In the following essay I will examine the way Alexander Pope comments on society while referring to his essay An Essay on Man. Starting with Epistle 2 there will be a closer look at the structure and content of this poem with regard to how Pope achieves the satirical and critical form he uses to state his opinion on society and its people.
As Alexander Pope states in the prefatory note, headed “The Design”, his overall intention of An Essay on Man is
“[…] to be considered as a general Map of MAN, marking out no more than the greater parts, their extent, their limits, and their connection, but leaving the particular to be more fully delineated in the charts which are to follow. […] I am here only opening the fountains, and clearing the passage. To deduce the rivers, to follow them in their course, and to observe their effects, may be a task more agreeable.” (http://www.theotherpages.org/poems/pope-i.html)
The first 18 lines of Epistle 2 deal with the notion that man should not try to understand God, but to study himself. Furthermore Pope emphasizes man’s middle nature, his powers and frailties and gives instructions how to act appropriate when saying: “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; the proper study of mankind is man.” (“An Essay on Man” Epistle 2, line 1-2) Here Pope makes it clear that the human being is not the highest of all beings, which should be kept in mind when making any decisions or simply when acting. Pope then goes on arguing that man is permanently in a “middle state” (“An Essay on Man” Epistle 2, line 3), always having to face opposites. Pope directly names these conflicts, for instance:
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the stoic’s pride.
(“An Essay on Man” Epistle 2, line 4-6)
Using adjectives such as “darkly” and “rudely”, he combines qualities with images and consequently makes the poem livelier and more accessible for the reader. Moreover he inserts philosophical traditions to stress the mental conflicts of human mankind. The stressing and repeating of words is another method to get maximum impact out of the content. Pope uses the words “in doubt” three times from line seven to nine to convey even more the ambiguity of human thinking. Although this oppositeness is expressed very strongly in Pope’s essay, one can make out the tight form of the couplets acting as counterbalance to the content. Here structure and content represent exactly how Pope sees society and humans in the 18th century; namely the optimism of the potential of man, given in the rhythmic and rhymed form of the couplets, and the pessimism about man’s actual behaviour at the same time by presenting all these opposites. Thus Pope reveals the paradoxical bahaviour of human mankind and criticizes it at the same time in a satirical manner. However he still explains his point of view to the reader. Pope is convinced that there is balance in everything and everyone. He not only writes the couplets in a balanced, because rhymed style that demonstrates the balance of philosophical views, but also rejects the idea of totalizing ideologies, since in his opinion the best way is always to be found in the middle. Therefore doubting is, as Pope sees it, not a negative quality but rather a way to reflect upon and make up one’s own mind on different issues. This view is largely attributed to Pope’s influence of the Augustan period, when harmony and political order were the highest maxims. Connected with that view was the belief in the Great Chain of Being, with humans being the highest creatures on earth but still inferior to God. So God, nature and order stand behind everything, but if one steps outside this chain, it might collapse resulting in chaos:
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of thought and passion, all confuse’d;
(“An Essay on Man” Epistle 2, line 12-13)
Although people knew that God and nature were the ordering instances, they still were unable to explain it. Pope clearly observes this in a mocking manner:
Sole judge of truth, in endless error hurl’d:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!
(“An Essay on Man” Epistle 2, line 17-18)