Alexander Pope s An Essay On Man :
The Paradoxical Nature Of Man As A Paradox
In The Clash Of Philosophical Trends.
The “Essay” consists of epistles, addressed to Lord Bolingbroke, and derived, to some extent, from some of Bolingbroke’s own fragmentary Philosophical writings, as well as from ideas expressed by Anthony Ashley Cooper, the third Earl of Shaftsbury. Pope sets out to describe and explain that no matter how incomplete, complicated, impenetrable, and disturbingly full of evil the Universe may appear to be, it does function in a rational fashion, according to natural laws; and is, in fact, considered as a divinely ordered plan of God. It appears imperfect and incomplete to us only because our perceptions are limited by our infirm moral and intellectual capacity.
At the time when the clash of philosophical trends began, Thomas Hobbes, Rene Descartes and Anthony Ashley Cooper, third Earl of Shaftsbury influenced Alexander Pope the most. Thomas Hobbes as a supporter of materialism stands for the truth: The Universe is distinct from the spiritual; all that is real is material and what is not material is not real . Perhaps he meant that as far as he cannot touch God or cannot see an evidence of God s interference, the God does not exist. Shaftsbury considered nature a perfect harmonious whole that reflected its divine origin, and therefore the nature, and respectively the Man exists because there is God to create them.
Yet in the beginning of the Essay we see the paradox, in the Pope s writings where he is wandering between the earthly joys and the divine privileges. He is on this isthmus in middle state, between the God and the Beasts.
Expatiate free o er all this scene of Man;
A mighty maze! But not without a plan;
On the one hand he speaks with the voice of the materialist, with the voice doubting the divine intervention in the scene of Man. A mighty maze expressing the Pope s liability to Hobbes s philosophy, that whenever you cannot see what Lord has done, you would not believe in him, but on the other hand the author shows immediately his ambiguous and doubting nature with the sentence But not without a plan , implying that everything has its place in the God s divine and distinct from the ordinary people and their minds plan. He is wandering about in the middle of the Philosophical trends, whether to accept the materialistic A wild, where weeds and flow rs promiscuous shoot or to risk with a Garden tempting with forbidden fruit .
I believe that the philosopher caused greater effect on Alexander Pope is Rene Descartes. Descartes stated: In our search for the direct road to truth, we should busy ourselves with no object about which we cannot attain a certitude equal to that of the demonstration of arithmetic and geometry. He therefore was determined to hold nothing true until he could be absolutely certain of it. His method for discovering a truth of which he could be absolutely certain was based on skepticism: he attempted to doubt everything that he believed to be true and investigated if it was indeed possible to doubt it. Using this method of doubt he found that he could doubt whether he was in fact awake, since it was always possible that he was dreaming. He could also doubt whether the physical world and his own body existed, since it was always possible that a powerful and evil demon was creating the illusion of these things in his mind.
However, he could not doubt that he himself existed, since the very act of doubting required a doubter, namely he. In order to doubt, he had to exist. Descartes expressed this conclusion in the famous words Cogito, ergo sum ( I think, therefore I exist ). He used it as the foundation stone on which to build a complete system of indubitable knowledge. From the principle that thinking proved his own existence, he argued that his essential characteristic was thinking.
Descartes went on to argue for the existence of God, and to claim that God must have created two kinds of substance that make up the whole of reality. One kind was thinking substance, or minds, entities such as himself whose essential characteristic was thinking, and the other was extended substance, or bodies, for example, rocks or trees or his own body, whose essential characteristic was being extended over a certain amount of physical space. While thinking substances acted in accordance with the laws of thinking, extended substances acted in accordance with the mechanical laws of physics.
Influenced by Descartes , Hobbes s and Shaftsbury s philosophy, Pope began his own Quest for indubitable truth. Whether the man and respectively he, himself, is akin to the angels or akin to the beasts. He is torn between two bi-polar extremities, between the divine and the mortal /In doubt to deem himself a God or beast/, between the materialism and the spirit /In doubt his Mind or Body to prefer/, between the perfection and imperfection /Born but to die, and reasoning but to err/. He sees the Man, as a part of the Great Chain of Being, where everything in the universe has its place in a hierarchical system stretching upward from inanimate substance to things that have life, but do not reason, to that Man, called by the author a creature in a middle state , and reaching the highest level of this hierarchy, the angels and God.
Tho Man is fool, yet God is wise.
Know the thyself, presume not God to scan,
The proper study of Mankind is Man .
A mortal Man unfold all Nature s law,
Admired such wisdom in an earthly shape,
And showed a Newton as we show an ape.
But describing how Man had advanced, studying the nature, loyal to his predecessor s philosophy, Pope doubts immediately Man s real abilities to do something substantial with this newly acquired knowledge:
Could he, whose rules the rapid Comet bind,
Describe or fix one movement of his Mind?
It seems that the issue of doubting had begun in earlier times, in times before Hobbes, Pope and Descartes. Yet in medieval times, in 13th century Saint Thomas Aquinas, loyal to his scholastic beliefs, doubts whether God exists or not, following a wider and subtler plan, while using the natural human reason, in particular, the philosophy and science of Aristotle, to understand the supernatural content of Christian revelation.
Does God Exist?
Objection: It seems that there is no God. For if one of two opposing entities were to exist without limitation the other would be totally destroyed. But the word, God, means something that is infinitely good. Therefore if there were a God, evil would not exist. But we encounter evil in the world. Therefore there is no God.3
Reply to Objection: Augustine says, “Since God is the supremely highest good he would not allow evil to exist in his creation unless he were so all powerful and good that he could even make good out of evil.” Thus it is part of the infinite goodness of God that he permits evils to exist so that he can bring good from them. 4
But as far as Saint Thomas Aquinas doubts the existence of God, in order to understand its existence and to strengthen his own beliefs in God, the Pope s whole system of doubting shows his insecurity and instability in the Man s real and unique abilities. And that is why the Pope s Man is in the midst of this bi polar world, half divine and half earthly. The whole poem suggests that the man is fallen. And why is that? Descartes say Indeed, it may be said that my perception of God s existence is presupposed in my perception of myself, for how could I know myself as a limited, imperfect, doubting being unless I previously had the idea of a being more perfect than myself . A being more perfect than himself, than an ordinary man, could be only angel. Having said that he had the idea of being more perfect , shows that he is identifying himself with a fallen angel, now a human being, meditating upon what is most tempting, to be immortal, or to have simple pleasures like touch, smell, sight. That is Pope s Man, an earthly creature in a divine arena.
Considered as a whole, the Essay on Man is an affirmative poem of faith: life seems chaotic and patternless to man when he is in the midst of it, but is in fact a logical portion of a divinely ordered plan. In Pope’s world God exists, and he is benevolent: his universe is an ordered place. The limited intellect of man can perceive only a tiny portion of this order, can experience only partial truths, and hence must rely on hope, which leads to faith and sometimes to doubt. Man must be aware of his rather negligible position in the grand scheme of things: those things which he desires most – riches, power, fame – prove to be worthless in the greater context of which he is only dimly aware. In his place, it is man’s duty to make efforts to be good, even if he is doomed, because of his innate liability to err, to fail in his attempt.
Human flesh was intended as a highly imperfect and disappointingly mortal carapace for the housing of something, a good deal better the human mind