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An Essay On Man Poem

An Essay on Man is a poem published by Alexander Pope in 1733–1734.[1][2][3] It is an effort to rationalize or rather "vindicate 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 men" (1.26). It is concerned 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 was satirized by Voltaire in Candide (1759).[4] More than any other work, it popularized optimistic philosophy throughout England and the rest of Europe.

Pope's Essay on Man and Moral Epistles were designed to be the parts of a system of ethics which he wanted to express in poetry. Moral Epistles has been known under various other names including Ethic Epistles and Moral Essays.

On its publication, An Essay on Man received great admiration throughout Europe. Voltaire called it "the most beautiful, the most useful, the most sublime didactic poem ever written in any language".[5] In 1756 Rousseau wrote to Voltaire admiring the poem and saying that it "softens my ills and brings me patience". Kant was fond of the poem and would recite long passages from it to his students.[6]

Later however, Voltaire renounced his admiration for Pope's and Leibniz's optimism and even wrote a novel, Candide, as a satire on their philosophy of ethics. Rousseau also critiqued the work, questioning "Pope's uncritical assumption that there must be an unbroken chain of being all the way from inanimate matter up to God."[7]

The essay, written in heroic couplets, comprises four epistles. Pope began work on it in 1729, and had finished the first three by 1731. They appeared in 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:

Know then thyself, presume not God to scan
The proper study of Mankind is Man.[8]
Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A Being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic's pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;
In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reas'ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much;
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus'd;
Still by himself, abus'd or disabus'd;
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 hurl'd;
The glory, jest and riddle of the world.

Go, wondrous 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;
Go, soar with Plato to th’ empyreal sphere,
To the first good, first perfect, and first fair;
Or tread the mazy round his followers trod,
And quitting sense call imitating God;
As Eastern priests in giddy circles run,
And turn their heads to imitate the sun.
Go, teach Eternal Wisdom how to rule—
Then drop into thyself, and be a fool!

Pope says that man has learnt about Nature and God's creation by using science; science has given man power but man intoxicated by this power thinks that he is "imitating God". Pope uses the word "fool" to show how little he (man) knows in spite of the progress made by science.


  1. ^Pope, Alexander (1733). An Essay on Man; In Epistles to a Friend (Epistle II) (1 ed.). London: Printed for J. Wilford. Retrieved 21 May 2015.  via Google books
  2. ^Pope, Alexander (1733). An Essay on Man; In Epistles to a Friend (Epistle III) (1 ed.). London: Printed for J. Wilford. Retrieved 21 May 2015.  via Google books
  3. ^Pope, Alexander (1734). An Essay on Man; In Epistles to a Friend (Epistle IV) (1 ed.). London: Printed for J. Wilford. Retrieved 21 May 2015.  via Google books
  4. ^Candide, or Optimism. Review of the Burton Raffel translation by the Yale UP.
  5. ^Voltaire, Lettres Philosophiques, amended 1756 edition, cited in the Appendix (p.147) of Philosophical Letters (Letters Concerning the English Nation), Courier Dover Publications 2003, ISBN 0486426734, accessed on Google Books 2014-02-12
  6. ^Harry M Solomon: The rape of the text: reading and misreading Pope's Essay on man on Google Books
  7. ^Leo Damrosch (2005). Jean-Jacques Rousseau: Restless Genius. HOughton Mifflin Company. 
  8. ^In the first edition, this line reads "The only Science of Mankind is Man."

External links[edit]

An Essay on Man is a poem written by Alexander Pope in 1733–1734. It is a rationalistic effort to use philosophy in order to, as John Milton attempted, justify the ways of God to man. It is concerned with the part evil plays in the world and with the social order God has decreed for man. Because man cannot know God's purposes, he cannot complain about the existence of evil and must accept that Whatever is, is right. More than any other work, it popularized optimistic philosophy throughout England and the rest of Europe.

Epistle I[edit]

  • Awake, my St John! Leave all meaner things
    To low ambition, and the pride of kings.
    Let us, since life can little more supply
    Than just to look about us, and to die,
    Expatiate free o'er all this scene of man;
    A mighty maze! But not without a plan.
  • Together let us beat this ample field,
    Try what the open, what the covert yield.
  • Eye Nature's walks, shoot folly as it flies,
    And catch the manners living as they rise:
    Laugh where we must, be candid where we can;
    But vindicate the ways of God to man.
  • Say first, of God above or man below,
    What can we reason but from what we know?
  • 'T is but a part we see, and not a whole.
  • Heaven from all creatures hides the book of Fate,
    All but the page prescrib'd, their present state.
  • Pleased to the last, he crops the flowery food,
    And licks the hand just raised to shed his blood.
  • Who sees with equal eye, as God of all,
    A hero perish or a sparrow fall,
    Atoms or systems into ruin hurled,
    And now a bubble burst, and now a world.
  • Hope springs eternal in the human breast:
    Man never is, but always to be blest.

    The soul, uneasy and confined from home,
    Rests and expatiates in a life to come.
  • Lo, the poor Indian! whose untutored mind
    Sees God in clouds, or hears him in the wind;
    His soul proud Science never taught to stray
    Far as the solar walk or milky way;
    Yet simple nature to his hope has giv'n,
    Behind the cloud-topped hill, an humbler heav'n.
  • But thinks, admitted to that equal sky,
    His faithful dog shall bear him company.
  • In pride, in reas'ning pride, our error lies;
    All quit their spere, and rush into the skies!
    Pride still is aiming at the blessed abodes,
    Men would be Angels, Angels would be Gods.
    Aspiring to be Gods if Angels fell,
    Aspiring to be Angels men rebel.
  • Seas roll to waft me, suns to light me rise;
    My footstool earth, my canopy the skies.
    • Line 139. Compare: "All the parts of the universe I have an interest in: the earth serves me to walk upon; the sun to light me; the stars have their influence upon me", Montaigne, Apology for Raimond Sebond.
  • Why has not man a microscopic eye?
    For this plain reason,—man is not a fly.
  • Die of a rose in aromatic pain.
  • The spider's touch, how exquisitely fine!
    Feels at each thread, and lives along the line.
    • Line 217. Compare: "Much like a subtle spider which doth sit / In middle of her web, which spreadeth wide; / If aught do touch the utmost thread of it, / She feels it instantly on every side", John Davies, The Immortality of the Soul.
  • Remembrance and reflection how allied!
    What thin partitions sense from thought divide!
    • Line 225. Compare: "Great wits are sure to madness near allied, / And thin partitions do their bounds divide", John Dryden, Absalom and Achitophel, part I, line 163.
  • All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
    Whose body Nature is, and God the soul.
  • Warms in the sun, refreshes in the breeze,
    Glows in the stars, and blossoms in the trees.
  • As full, as perfect, in vile man that mourns
    As the rapt seraph that adores and burns.
    To Him no high, no low, no great, no small;
    He fills, he bounds, connects, and equals all!
  • Our proper bliss depends on what we blame.
  • All nature is but art unknown to thee,
    All chance, direction which thou canst not see;
    All discord, harmony not understood;
    All partial evil, universal good;
    And, spite of pride, in erring reason's spite,
    One truth is clear, Whatever is, is right.
    • Line 289. Compare: "Whatever is, is in its causes just", John Dryden, Œdipus, Act III, scene 1.

Epistle II[edit]

  • Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
    The proper study of mankind is man.
    • Line 1. Compare: "La vray science et le vray étude de l'homme c'est l'homme" (Translated: "The true science and the true study of man is man"), Pierre Charron, De la Sagesse, lib. i. chap. 1; "Trees and fields tell me nothing: men are my teachers", Plato, Phædrus.
  • Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
    A being darkly wise and rudely great:
    With too much knowledge for the skeptic side,
    With too much weakness for the stoic's pride,
    He hangs between; in doubt to act or rest;
    In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast;
    In doubt his mind or body to prefer;
    Born but to die, and reasn'ing but to err;
    Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
    Whether he thinks too little or too much.
  • Chaos of thought and passion, all confused;
    Still by himself abused, or disabused;
    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!
    • Line 13. Compare: "What a chimera, then, is man! what a novelty, what a monster, what a chaos, what a subject of contradiction, what a prodigy! A judge of all things, feeble worm of the earth, depositary of the truth, cloaca of uncertainty and error, the glory and the shame of the universe", Blaise Pascal, Thoughts, chap. x.
  • Fix'd like a plant on his peculiar spot,
    To draw nutrition, propagate, and rot.
  • In lazy apathy let stoics boast
    Their virtue fix'd: 'tis fix'd as in a frost;
    Contracted all, retiring to the breast;
    But strength of mind is exercise, not rest.
  • On life's vast ocean diversely we sail,
    Reason the card, but passion is the gale.
  • And hence one master passion in the breast,
    Like Aaron's serpent, swallows up the rest.
  • The young disease, that must subdue at length,
    Grows with his growth, and strengthens with his strength.
  • Extremes in nature equal ends produce;
    In man they join to some mysterious use.
  • 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.
    • Line 217. Compare: " For truth has such a face and such a mien, As to be lov’d needs only to be seen", John Dryden, The Hind and the Panther, Part I, line 33.
  • Ask where's the North? At York 'tis on the Tweed;
    In Scotland at the Orcades; and there,
    At Greenland, Zembla, or the Lord knows where.
  • Virtuous and vicious every man must be,—
    Few in the extreme, but all in the degree.
  • The learned is happy Nature to explore,
    The fool is happy that he knows no more;
    The rich is happy in the plenty giv'n,
    The poor contents him with the care of Heav'n.
  • Hope travels thro', nor quits us when we die.
  • Behold the child, by Nature's kindly law,
    Pleased with a rattle, tickled with a straw:
    Some livelier plaything gives his youth delight,
    A little louder, but as empty quite:
    Scarfs, garters, gold, amuse his riper stage,
    And beads and prayer books are the toys of age!
    Pleased with this bauble still, as that before;
    Till tired he sleeps, and life's poor play is o'er.

Epistle III[edit]

  • While man exclaims, “See all things for my use!”
    “See man for mine!” replies a pamper'd goose.
    • Line 45; comparable with: "Why may not a goose say thus?… there is nothing that yon heavenly roof looks upon so favourably as me; I am the darling of Nature. Is it not man that keeps and serves me? ", Michel de Montaigne, "Apology for Raimond Lebond".
  • Learn of the little nautilus to sail,
    Spread the thin oar, and catch the driving gale.
  • In vain thy Reason finer webs shall draw,
    Entangle justice in her net of law,
    And right, too rigid, harden into wrong,
    Still for the strong too weak, the weak too strong.
  • The enormous faith of many made for one.
  • Force first made Conquest, and that conquest, Law.
  • For forms of government let fools contest;
    Whate'er is best administered is best
    For modes of faith let graceless zealots fight;
    His can't be wrong whose life is in the right.
    In faith and hope the world will disagree,
    But allmankind's concern is charity.
    • Line 303, this relates to the biblical "Faith, Hope and Charity" of Paul of Tarsus, in I Corinthians, Ch. 13, v. 13. "And now abideth And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity." It is also comparable with Abraham Cowley, On the Death of Crashaw: "His faith, perhaps, in some nice tenets might / Be wrong; his life, I'm sure, was in the right."
  • Thus God and Nature linked the general frame,
    And bade self-love and social be the same.

Epistle IV[edit]

  • O happiness! our being's end and aim!
    Good, pleasure, ease, content! whate'er thy name:
    That something still which prompts the eternal sigh,
    For which we bear to live, or dare to die.
  • Order is Heaven's first law.
  • Reason's whole pleasure, all the joys of Sense,
    Lie in three words, Health, Peace, and Competence.
    But Health consists with Temperance alone,
    And Peace, oh Virtue! Peace is all thy own.
  • The soul's calm sunshine and the heartfelt joy.
  • Honour and shame from no condition rise;
    Act well your part, there all the honour lies.
  • Worth makes the man, and want of it the fellow;
    The rest is all but leather or prunella.
  • What can ennoble sots or slaves or cowards?
    Alas! not all the blood of all the Howards.
  • What's Fame? a fancied life in others' breath,
    A thing beyond us, ev'n before our death.
  • A wit's a feather, and a chief a rod;
    An honest man's the noblest work of God.
    • Line 247. Compare: "Man is his own star; and that soul that can / Be honest is the only perfect man", John Fletcher , Upon an "Honest Man’s Fortune".
  • Plays round the head, but comes not to the heart.
    One self-approving hour whole years outweighs
    Of stupid starers and of loud huzzas;
    And more true joy Marcellus exil'd feels
    Than Cæsar with a senate at his heels.
    In parts superior what advantage lies?
    Tell (for you can) what is it to be wise?
    'T is but to know how little can be known;
    To see all others' faults, and feel our own.
  • Truths would you teach, or save a sinking land?
    All fear, none aid you, and few understand.
  • If parts allure thee, think how Bacon shin'd,
    The wisest, brightest, meanest of mankind!
    Or ravish'd with the whistling of a name,
    See Cromwell, damn'd to everlasting fame!
    • Line 281. Compare: "Charm'd with the foolish whistling of a name", Abraham Cowley, Virgil, Georgics, Book ii, Line 72; "May see thee now, though late, redeem thy name, And glorify what else is damn'd to fame", Richard Savage, Character of Foster.
  • Know then this truth (enough for man to know), —
    Virtue alone is happiness below.
  • Never elated when one man 's oppress'd;
    Never dejected while another 's bless'd.
  • Slave to no sect, who takes no private road,
    But looks through Nature up to Nature's God.
    • Line 331. Compare: "One follows Nature and Nature’s God; that is, he follows God in his works and in his word", Henry, Viscount Bolingbroke St. John, Letter to Alexander Pope. Later used by Thomas Jefferson in the language of the Declaration of Independence, asserting that a people may "assume among the powers of the earth the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them".
  • Form'd by thy converse, happily to steer
    From grave to gay, from lively to severe.
    • Line 379. Compare: "D'une voix légère / Passer du grave au doux, du plaisant au sévère", Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux, The Art of Poetry, Canto I, line 75 (translated by John Dryden as "Happy who in his verse can gently steer / From grave to light, from pleasant to severe").
  • Say, shall my little bark attendant sail,
    Pursue the triumph and partake the gale?
  • Thou wert my guide, philosopher, and friend.
  • That virtue only makes our bliss below,
    And all our knowledge is ourselves to know.
    • Line 397. Compare: "'Tis virtue makes the bliss where'er we dwell", William CollinsOriental Eclogues, i, line 5.


  • The Essay on Man was a work of great labour and long consideration, but certainly not the happiest of Pope's performances. The subject is perhaps not very proper for poetry, and the poet was not sufficiently master of his subject; metaphysical morality was to him a new study, he was proud of his acquisitions, and, supposing himself master of great secrets, was in haste to teach what he had not learned.
  • Never were penury of knowledge and vulgarity of sentiment so happily disguised.

External links[edit]

  • Full text at Project Gutenberg
  • An introduction to the poem from a Hartwicke College professor: [1]

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