AN ESSAY ON MAN
by Alexander Pope
Edited by Tom Jones
Princeton ISBN 978-0-691-15981-2
reviewed by Alan Dent
Tom Jones teaches English at the University of St Andrews. He has published a study of Pope and Berkeley and a volume on poetic language from the Renaissance to the present. The introduction to this book runs to a hundred and twelve pages, the notes contain more words than the poem. Length is no test of quality, but Jones is not merely thorough but astute and apposite. The book is exemplary in its scholarship. He has unearthed a multiplicity of references and illuminates the antecedents of Pope’s ideas with authority. This is an edition which should be recommended to every student and teacher of the poem. Jones writes too in a straightforward and direct style and can make sophisticated ideas accessible. There is no sensible criticism that could be levelled at his work in this volume. Perhaps a carp could be that he is more interested in the philosophical ideas behind the poem than in the poetic execution, but that is a petty objection and is overwhelmed by the praise his erudition and diligence deserve.
As for the poem itself, it is probably too well-known and commented for much to be said. However, it’s worth looking at two things: first its accomplishment and secondly, the view it proposes. It runs to almost thirteen hundred lines and never sags. Pope is a master of the couplet, his rhymes are neither too clunking nor recherché, he keeps the poem moving (probably the most difficult matter in a work of this kind) and sustains his arguments. Written in 1733-34, the poem is an intervention in debate over the nature of human life and a proposition of the best way to live. Is it worth reflecting on how natural it seemed to that age that a poet should intervene in this manner ? The same concerns aren’t absent from Wordsworth, Byron or Shelley, but the tenor is different. Already, by the time of The Prelude, the idea of the poet as a public figure involved in rational debate had receded to be replaced by the notion of the poet as outsider. Isn’t it true that if Wordsworth comments on how we should live it is essentially as a voice which won’t be heeded where power resides ? Part of Pope’s achievement is to assert poetry as a proper locus for discussion. Hasn’t that more or less disappeared ? What contemporary poet would think of writing in this way?
Pope’s language is remarkably down to earth. It is attempting to serve that quality the eighteenth century made much of: rationality. The viciousness of nineteenth century capitalism, Freud’s emphasis on the irrational, the rise of totalitarian doctrines, the death camps and pogroms of the twentieth century, destroyed the Enlightenment faith in reason. Language that is trying to uncover dark, hidden motives tends to be much less direct and robust. Pope’s poem is a model of how to employ simple language in a pleasing form to address serious issues of interest to everyone.
There is a quality to the poem which is perhaps best described as cheerfulness. Undogmatic, friendly, trying to persuade but not to command, Pope’s essential orientation is beckoning: he invites us to the feast of ideas and asks us to think. Hasn’t this too gone from contemporary poetry, and perhaps from most literature ?
As for Pope’s view of human life and how we should live, it is both mistaken and accurate.
“Oh, Happiness! our being’s end and aim !”
begins the fourth Epistle. Surely right. What gain is worth the sacrifice of happiness ? All the same, the social and political world hardly seems organised to ensure our happiness. Pope accepts the relation of happiness and virtue which was prevalent in his time. Surely also right. This is a view of human nature which believes we have been so created (by God in Pope’s pre-Darwinian scheme) that to follow the precepts of nature will lead to both virtue and happiness. Nature is good. Therefore, evil can only ever be partial. Whatever is, is right and what looks evil must be part of God’s scheme and must, therefore, contribute to virtue and happiness. This is the view, incidentally, of the Adam Smith of The Theory of Moral Sentiments. It fed into his later work and is, partly, the origin of the notion of the invisible hand. Smith had to reconcile burgeoning capitalism with the idea of partial evil. This didn’t stop him castigating the “vile maxim of the masters of mankind” but it did lead him to underestimate the potential for evil in the system.
“Take Nature’s path, and mad Opinion’s
Is taking nature’s path as easy as Pope suggests ? In order to follow it, we have to work out what it is. Elsewhere, he rightly asserts that wisdom lies in knowing how little we know. Though Pope has absorbed Newton, in his day and long after (and even now) the anthropocentric view of the universe prevailed. Mad opinion is much easier. Pope’s confidence that all heads can conceive nature’s path is confounded in two ways: the simple difficulty in understanding and the wilful disruption of propaganda ( a term which didn’t exist in Pope’s time). In democratic societies, power needs to control mad opinion, and often, power’s interest is served by making it as mad as possible.
Pope isn’t simply wrong, but he didn’t anticipate how power would function in the societies which would come after him.
“Who most to shun or hate mankind pretend,
This idea is closely allied to the conflation of self-love and social benevolence. Pope is sure not simply that human life is social, but that we cannot but love others if we love ourselves, nor love ourselves if we don’t love others. Self-love and social benevolence are, in this conception, our biological inheritance. If Pope is right, the monumental effort of the propagandists of negative social division (and by implication, self-hatred) comes into focus.
However, Pope also contends:
“Order is Heav’n’s first law; and this
This leads to:
“Condition, circumstance is not the thing;
Pope is thoroughly wrong. The notion that circumstance makes no difference to a person’s happiness, is the sophistry of the comfortable. It is to contend that a black woman in apartheid South Africa could be just as happy as a rich white landowner ( in spite of being horse-whipped by him). It contradicts too Pope’s view of self-love leading inevitably to social love. Small injustices can make people intensely miserable. The current Syrian disaster drives them to choose the risk of death in the Mediterranean. Circumstance is the thing. Human relationships founded on power permit abuse and injustice: the equality Pope resists is what ensures the social love he believes he believes in can flourish.
“But Fortune’s gifts if each alike possest,
This is probably the most curious and distorted idea in the poem. Why would equality bring conflict ? There was plenty of historical evidence available to Pope that the opposite was true. Pope comes near to propaganda here, which is why the formulation rings hollow. Where people meet on grounds of equality, conflict can be kept low-key. The worst violence always arises out of the worst injustice and injustice is always grounded in inequality of some kind.
Whatever is, is not necessarily right. Evil is not always partial. The evil of the holocaust was absolute, as is the evil of terrorist violence. Pope’s view moves from the huge to the small: creation is God’s and so order must be in all things. What looks more likely, in the light of modern science, is that order on a large scale emerges from randomness at the level of the very small. It is not part of our biological inheritance to live in a universe where beneficence is guaranteed. We have to make the right choices in order for both self-love and social benevolence to thrive.
Pope couldn’t but be of his time.
“…true SELF-LOVE and SOCIAL are the same..”
is one of the poem’s conclusions. He is right. We shouldn’t disdain him for his mistakes. He has left us a great poem. Nearly three centuries after its composition it can help us to work out our ideas and to realize its idealism. The latter will require the defeat of the propagandists who twist the truth for malicious ends. Used wisely, Pope’s arguably greatest poem can assist us. He has been brilliantly served by Tom Jones’s remarkable edition.