Alexander Pope: A Deist Essay on Man*

In 1734 Alexander Pope published that last of four parts, epistles, which made up his Essay on Man. Written in heroic couplets this is a philosophical poem 1236 lines long intended to challenge the anthropocentric world-view. It also opposes the then prevalent Christian view of Man having been redeemed through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. Pope’s view is that whatever the circumstances humanity must seek its own salvation.

Pope accepted that the universe can appear complex, perverse, ultimately inscrutable and yet it functions according to identifiable natural laws: it is rational and can be understood rationally, at least in part. What seem to people to be imperfect or even downright evil this is a measure of Man’s partiality, the result of a necessarily limited intellectual capacity and viewpoint.

However, despite the creation being confusing and chaotic at times it is, nonetheless, divinely ordered. God is the nub around which the universe is structured according to laws that must be reasonable as they are susceptible to reason. Yet whatever the advances of human investigation Man’s intelligence is finite, limited in scope as to what can be understood and leading always to provisional truths.

Through experience humanity is aware of its own existence and the products it is responsible for. This is the basis for the moral order, the striving for the good whatever the circumstances and, therefore, the ability to judge the bad.

A poem of such length cannot be adequately considered in a brief blog posting, rather the first 30 lines of the second Epistle must serve as a limited illustration of the whole, in itself a deist metaphor. This exemplar has been chosen for its first two lines being probably the most widely known couplet in the poem

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of Mankind is Man.

In the first line is a significant deist statement; that while God can be perceived God can never be entirely known or understood: better then for humans to concentrate on the ancient adage, “know thy self”. Pope emphasises the primacy of self knowledge as opposed to two extremes of not giving any real consideration to man and the universe or claiming ultimate knowledge, perhaps through divine revelation.

Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:

Humanity is caught in the middle between knowing and not knowing. However great the intellectual and technological advances Man can never know what is not known and perhaps lies beyond human knowing if not speculation.

Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus’d;
Still by himself abused, or disabus’d;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet prey to all;
Sole judge of Truth, in endless Error hurl’d:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

In line 18 Pope sums up his view of the human condition; the equal potential for greatness and stupidity while there remain an enigma. However this does not, and indeed should not, impede the earnest quest for knowledge and understanding. It is what humanity does and is the difference between the human species and all other known life forms. Genetics may show there is not such a vast difference between a cabbage and a poet, yet the chain of being remains valid. Man is a consciously active agent in creation as no other species is, between, …a God, or Beast…(8)

In keeping with line 2, Pope encourages humanity to make the most of its potential for learning, thereby being a little closer to God than Beast.

Go, wond’rous creature! mount where Science guides,
Go, measure earth, weigh air, and state the tides;
Instruct the planets in what orbs to run,
Correct old Time, and regulate the Sun;

These four lines are indicative of the optimistic philosophy of the 18th century, a time when the Enlightenment would displace the ignorance and superstitions of former times. The old certainties of religion would be challenged, God and gods denied, and deism would develop as the rational expression of religion of those who continued to see through their experience of the world a divine “hand” behind it.

Through lines 23 to 28 Pope encouraged the appreciation of philosophy: Go, soar with Plato to th’ empyreal sphere…(23) and those thinkers who came after, Or tread the mazy round his follow’rs trod…(25). He recognised the mazy round of contending ideas and those of more distant cultures, As Eastern priests in giddy circles run…(27). Whatever the intellectual vehicle, humanity strives to understand.

As a deist, Pope was sure humanity could apply reason based on experience to learn about both God and Nature. If the contemplation of the divine was the province of religion, then God’s universe, Nature, was science’s territory. However, he was aware of hubris, that science provides Man with a power that deceives: it is all too easy for humans to convince themselves they are imitating or even displacing God. Better a self awareness of how little is known whatever progress science makes.

Go, teach Eternal Wisdom how to rule –
Then drop into thyself, and be a fool!

*All quotations from An Essay on Man, Epistle 2, the Twickenham Text.
“The Poems of Alexander Pope” Edited by John Butt,
Methuen &Co. Ltd. 1963


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