Thursday, April 2, 2015

The Essay on Man

Alexander Pope
The Essay on Man, by Alexander Pope

For Fanda's Literary Movements challenges, I wanted to read something else Enlightenment-style before moving on to the Romantics.  I decided to read Alexander Pope's poem, The Essay on Man.

Pope was known as a writer, but the Essay established him as a philosophical poet as well.  He wanted to express his theory of Man's place in the universe.  This is a long poem, divided into four parts, each tackling a different side of the question, and of course it is written in Pope's trademark heroic couplets.  (I'm always amazed at how much the poets of this period managed to produce in just one poetic form.  Then everybody got completely and utterly sick of heroic couplets and we hardly ever see them again, except in bad amateur schmaltzy poetry.)  It was to have been quite a bit longer and cover more material, but that never happened.

The first epistle is the most famous and makes the argument that God and the universe are good, that Man's place in it is the right one, and that "whatever IS, is RIGHT."  Human beings are not clever enough to be able to design a better universe, but are prideful and foolish enough to think they could.  There are a lot of lines in here that are generally familiar, including my favorite joke of the piece:
Why has not man a microscopic eye?
For this plain reason, man is not a fly.
And ending the epistle with
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 hurled;
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!
The second epistle asserts that man can attain a virtuous life if Reason controls the passions, and contains a passage still quoted today:
Vice is a monster of so frightful mien,
As, to be hated, needs but to be seen;
Yet seen too oft, familiar with her face,
We first endure, then pity, then embrace.
The third deals with man in society, and the fourth with happiness and virtue.

Pope's optimistic philosophic poem was very popular all over Europe.  The ideas in the poem were not original; they were all current and popular in Enlightenment thought.  Voltaire, Rousseau, and Kant all thought it was great. Voltaire later changed his mind and wrote his satire Candide to counter these optimistic arguments, putting a rather mindless version of them into the mouth of Pangloss. 

It's probably easy to dismiss this optimism stuff as clueless blundering, but considering Pope's extremely difficult personal circumstances, I think it's pretty impressive that he thought so well of the universe.  Pope was no stranger to suffering, and he was no pampered aristocrat.  He was Catholic in England at a time when Catholics had few rights, and he was of middle-class origins--he became wealthy through his writing.  Having suffered tuberculosis of the spine as a child, he was less than five feet tall and had severe skeletal malformations along with many lifelong health problems.  In this state, he found it difficult to be taken seriously or to attract women.  That would be enough to embitter anyone, and certainly he had a fund of bitterness; but he also espoused this philosophy of optimism and became famous all over Europe for his work.

I enjoyed the Essay years ago when it was required reading in college, and I thought it would be fun to revisit it.  I had forgotten that I'd only read the first book and part of the second (oh, Norton anthology, how much you have to answer for), so I downloaded the whole thing and made sure to read all of it this time.  I enjoyed it again, and it put me in the mood to read all sorts of other things in my anthology...but then life intervened and I was lucky to get to read the whole Essay.

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