Alexander Pope. "Essay on Man. Epistle 1": Study questions

Comment on and reply to the questions.

Introduction (1-16)
  1. Pope says that the purpose of the poem is to "vindicate the ways of God to man." What does that mean? How does contemporay man "vindicate the ways of God to man"?
  2. Man has limited existence on earth. He is born, looks around for a while, then he dies.
I. That we can judge only with regard to our own system, being ignorant of the relation of systems and things.
  1. Pope poses the essential question: is Man, who can only see his immediate world, actually capable of understanding God's plan for the whole universe? He addresses the problem logically in the remaining stanzas.
  2. Man is limited in what he knows, and so can judge only from what he knows.
  3. Man's reason is powerful, but limited, and the limit is imposed by God.
  4. What does the Great Chain of Being refer to?
  5. "... can a part contain the whole?"
II. That man is not to be deemed imperfect, but a being suited to his place and rank in the creation, agreeable to the general order of things, and conformable to ends and relations to him unknown.
  1. Any man who presumes to understand God's point of view doesn't believe that God has created a unique place for each of his creations. We must begin by admitting we can only perceive a "part . . ., and not a whole," (l. 60) and trust that whatever order we can perceive is a reflection of God's overall plan.
  2. Man is not capable of knowing his relation to the rest of the universe.
  3. Man is part of a system where there are weeker things below him and stronger above him.
  4. "Respecting Man, whatever wrong we call,
    May, must be right, as relative to all." (51-52)
  5. Read verses 61-68. How is the human condition comparable to that of an ox and a horse?
  6. Read verses 69-76. What's Pope's reply to those who say that man is not perfect?
III. That it is partly upopn his ignorance of future events, and partly upon the hope of a future state, that all his happiness in the present depends.
  1. No other animals presume to second-guess God through science or philosophy. Even less "civilized" humans (the "poor Indian" of line 99) accept that Nature is the best way to understand God.
  2. "Heaven from all creatures hides the book of Fate,"
  3. Pope suggests that it's better that we don't know our fate. Our "blindness to the future" is a kind gift. Explain the example with the lamb. (81-84)
  4. Would man be happy to know his own fate?
  5. Heaven treats mankind equally with other being in the universe. (86-89)
  6. What role does Hope have for man? (90-98)
  7. What's the point of the example with the Indian? (99-102)
IV. The pride of aiming at more knowledge, and pretending to more perfection, the cause of man's error and misery. The impiety of putting himself in the place of God, and judging of the fitness or unfitness, perfection or imperfection, justice or injustice of his dispensations.
  1. One who realizes his proper place in God's creation will be happier; it is "In pride, in reasoning pride" alone that humans lose their way to God (l. 123).
  2. "In Pride, in reasoning Pride, our error lies;". (123) How so, according to Pope?
  3. Man should not reach for something he is not meant to be.
  4. "And who but wishes to invert the laws
    Of ORDER, sins against the Eternal Cause." (129-130)
V. The absurdity of conceiting himself to the final cause of creation, or expecting that perfection in the moral world which is not in the natural.
  1. Men are prone to believe that the universe was created for their exclusive use. We are tempted to call things that cause us grief or fear "evil," but only exposes our limited point of view. It's none of our business why God creates terrible things like earthquakes or floods — we must trust that they're part of a larger plan.
  2. Verses 131-140 speak to man's conceit. In what ways is man conceited, according to Pope?
  3. Does Nature err when bad things happen to man? (141-144)
  4. "... the first Almighty Cause
    Acts not by partial, but by general laws;" (145-146)
  5. "From pride, from pride, our very reasoning springs;" (161)
VI. The unreasonableness of his complaints against Providence, while on the one hand he demands the perfections of the angels, and on the other the bodily qualifications of the brutes; though, to possess any of the sensitive faculties in a higher degree, would render him miserable.
  1. In fact, all human unhappiness stems from wanting to be or have something humans are not meant to be or have. Happiness lies in wanting only "what his nature and his state can bear" (l. 192).
  2. Man wants to be both an angel and a brute, and if it was up to him he would want to power over all creatures, but Nature has assigned to all creatures, including man, their proper place.
  3. Why does man feel that nature has been unkind to him? Is it because nature hasn't made him the master of all?
  4. Man should consider it a bliss that he cannot comprehend beyond mankind.
  5. "If nature thundeered in his opening ears,
    And stunned him with the music of the spheres,
    How would he wish that Heaven had left him still
    The whispering Zephyr, and the purling rill?" (201-206)
VII. That throughout the whole visible world, an universal order and gradation in the sentual and mental faculties is observed, which causes a subordination of creature to creature, and all creatures to man. The gradation of sense, instinct, thought, reflection, reason: that reason alone countervails all other faculties.
  1. One proof of God's existence is that there are objects in our world too large, or small, or high, or low for humans to perceive. Therefore, some other force must have created the universe for the use of a variety of creatures.
VIII. How much further this order and subordination of living creatures may extend, above and below us; were any part of which broken, not that part only, but the whole connected creation must be destroyed.
  1. Pope describes the "vast chain of being" (l. 237), which is similar to (though not exactly the same as) the Renaissance scala naturae. Each link of the chain is necessary for the strength of the whole — no one is more necessary than any other.
  2. "From Nature's chain whatever link you strike,
    Tenth or ten thousandth, breaks the chain alike." (245-246)
  3. In verses 250-256 Pope suggests what might happen if the balance in nature is broken.
  4. "All this dread ORDER break - for who? for thee?
    Vile worm! - oh Madness! Pride! Impiety!" (258-259)
IX. The extravagance, madness, and pride of such a desire.
  1. Pope completes his metaphor: "All are but parts of one stupendous whole/ Whose body Nature is, and God the soul" (ll. 265-6).
  2. Verses 359-269 list the absurdity of man's wish to be given a bigger role by nature.
  3. Man is not an individual, but a part of a whole "Whose body Nature is, and God the soul;".
X. The Consequence of all, the absolute submission due to Providence, both as to our present and future state.
  1. He concludes with an exhortation to the reader to take comfort in the knowledge that the universe is the result of a benevolent and orderly design (even though we might not see it), and that "Whatever IS, is RIGHT."
  2. In this section Pope asserts how man should be in light of his nature and his place in the universe.
  3. Read and comment on the verses that start with "All...".
  4. "One truth is clear, WHATEVER IS, IS RIGHT." The world as it exists is correct.