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Published: Thursday 31st of October 2013

Criticism of An Essay on Man – Alexander Pope

The following text is a short analysis of the philosophical poem called “An Essay on Man”. This poem consists of four verse epistles. The most interesting part is that these epistles were published separately by a bookseller. However, the author of the poem was not precisely identified, but it is associated with Alexander Pope. The association is made by taking into consideration Pope’s writing style. It is thought that the intention of Alexander was to defuse the hostility of his satires, by securing an impartial audience for this creation. In order to understand this, it is recommended to take a look at his previous work that includes operas like The Dunciad or Epistle to Burlington.

The first intention of Alexander Pope was to conceive the poem as the introduction to an opus magnum on both morality and society. But this later, the author decided to abandon the plan. The whole creation is regarded as a question of human nature. The poet intended to create an image of happiness in relation to individual, universe and, of course, political hierarchies. The main purpose is to articulate the values of optimism of the 18th century.

However, there are critics who say that this poetic opera is based on a majestic declamatory style. This is due to the rhetorical techniques used by Alexander Pope. But, there is also true that critics also perceived this poem as fundamentally flawed when it comes to aesthetics and philosophy. After almost three hundred years after its publication, the An Essay on Man is still regarded by some critics like David B. Morris as a “forlorn classic of ratiocination”, a thing which is also agreed by people who read the poem for the first time.

The style of Alexander Pope is somehow controversial. Unfortunately, not anybody is able to understand it. The poems comprehension of this author requires a deep analysis beyond the words. The language is simple, but understanding the plot can be a real challenge for those who do not have

A few details about the plot and the main characters of the poem

The poem is divided into four parts. The main theme revolves around the European intellectuals who are concerned about human nature. Also, the poem is seen as a contemplation of the human’s role in the Universe.

What is more, it is believed that Pope addressed its poem to someone called Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke who had very important politically status. He was the secretary of state and also the prime minister in the times of the famous Queen Anne. It is said that Pope and Bolingbroke became friends somewhere in Dawley, in 1723, when the prime minister retired. The main connection between the two men were the personal beliefs about life, humans and society which were quite similar.

It is said that the two friends used to discuss much both philosophy and writing. They used to take long walks together on their properties and talk about the 18th-century human condition.

The first epistle underlines the harmony and virtue of the Universe. Even if the presence of evil is something undeniable and even the world is always imperfect, the poem is a vindication of the ways of God to man.

The remaining three epistles are based on the same premise. But they also describe the potential improvements to some aspects of human life and society. For example, the second epistle presents humans as unique identities. They are creatures who manage to keep a balance between self-interest and emotions.

The third epistle plays a very important part: it addresses the role of the individuals in society. In order to do that, the origins of the most important institutions, such as the government, are defined. The world which is described by the author is characterized by the interaction between the altruistic impulses of the human being and the selfish motivations.

In terms of the pursuit of happiness, the fourth epistle describes the struggle between two important human feelings: the love for others and the self-love. The main purpose of this part of the poem is arguing that any person is able to attain happiness through virtuous living. But this is possible only when the selfish instincts are able to transform into benevolence toward God and others.

Let’s talk about the major themes of the poem

The poem called “An Essay on Man” is based on several grand themes such as humans’ behavior, the idea of a Supreme Being, the humans’ role on Earth and Universe and the ability of the most important institutions (such as the government) to establish peace and happiness for their citizens. Consequently, the Pope’s poem includes a wide list of philosophical, ethical and political principles. However, according to critics, these principles are not unique or radical. But the approach of the poet guarantees the charm of the opera.

“An Essay on Man” is a concluding proof of the fact that Pope is instinctually conservative in his politics and also a practicing Catholic. All the people who read the poem for the first time can easily note that the author carefully avoids explicit descriptions of church doctrines. He also avoids talking about the contemporary political issues. Instead, Pope prefers assuming Christian notions. For example, the poem describes the concept of the “fallen man” or the “lost paradise”. This is why the critics claim that the poetic art is nothing but an eclectic assortment of philosophical and traditional beliefs about the humankind.

Some of the ideas that you can find in the text of the poem are borrowed from some medieval thinkers. Also, there are some concepts that below to renaissance thinkers. But Pope decided to express them differently, according to his artistic purposes.

One of the most important aspects is that the poet prefers underlying the idea that the Universe is composed of a coherent and ordered structure. This structure is based on the laws of God and it derives from the doctrine called “the Great Chain of Being”. This doctrine is based on metaphysical ideas that explain the unity of the world.

Pope says that the Universe is a creation of God which comes with a perfect design. Even if humans have the tendency to perceive the Universe as imperfect, Pope says that this is only a limitation that comes from their pride and intellectual. In this poem, the author claims that there is only one way for humans to live happily and virtuously on Earth: they should be able to admit with humility their insignificant position in the great context of creation. But the great question is: are they able to do that? Unfortunately, the answer is no.

What about the critical reception?

The critics are favorable. Upon publication, the poem helped Pope become the toast of literati. Even Leonard Welsted, the avowed enemy of Pope said that the poem was “above all commendation”. But this is not all. Great philosophers such as Voltaire, Kant and Rousseau talked about the philosophical insights of the poem. They also rhapsodized about the text aesthetics. There was also a small vocal community of metaphysicians and clergymen who was deeply influenced by the poem. They perceived the challenges and threats in the poem they associate them with their respective authority.

Critics established that its values were poetic in essence and not coherently philosophical in any way. Fifty years after it was published, the dominant opinion about the poem is related to the one that Samuel Johnson had. He noted “Never were penury of knowledge and vulgarity of sentiment so happily disguised.”

This general agreement persisted during the nineteenth century and also a good part of the twentieth century, during which the commentators minimized the labor’s poetic realizations, as they generally do with Pope’s similar writings.

Largely ignored and ranked into the dustbin of literary history, An Essay on Man was frequently seen just as a curious historical view that has nothing to do with contemporary preoccupations, literary or of some other kind.

Even so, a few recent critics wanted to restore the poem’s reputation by leading its ideas and language in the genre of philosophical poetry. Meanwhile, some other commentators have tried a different evaluation of the poem’s ideas in the circumstances of early eighteenth-century thinking, in an attempt to prove that the Pope derived the explanation of the ways of God from the different philosophical and theological perspectives that his intellectual peers had.

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