to
acknowledge in Pope's time—Pope carefully avoids explicit references to specific church doctrines
and political issues in the poem. Implicitly assuming such Christian notions as fallen man, lost
paradise, and a beneficent deity, the poem presents an eclectic assortment of both traditional and
current philosophical ideas that attempt to explain the universal characteristics of humankind. The
poem borrows ideas from a range of medieval and renaissance thinkers, although Pope somewhat
modifies them to suit his artistic purposes. The underlying theme of the poem is the idea that there
exists an ordered universe which possesses a coherent structure and functions in a rational fashion,
according to natural laws designed by God. The description of its structure derives from the
metaphysical doctrine of the Great Chain of Being, which explains the fullness and unity of the
natural world in terms of a hierarchy that ranges from plants and insects at one end to humans and
angels at the other. As a creation of God, the universe ultimately is a perfect design that appears
imperfect to humans because the ability to perceive its order correctly is diminished by pride and
intellectual limitations. If humanity were to acknowledge with humility its insignificant position in
the greater context of creation, Pope reasons, then humanity's capacity to live happily and
virtuously on earth would be possible. Pope expresses many of his main ideas regarding human
nature in language so indelible and pithy that some phrases from the poem have become
commonplace in the English language.
Upon publication, An Essay on Man made Pope the toast of literati everywhere, including his
inveterate foes in London, whom he deceived into celebrating the poem, since he had published it
anonymously. His avowed enemy Leonard Welsted, for instance, declared the poem “above all
commendation.” This assessment typified the initial critical and popular response in England, which
was generally echoed throughout Europe over the next two decades. Such notable figures as
Voltaire, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Immanuel Kant rhapsodized about the poem's literary
aesthetics and philosophical insights. However, the early universal appeal of An Essay on Man soon
gave way to controversy inspired by a small but vocal community of metaphysicians and clergymen,
who perceived challenges and threats in the poem's themes to their respective authority. These
critics determined that its values, despite its themes, were essentially poetic and not coherently
philosophical by any means. Within fifty years of its publication, the prevailing critical opinion of
the poem mirrored that of Samuel Johnson, who noted, “Never were penury of knowledge and
vulgarity of sentiment so happily disguised.” This consensus persisted throughout the nineteenth
century and well into the twentieth century, as commentators also trivialized the work's poetic
achievements—as they generally did Pope's other writings. Widely neglected and relegated to the
dustbin of literary history, An Essay on Man has been often perceived as an historical curiosity
disconnected from contemporary concerns, literary and otherwise. However, a number of recent
critics have sought to rehabilitate the poem's status in the canon by focusing on its language and
ideas in terms of the genre of philosophical poetry. Other commentators have attempted to
reevaluate the poem's ideas within the context of early eighteenth-century thought in an effort to
demonstrate that Pope derived his theodicy—or explanation of the ways of God—from the various
philosophical and theological positions held by his intellectual peers.
Scriblerus Club: informal group of friends that included Jonathan Swift, Alexander Pope, John
Gay, John Arbuthnot, Henry St. John and Thomas Parnell. The group was founded in 1712 and
lasted until the death of the founders, starting in 1732 and ending in 1745, with Pope and Swift
being the culturally most prominent authors.